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The end of the American century?

ARE we coming to the end of the 'American Century'? In World War II 'Henry Luce of Life magazine spoke for most political leaders as well as American businessmen, soldiers and the public generally when he said that the twentieth century would be the American century'. (1) The war was bankrupting the old European empires and a new vacuum was being created that the US could fill--providing it could overcome its traditional isolationist approach to foreign policy, which entailed avoiding international diplomatic arrangements and having a minimal military expenditure. The New York Times columnist James Reston could remember a time in the 1930s when 'the US Army, sixteenth largest in the world, numbered only 132,069' (2) and the US had no unified defence department.

An 'American Century', by implication, would require a new mindset and a willingness to shoulder extensive international obligations. In fact, a new US foreign policy was created in the four years from 1941-5. By 1945 the US had become the new superpower. American military power and cultural ideas swept the world.

Seventy years later there are now fears that the US itself is now going the way of the old European empires: over-ambitious, over-stretched, and over-committed. The most likely replacement is China, which is already a major creditor for the US. In other words, there is a hint of a repeat of the 1940s, with the US being financially much healthier than the Western European countries therefore being able in effect to replace them. Now the US is financially weakened and China has the financial muscle, or at least will have according to some estimates by about 2040 (3)

The purpose of this article is to examine the suspicion that the 'American Century' is drawing to a close. The first part looks at the speculation that the US is over-committed. The second examines the US's capacity for renewal and how it could re-make itself yet again. The final part contains some speculations on what the world could look like if this really is the end of the 'American Century'.

The 'Decline' of America

The time of greatest danger can come at the time of greatest success. Just when the situation looks so good, so in fact the seeds may be planted for the onset of decline. The UK, for example, was having its 'finest hour' in 1940-1 under Winston Churchill but it was already in decline behind the facade of grandeur, with the Empire largely gone within three decades.

The mainstream debate over US 'decline' was triggered in 1989 with the publication of the British historian Paul Kennedy's best-selling grand survey of European empires. (4) Kennedy (then of the University of East Anglia and now at Yale) argued that for the previous five centuries some western European countries had started out as small trading countries, then acquired overseas military commitments ( 'imperial overstretch' ), and then they bankrupted themselves in foreign wars. (5) Two years later, the Soviet Union collapsed and the US was the sole superpower. Would history start to repeat itself?

I will avoid the debate over whether the US has an 'empire' as such because there are various forms of 'empire'. The term suggests an organized group of territories all owing specific allegiance to one country (such as the UK) or one city (such as Rome) . The US president may be the first among equals at diplomatic gatherings but he is not the leader of a formal imperial arrangement similar to that of, say, Queen Victoria. If the US does have an 'empire' it is more of a business network than a formal arrangement such as those of the old European empires. Additionally, the US since 1945 has been characterised by a continual high level of military expenditure that the old empires could not match. The US sits more at the centre of a militarised network than an 'empire'.

The concern, then, is that the US has too many political and military commitments rather than being bogged down (as were the old European empires) in fighting rearguard actions to maintain colonies. Two examples of American over-commitment are: the extensive array of military operations and the level of government debt.

The US has about 800 military bases (including secret ones) around the world. No other country in world history has ever accumulated such a large number. 'They make it possible for the Pentagon to fight wars of military intervention; to prepare, threaten and initiate nuclear wars; to secure privileged US access to energy resources, minerals, and markets; to secretly conduct torture; to limit the military power of ostensible allies; to show the flag as a way of marking off US "spheres of influences"; and to pursue and threaten "full spectrum dominance"--the ability to defeat any nation, anywhere in the world, any time, at any level of force'. (6) The US defence force is not only the world's largest but it is even larger than the next ten powers combined

The US acquired all these facilities mainly after World War II. There is a major difference of perception in how the US expanded its commitments. On the one hand, some writers have tended to see some sinister secret plan to mastermind US global dominance (often devised within the State Department and Pentagon) to make the world safe for capitalism and American values. The other perception (which I prefer) is that the US simply responded to challenges as they arose or had obligations forced on it by events, such as the UK's increasingly reduced military role in the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s which created a vacuum that the US filled because no other friendly power was willing to do so.

Whatever the explanation, the US now has more bases, more commitments and more expectations to be met than any other country in world history. For example, throughout the current unrest in North Africa and the Middle East, foreign policy analysts have been discussing what the US should do--as though the US ought to be involved there. At the very least there is a problem of having 'over-loaded circuits': namely the US cannot be expected to be aware of every emerging issue; for example, in 1979 there was an emerging crisis in Iran with the departure of the Shah and the rise of Khomeini--but the US's attention was more focused on the Camp David Middle East peace negotiations than the religious leader in Iran.

In retrospect the US, since '9/11' in 2001 has perhaps been too focused on the 'war on terror' to note other emerging issues (such as the rise of democratic forces in the Middle East). l7J Meanwhile, all the government expenditure on elaborate anti-terrorist security measures is siphoning money and brains away from, for example, re-tooling the US economy for new technology (such as alternative energy). Now that Osama bin Laden is dead, perhaps the US can focus more on the civilian challenges.

Ironically, recent conflicts suggest that military power has severe limitations. A well-organized, well-motivated guerrilla force operating in its own territory with the support of the local population is very hard to defeat--even if the US has almost unlimited military resources (as Vietnam showed in 1975 and the Afghanistan conflict is now showing). All this military power gives rise to unrealistic expectations about what the US can in fact achieve through military power. For example, Princess Ashraf Pavlavi is scathing in her assessment of the US's 'failure' to defend her brother the Shah of Iran, or beat the Vietnamese in 1975. (8)

Additionally, I think that historians will be critical of the US for not having a coherent grand foreign policy vision. For example, President George W. Bush spoke about the need for democracy in the Arab world and tried to speed up the process by invading Iraq in 2003 to get rid of a dictator and install a democracy. Whether that was a smart move is another matter. But just taking Bush's statements at face value, a problem is that greater democracy in the Arab world may lead (at least in the short term) to the overthrow of many pro-US Arab dictators and perhaps those countries then having their own foreign policies without heed to the US's views (such as acquiring nuclear weapons--which at the moment they are discouraged from doing by the US).

Meanwhile, there is growing concern about the high level of government debt. The debt is due partly to the high level of military expenditure but even more so to domestic expenditure: notably rescuing the financial system after the 2008 global financial crisis, and the rising healthcare and welfare costs.

High government debt need not be fatal. The British, for example, ended the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 with a national debt 250 per cent larger than the gross national product. But the British traded themselves out of that debt by increased economic growth during the nineteenth-century era of being the 'world's factory'. Similarly the US finished World War II with a high national debt but also traded out of that debt in the growth of the 1950s when the US was the global steel-maker, car producer and breadbasket.

The concern this time for the US is that commentators do not see how the US is going to trade itself out of debt. The US is becoming de-industrialized. China is increasingly the 'world's factory' (for example, the largest steel-maker).

Detroit--the fourth largest city in the US in the 1950s--is a symbol of US's de-industrialization. Detroit ('Motown') is no longer the world's main town for making motor cars. Detroit pioneered the creation of post--World War II suburbs, with freeways to drive to inner city work and the need to own cars to make those journeys. But the creation of large suburban shopping complexes transferred customers to the suburbs (with the consequent decline of 'downtown' shopping centres). During the 1960s there was 'white flight' as whites fled Detroit city and the city was left to blacks to become a slum. Cocaine use became widespread and black kids left school at an early age to sell drugs and so there was a loss of work ethic. With high unemployment black kids turned to crime for something to do. Much of Detroit is now a wasteland, with the old motor car factories falling into decay and the prairie reclaiming the land.

The US used to be the world's main creditor and now it is the main debtor. US dependency on foreign lenders to finance public debt has risen sharply: 1970: total debt $283 billion (5 per cent foreign holdings); 1990: total debt: $2,412 billion (19 per cent foreign holdings); 2010: 8,633 billion (46 per cent foreign holdings) . (9) This high level of debt has two worrying implications: more and more of the US economy has to be used to pay the interest on it, and the increased foreign involvement in lending means increased foreign leverage over the US. There may, for example, come a time when China no longer needs the US and so just dumps its holdings of US Treasury bonds on the market to send a shock wave through the US economy. In the meantime China currently holds about a quarter of the US public debt--and is losing money on it, given the declining value of the US$ on foreign exchange markets. What quid pro quo will China demand?

What Hope for a US Revival?

Trends are not destiny. It is possible for apparently fatal situations to be reversed. Indeed the essence of America is re-invention. A person can move up by moving on. There is always a new economic and social frontier. It does not matter where you came from; it only matters where you are going. Just because you are from a certain class or ethnic group, it does not automatically mean you cannot become what you want to be.

When the Americans put their mind to a task, they may well achieve it, be it getting a man to the moon in July 1969 or getting bin Laden. As the president pointed out in his initial May 2, 2011 announcement of the death of bin Laden, he decided to reaffirm that bin Laden's capture or death should be the CIA's main task--and, in effect, it was achieved just over two years later. (By implication, Bush had taken his eye off the main game in 2003, with his invasion of Iraq, which had had nothing to do with the 9/11 terrorism.) Meanwhile in his January 2011 State of the Union Address, the President used the example of the space race of the 1960s as a way of describing the need for a new 'green race' for an economic revival based on environmental sustainability and green technology. (By implication Bush wasted the 9/11 crisis because he failed to use it as an opportunity to wean Americans off their addiction to oil and the need to develop alternative energy sources.)

One reason, then, for hoping for an American recovery is that America has a history of doing so: such as 1783 (after the American Revolution), 1865 (after the Civil War), the late 1890s (the financial crisis), and the late 1930s (after the Great Depression). Doris Kearns Goodwin has written an inspiring story of how the US was re--tooled in World War II to fight the war. (10) Hitler and the Japanese could not have imagined just how effective the American industrial mobilisation could be.

This also applies to personal mobility. Social ghettoes do exist (as in the Detroit example above) but individuals can move out and move up. President Barack Obama is a good example of the US capacity to overcome a legacy of slavery (one-third of US Presidents owned slaves) . The Civil Rights movement was created and it has come to fruition in recent decades (11) The Civil Rights movement was not only a boost for black people but it was an overall boost for the entire US economy, with some southern cities being re-invented and now being important economic powerhouses and not just economic backwaters. As the historian Taylor Branch has pointed out, Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement were thinking things out as they went along; they had no predetermined script to follow. (12) Pragmatism, a willingness to innovate, and avoiding being bound by tradition are all hallmarks of the American mentality. It has been a key to economic growth over the past three centuries.

Additionally, we need to remember that there are two types of power: 'hard' and 'soft'. 'Hard power' is the capacity, for example, to tell someone to do something or else you will shoot them. 'Soft power' is the power of attraction: the capacity to draw people to you. While the US may not be having too much success in 'hard power' winning of wars, the US still leads the world in cultural and intellectual influence: from Hollywood to Harvard. The US still usually provides the largest number of winners each year for the Nobel science prizes. The US gains more patents and intellectual property each year than any other country. The US is also a magnet for trained foreigners (such as the large number of African and Asian medical personnel who work in the us health system).

After the 'American Century'

Let us assume that the US does not make another recovery to former greatness; that the US does in fact join the ranks of Portugal, Spain, The Netherlands, France and the UK. It will still exist as a country and it will be a major centre of 'soft power' (as the UK remains with the English language, Shakespeare, cricket, the BBC, pop music, and the Royal Family) . What, then, for the rest of the world?

Such a development would add to global instability and complexity. The period of decline will coincide with the rise of China and so it is inevitable that there will be tensions. Bi--polar or multi--polar worlds usually have arms races, competition for political advantage, and divided loyalties among other countries about whom they ought to support.

The risk of political instability is heightened by the invention of nuclear weapons. Countries like Japan, for example, currently shelter under the US nuclear umbrella and so do not need to acquire their own weapons. If that umbrella were reduced or abolished, then Japan may well feel the need to acquire nuclear weapons. A nuclear--armed Japan, for example, would trigger insecurity in other Asian and South Pacific countries which can remember the last time Japan was a major military force, and so there will be a scramble to enhance their own defence arrangements. As long as the US is the most powerful country, then neither China nor Japan can claim that status and behave as through they were.

Meanwhile the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) remains the world's largest military organization, for example, in currently trying to prevent bloodshed in Libya under the UN Security Council's 'Right to Protect' (R2P) mechanism. The US provides much of the military muscle for NATO and so a weaker US means a weaker NATO. The international political architecture is not yet designed for other types of burden--sharing, such as the UN.

In short, however much one may have reservations about US foreign policy (for example, I have bee a critic of the 2003 invasion of Iraq from the outset), there is no guarantee that a world with a less dominant US will be a safer or more secure one. The 'AmericanCentury' may have been a turbulent period--but a world from 1945 until today without a dominant US would have been an even more volatile one. Looking to a post--'American Century' world, there is bound to be more confusion as countries jostle for status and advantage. An unstable world is not necessarily a more peaceful one.


(1.) Stephen E Ambrose, Rise to Globalism: American Foreign Policy Since 1938, London: Penguin, 1983, p. 19.

(2.) James Reston, Deadline New York: Random House, 1991, p. 38.

(3.) Currently the US's $13 trillion economy is four times the size of China's and its military spending is about eight times the size.

(4.) Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, London: Fontana, 1989.

(5.) I have added the footnote that they then just end up as tourist attractions: why else would a foreigner now want to visit Portugal, Spain, The Netherlands, or the UK? Keith Suter, Global Notebook, Sydney: Random House, 2005, pp. 160-4.

(6.) Joseph Gerson, 'Introduction: Symposium: US Military Bases Abroad', Peace Review (San Francisco), Vol 22 no 2, April 2010, p. 103. A map of the main locations is in 'Chagossians Refused Right to Return Home', Anthropology Today, (London) Vol 25, No 1, February 2009, p. 25.

(7.) As of writing, the demonstrations have been notable for a lack of placards applauding Osama bin Laden and the burning of US flags: the young people want Western values and technology (eg Facebook) and not a medieval caliph.

(8.) Princess Ashraf Pavlavi, Time for Truth, Los Angeles: Prentice-Hall, 1995.

(9.) Michael Dieschbourg, '"Global Trends": Navigating Risk--on, Risk--off Markets in 2011', Van Eyk Magazine (Sydney), March 2011, p. 17.

(10.) Doris Kearns Goodwin, No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994.

(11.) Another example of re-invention is President Lyndon Johnson's reputation and his new status as a 'transformative president'. He was hated because of the Vietnam War but now he is being treated far more generously by historians as the president who responded to the Civil Rights movement, and introduced legislation that made Obama's political rise possible. See: Robert Kuttner, Obama's Challenge: America's Economic Crisis and the Power of a Transformative President, Melbourne: Scribe, 2008, p. 3, 44-54.

(12.) Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters: Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement 1954-63, London: Macmillan, 1988, p. 195.

Dr Keith Suter is the Managing Director of Global Directions and a frequent broadcaster on Australasia televison.
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Author:Suter, Keith
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2011
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