The Mythical Post-American Era

In the context of civilizational history, the rise of the West is one of the oldest events. The old colonial powers declined; some of them slid into the category of “former great powers” (France, Germany and arguably Spain and Italy); and others, like Britain – realizing that it could never be a power of global influence again – found its niche as America’s sidekick.

The European Union has emerged as a club that contains a number of former colonial powers and an entity that is attempting to act as a “great power”. The former Soviet Union imploded, and Russia, as its chief successor, is still tying to find its identity, both as a great power and as a hybrid of democracy and authoritarianism.

That leaves the United States as the lone superpower. In that capacity, it remains a source of chief fascination and explanation for a number of strategic thinkers within the US and abroad.  They envisage the rise of China and India as evidence of a power shift from the West to the East, or discern the emergency of a world in which the US is no longer a hegemon, thus, a world after America’s “decline”.

Such debates make the global community of strategic thinkers highly vibrant, intellectually fertile, ingenious and challenging. But, if their bottom line is that America is declining – which is either a subtle or a not-so-subtle message in a number of analyses – that is a highly questionable proposition, bordering on the portrayal of a mythical world.

One of the chief reasons why the former Soviet Union imploded and the US survived is that, in its intense competition against the US during the Cold War years, Moscow paid an inordinate amount of attention to building its military arsenal and scant attention to becoming even a second-rate economic power.

Additionally, the proclivity of communism for collectivization inside the Soviet Union sowed the seeds of its destruction from its very inception. Economic power cannot be built through collectivization of various domestic sectors and through the stifling of dissent and creativity through centralized control. Promotion of the multiplicity of ideas, decentralization, autonomy, critical thinking and open debate are essential fuels for progress of all kinds. Another noteworthy – and problematic – characteristic of communist economies is the absence of linkages between the civilian and defense industrial sectors.

The former Soviet Union is a major example of a country that attempted to become a world-class power by focusing largely on its military power. It did become a major military power, but only temporarily, and only by developing a large nuclear arsenal, while its economic power could never become vibrant and productive enough to finance the gargantuan appetite of its military juggernaut.

The fact that the US not only survived the Cold War but also remains the sole superpower is the ultimate tribute to the dynamic capabilities of its economic sector to finance its military prowess.

Moreover, no one should, even momentarily, ignore the role of America’s educational institutions in sustaining creativity, innovation, critical thinking and vibrancy in the vitality of its economic and defense sectors.

The secret underlying the rise of China and India is that both adopted the American “blueprint” (if it can be so labeled). China adopted that blueprint in 1978 under the rubric of Deng Xiaoping’s “four modernizations”, and India adopted it in 1991 by incorporating economic reforms under the highly capable leadership of its then finance minister (and current Prime Minister), Manmohan Singh.

But why is it that, while China and India emerge as “rising powers”, there are so many suggestions of a “post-American” world, or that the world is witnessing America’s decline, or that there is a power shift from the West to the East? These phenomena are certainly not interrelated.

One can develop scenarios of irreversibility of the economic progress of China and India. But such scenarios must take into consideration the domestic milieu of both countries, which are characterized by large degrees of corruption, nepotism, religious tension (India), and ethnic tension (China), and most importantly, the acute absence of modern civilian infrastructure. However, one frequently misses (or ignores) those facts when one studies the subject of the rise of those countries in the coming decades from abroad. One tends to be impressed by repeating the frequently quoted statistics related to various aspects of their economic growth.

However, when one visits those countries, one is overwhelmed with the “Third World” nature of their polities. This phrase describes corruption, inefficiencies, acute environmental pollution, casual attention to general hygienic conditions, and the unrelenting prevalence of illiteracy and poverty. Those are not characteristics that would make one highly optimistic about predicting the unimpeded rise of either China or India as great powers.

But why, one wonders, is the subject of “post-Americanism” becoming so popular in the world? Kishore Mahbubani, the dean of the Singapore-based Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, develops a thoughtful thesis of a power shift from the West to the East in his latest book, The New Asian Hemisphere

. Newsweek International editor Fareed Zakaria talks about the post-American world in his latest book of the same title. But the theses of both books, approximately described, prove the success of Western ideas, such as modernization, rationalization of governance, and globalization, etc. In fact, Zakaria states that the chief challenge for the US is not that it is a fundamentally weak economy, “But that it has developed a highly dysfunctional politics.” The suggestion of political inertia has been identified as a problem, and it is, indeed, becoming increasingly serious.

However, no one presents any one idea that is typically Chinese, Indian or Eastern in origin. If these ideas are regarded as engines of the rise of China and India as great powers in the coming decades, then why is it that those very ideas are not going to help the United States to maintain its dominance? It is certainly true that China and India have created vibrant economies. However, there is no reason to believe there have emerged assorted irreversible structural dysfunctionalities that are pushing the US economy relentlessly toward permanent decline.

The current signs of economic recession may have a lot to do with the George W Bush administration’s misguided war-related expenditures in Iraq. But that phenomenon may either disappear, or may undergo radical mutations in the aftermath of the forthcoming US presidential elections.

The forces of globalization may be reducing the “developmental gap” between the US and China, the US and India, and China and India. However, they do not necessarily force one to conclude that the US has become a declining power.

Such suggestions of decline were heard before. During the 1980s, a popular proposition was about the emergence of Japan as an economic superpower and a related decline of America’s economic prowess. In the first decade of the 21st century, the promise of Japanese superpowerdom seems to have faded. Japan, to be sure, is a major economic power, but it has failed to surpass the US in that realm.

The intellectual fad in the first decade of the 21st century is a “power shift” and post-Americanism. The ground realities are that America’s economic dominance will be challenged; however, there is no conclusive evidence that America’s decline is “inevitable”. Those who make a case for the ineluctable rise of China and India assume that such phenomena would also result in a similarly inexorable decline of the US. Such a description is more a product of the flight of imagination of some strategic thinkers than a reflection of facts as studied through a variety of indicators of economic, political, social and military prowess.

One last explanation of the supposed American decline may be related to the dominance-related fatigue that may have clouded the thinking of global strategic thinkers. The unipolar power arrangement definitely encouraged the US to invade Iraq as an option of the “war of choice”. There was no more Soviet Union to deter its ambitions.

However, the long and bloody events in Iraq have proven that, even in a unipolar system of global power, the decision to invade does not lead to unhindered power to govern. If anything, the continued occupation of Iraq has intensified, among politicians, constraints on their country’s power in the global arena. That realization might be the chief reason why the lone hegemon is forced to discipline its appetite for another potential war of choice involving Iran.

However, that realization, related to limitations of power, does not prove that the global hegemon is, indeed, declining, or that a post-American world is really emerging with power centers that are capable of counterbalancing the United States.

Zakaria cites a poignant quote from Arnold Toynbee – an eminent British historian who died in 1975 – when he describes the alleged permanence of Great Britain’s status as a world power. Toynbee, recounting his feelings at the age of eight when he was watching a parade celebrating the 60th anniversary of Queen Victoria’s ascension to the British throne, wrote: “I remember the atmosphere. It was: Well, here we are on top of the world, and we have arrived at this peak to stay there forever. There is, of course, a thing called history, but history is something unpleasant that happens to other people. We are comfortably outside all of that I am sure.”

As wrong as Toynbee was in thinking that thought, it is safe to say that, for America, that inevitable moment of decline has not yet arrived.