America’s Turbulent Decline

The war on Iraq, coming after several wayward political and military adventures elsewhere, heightened interest in America’s global intentions. Analysis tended to come in two distinct forms. The first, focuses on an intellectually challenged president driven by Christian fundamentalist fervour and madcap schemes hatched by a motley cabal of neo-conservatives and Zionist activists. The second attributes American government actions to global strategic imperatives; relating, in particular, to the need to safeguard American oil needs and the wish to dictate the availability of oil supplies to current and emerging competitors; such as Japan, the European Union, and more importantly China and India. Israel features in this scenario as well.

The first interpretation oversimplifies the structure of decision-making within the US government establishment, by design a complex filigree of competing and at times conflicting interest groups and government departments. The second is more plausible, but it is based on a questionable premise that America could control all oil sources simultaneously and that the consuming countries will not take any action to diversify their energy needs and supplies. It is instructive to remember that France now satisfies 80 percent of its power generation requirements through nuclear energy. Even oil producers, such as the United Arab Emirates, are diversifying sensibly to avoid dangerous reliance on oil.

Irrespective of the adequacy or otherwise of the above speculations, the singular lack of success of American foreign policies is highly intriguing. Today, America is intensely unpopular. Its intentions are mistrusted and its leaders are disbelieved. The USA is, furthermore, besieged by active or passive enemies on most fronts. It is in a hole, but it seems reluctant or unable to stop digging. Why?

The explanation presented below is not original, and most of the technical comments have been advanced by scholars with greater historical insights than I possess. More to the point, their analyses predate the present agitation caused by the war on Iraq. I find this reassuring as it is not over-influenced by one or two current hotspots on the global stage.

In essence, the explanation is based on the premise that the reigning world power, the USA, which has enjoyed unrivalled economic, political, and military power since World War Two, is now in relative decline. History demonstrates that all the global powers experience a long period of growth on several strategic fronts; economy, production, defence, etc., followed by an equally long period of contraction. At this latter stage, global powers become progressively more aggressive and unstable. By contrast, on their way up such powers tend to be benign and focused on promoting international peace and liberal trade. In the course of pursuing these aims, the power acquires external commitments and obligations that it is easily able to handle because of its economic dominance.

However, a global power on it way down is assailed by the tension between the high costs of regulating the world and its unwillingness or inability to meet the consequential costs; in monetary, human, and military terms. The waning power enters into military battles that it could easily win. Britain, when it had already lost its supremacy, fought two world wars and attacked and tried to subdue many countries, including Iraq in 1920! But it is unable to devote sufficient resources to win the political contest, which is the only reason for going to war in the first instance. Their is little choice in the matter. This success-followed-by-failure is now a topic that attracts much informed comment. (See for example Paul Krugman’s The mess in Iraq is no surprise in The International Herald Tribune of 24 April 2004.)|

If the supreme power of the day refuses to go to war then the cat is out of the bag. It is not the unquestioned world leader anymore. But if it goes to war then it has to pay a hefty price to win the peace, which helps to debilitate it further. This is not a new feature. King Pyrrhus of Epirus said after defeating the Romans at Asculum in 279 BC: “One more such victory and we are lost.”

The overall impression given by a global power in decline is of a military and economic giant turned into a loose cannon. Its actions and policies cease to make sense. Observers then begin to look for explanations; such as conspiracies or incompetent leaders. Both might be right to a degree, but the problem is more fundamental, and infinitely more threatening to world peace. Seen in this light, the latest episode featuring Iraq is only a pit stop on the way to American self-harm. Sadly, others will pay an even heavier price for America’s slow decline. Just as worrying, these global transformations are notoriously slow, normally occurring over several decades, as was the case in Britain, the previous global power.

Hegemonies and Empires

Immanuel Wallerstein described hegemony in the interstate system as a “situation in which the ongoing rivalry between the so-called ‘great powers’ is so unbalanced that one power …can largely impose its rules and wishes (at the very least by effective veto power) in the economic, political, military, diplomatic, and even cultural arenas.” (See International Journal of Comparative Sociology, 24, 1983, and Two Hegemonies, 2002.)

There is an ongoing debate about the differences and similarities between hegemonies and empires. I prefer hegemony, especially in the context of the USA, as it does not of necessity imply direct rule over other nations as was the case with the British Empire. Americans and their governments have prided themselves on their lack of interest in acquiring an empire. (Certainly up to recent times. Jay Bookman maintains that the war on Iraq is part of a project to create an American Empire, However, empire or hegemony, the net effect is virtually the same: the exercise of supreme power on an international scale.

Wallerstein suggests there had been three hegemonic powers in modern history: the United Provinces in the Netherlands (mid-17th century), the United Kingdom (mid-19th century) and the USA (mid-20th century). Other scholars (e.g. Paul Kennedy) include Imperial Spain (1580 to 1630) in the list. Clearly, the dates are approximate but they are significant in one key sense: hegemonic powers come and then eventually go.

And the process of growth and decline takes a long time. Some historians and political economic scientists have linked the rise and fall of such powers to long-range cycles of about fifty years which Kondratieff called ‘longwaves’ and Rondo Cameron called ‘logistics’. Three such cycles have been described: 1792-1850, 1850-1896, and 1896-1940. The waves involve radical structural shifts in the interstate system associated with major wars and economic transformations, although the causal relationships between these elements are not fully understood. If one were to accept this view of history, and there are some who do not, then we might be coming to the end of a Kondratieff wave. This would offer an explanation for the present turmoil. However, my object in this article is to present another viewpoint of current events based on the decline of US hegemony.

Transient Hegemonies

Several authors have described the process that hegemonies traverse in the lead up to the acquisition of the status of undisputed power and then the inevitable downward slide when that power ebbs away. Paul Kennedy, in The Rise and Fall of Great Powers published in 1987, detailed the pattern of change and the factors that drive it forward. More recently, in 2002, several contributors considered the same topic in Two Hegemonies, edited by O’Brien and Clesse. Almost all scholars agree on one point at least: these are very lengthy transformations. By the end of the 19th century British hegemony was over, but it is still a military and economic power to be reckoned with. It is equally important to stress that the analysis focuses on relative changes in power distribution. America might have been in decline since the late-1960s, but it is only because it lost some power in relation to others who have gained some influence, especially in the economic arena. The fact remains that the USA is by far the most powerful country on most fronts and will continue to be so for some years yet.

The process of growth and decline has a number of distinctive features. The key aspect concerns the progress made in the early stages in building up economic and industrial muscle. In relative terms, military spending is kept low at that point. Progressively, the rising power acquires overseas commitments and interests that have to be promoted and then protected. Promotion is almost invariably pursued through advocacy of liberal economic policies. The rising economic power has everything to gain from increased international trade and low tariffs. Protection is undertaken through political and, when necessary, military means. Military spending increases to meet this demand, but economic supremacy makes this burden easy to shoulder in the early decades. These aspect were clearly evident in the ascendancy of the USA up to and including World War Two.

The push for international economic liberalisation has in it the seeds of destruction for the hegemonic power. Other economies begin to prosper. They compete in industrial production and then in research and development. And they have an added advantage: their military spending and overseas commitments are relatively low. Again, this is clearly seen in the generous way the USA behaved after the war. The Marshall Plan (also known as the European Recovery Programme) was in action from 1947 to 1952 to rebuild European economies. However, it took these countries only a few years to become active competitors. And the debate at that point was mainly over the need, as seen by the USA, to shoulder more of the burden of defence expenditure. The economic power base of the USA was eroded and pressure for it to reduce its military spending mounted at the very moment when it had to maintain its grip on overseas markets and sources of materials.

In the case of the USA the situation could not have been more extreme. By the end of World War Two most other economies were shattered. By contrast, the US economy thrived during the war and its mainland suffered no damage. US GNP was almost half that of the whole world. America was in a position to exercise what was called ‘benign hegemony’. It was still in the ascendancy phase of being the world’s supreme power. However, by the late-1960s America’s share of world GNP was shrinking fast; down to 25.9 percent (see Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, 1987: 432). The US economy remains by far the largest in the world, but it has lost the dominant position it had in the mid-1940s. This erosion continues; under attack from a united Europe and, even more dramatic, the emerging economic giants of China and India.

In the meantime the USA had taken on international responsibilities and commitments which, as in the case of Britain before, it could not shrug off easily. It is interesting that America is losing the battle to subdue Iraq at a time when almost half its available military manpower is over there! Imperial overstretch (or overreach) has never been more starkly evident.

There is always a fine line to tread between the costs and benefits of supreme power. By the late-1960s the costs of hegemony were under scrutiny. It was no longer a forgone conclusion that the benefits would justify the costs. The process of scrutiny is highly convoluted and far from being a conscious operation. However, once it starts it becomes clear the hegemon has entered a downward trend. At that point ‘benign hegemony’ turns into a highly aggressive effort, fuelled by those who gain most from the status quo. The beneficiaries begin to scout around for ‘potential threats’ that would justify continued high military spending and covert and overt operations on foreign soil. In the USA, the communist threat during the cold war was deployed for this purpose. Nowadays it is ‘rogue states’ and international terrorism.

The Real Threat to World Peace

The lengthy process of diminishing hegemony is turbulent. The waning power adopts aggressive, and at times highly unpredictable, courses of action. More to the point, the actions pursued are often difficult to analyse rationally. To the outside observer, which includes most of the population of the hegemonic power, the policies and actions adopted make little, if any, sense. The natural response is typified by the comment made by John Le Carré that in attacking Iraq “the USA has entered one of its mad periods”.

Viewed from what is known in political economic science as the ‘Hegemonic Stability Theory’ America’s actions over the last few decades begin to make some sort of sense. This does not make them any more palatable of course. Putting the blame on a ‘stupid’ president, the neo-conservatives, the Zionist lobby, or the Christian fundamentalists obscures the real motive force that drives America’s adventures abroad. Change of presidency might alter the intensity and extremism of what is done but it would not transform the direction of travel much. The USA as the retreating hegemon is highly unstable and is a real danger to world peace regardless of who is in the White House.

And the UN as it is structured at present is not the answer. It is part of the problem, and that goes for its sister agencies such as WTO, IMF and the World Bank. These global agencies were set up at the Bretton Woods conference at the end of World War Two to regulate the world in accordance with the needs and aspirations of American hegemony. They continue to do so today, as was seen most obviously in the imposition of sanctions on Iraq that devastated the population and enriched the Ba’th regime. In the case of the children of Iraq, it would not be too fanciful to equate the sanctions with genocide. The world at large is affronted by the attack on the UN offices in Iraq. However, the people there had already come to the conclusion that there is little difference between the USA and the UN.

The points discussed above will have to be understood fully if the world were to try and avoid the worst of the consequences of America’s decline as the reigning hegemonic power. The omens are not promising. China’s rise, as possibly the next hegemonic power, will exacerbate the situation. A clash between the USA and China would be infinitely more bloody that anything seen so far.

One final point: it is noticeable that the departing hegemonic power always defers to the incoming power. This was the case in the relationship between Greece and the Roman Empire and between the Netherlands and Britain. Nowadays Britain follows the same pattern in its dealings with the USA. Blair is not Bush’s poodle. All British prime ministers (with the possible exception of Edward Heath) exhibited the same proclivity. Who knows, perhaps in the next fifty years the USA will come to kow-tow to the all-powerful China!

Posted in USA