I grew up in America. I remember the huge grocery stores, the plentiful summer jobs, the feeling of hope and safety. I watched Sri Lankan President Premadasa being blown up on TV and it seemed very, very far away. Now I’m in Colombo and the spot where Premadasa died is a functional part of the city. New York still hasn’t replaced the towers. At some point, America went into recline.
It is sad that the historical decline of America may be marked by 9/11. One doesn’t want to give Osama Bin Laden that power, but somewhere he must be laughing. He hit America’s financial and military centers in 2001 and by 2010 its finances have collapsed and its military is bleeding far from home.
The culprit in this decline, however, is more Bush than Osama. There were many directions that President Bush could have gone after 9/11, but he chose government spending, deregulation, war, torture and fear. It was almost like terrorism provoked an allergic reaction in America and it made itself sick, attacking random countries like it was scratching at psychological hives.
Now, after eight years, Bush’s legacy is a falling economy, a failing military and deeply diminished international prestige.
This is the mess that Barack Obama is cleaning up, but the historical inflection point may have already passed. If 9/11 was the beginning of American decline, WikiLeaks provided the exclamation point in the form of documentation.
Today, most Americans already believe that America is no longer the strongest economy in the world, even though it is. In a recent Heartland Monitor poll, almost half of Americans think that China is a stronger economy already, others think it’s Japan or the EU. It is also tough to argue for American military superiority when they have been quagmired by insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan for years.
What America had was its brand, that of the global financial, military and moral leader, but that brand is beginning to fade. George W. Bush effectively crashed all of these advantages and by the time WikiLeaks pointed out that the emperor had no clothes, most nations merely shrugged. The brand is burnt.
On the plus side, however, America has got the Tiger Woods of politics (with that metaphor limited to professional performance) in Barack Obama. If George W. Bush could do so much damage in eight years, Obama could surely do some good in that time. Of course, it looks like he’ll have to spend most of that time cleaning up Bush’s mess, but he has already improved America’s performance and image a bit.
However, there are broader forces at play. Global geopolitics is not simply a matter of taking eight years off and then coming back to the same playing field. China, India and strong states from Brazil to the EU have asserted their independence in the past decade, making investments that will bear fruit for years to come.
China, in particular, is poised to take what Thomas Friedman calls ‘moon shots’ on post-modern airports, railways, bioscience and alternate energy. By contrast, America’s long-term investments have been in Iraq and Afghanistan, countries which are hoping to barely enter modernity. As Friedman said, “We’re out of balance — the balance between security and prosperity. We need to be in a race with China, not just Al Qaeda.”
The inertia, however, may not be in America’s direction. As Hans Rosling shows in his stunning presentation Let My Dataset Change Your Mindset, the developing world has already caught up to much of the West in terms of health and education and is now pushing forward in terms of income and raw economic power. Inflexible China perhaps more than America is prone to collapse, but the new world order seems to be one of multiple powers rather than one superpower.
Another point Rosling makes is that the rise of the rest of the world doesn’t mean that America necessarily gets recedes. Other nations simply catch up, exceed and then nations begin to bleed into each other (with multinational sole-proprietorships like myself). Indeed, this global rise is acutely necessary to lower birth rates so that the world does not collapse under its own weight.
Thus, America’s relative decline is not so much a decline as a recline. They are not going backwards so much as not going forward as fast. This is much bemoaned in the Western media and railed against by tea partiers in the Republican Party, but their point may be limited. There is indeed much America needs to do to stave off actual collapse, but they will probably never be the city on the hill again.
Assuming that they don’t tumble but rather stumble on, however, what is America’s new role in the world? They will not be the sole superpower, able to launch wars at their discretion and play tiddly-winks with global finances. That ship sailed with George W. Bush, into retirement. What is a bit sad, however, is that Bush may have also retired significant components of America’s moral authority and WikiLeaks may have just been the belated funeral.
In this compromised form, it is likely that America and the West are on their way to becoming the technological and, to a lesser extent, cultural and moral foundation of a new century. Not the top of the food chain, but the base. As Rosling says in his presentation where he stacks Ikea boxes to describe the coming change, “The role of the old West in the new world is to become the foundation of the new world. Nothing more, nothing less. Do it well, and get used to it.”