America: An Empire In Decline

The Thinker by Rodin

The era of the United States as the world’s superpower is ending. A new superpower is emerging: China. It is likely that when the history of the 21st century is written that it will be a century marked by the decline of the United States and the emergence of China as the world’s new superpower.

In truth our self-proclaimed superpower title is more fiction than reality. Yes, our current military and intelligence spending is unprecedented. But we still delude ourselves into thinking that we are shaping world events. Rather events are shaping our country. At best our presence in Iraq keeps the country from slipping into total anarchy and civil war. It is at least half there already. In Afghanistan the situation is somewhat better. But after three and a half years the Taliban are still a force that has not been vanquished. As our forces get stretched and are needed elsewhere, it is likely that our long-term presence in Afghanistan will be more token than a controlling element.

Terrorism is the 21st century equivalent of anti-colonialism and revolution. We have become targets because our economic empire has become too extended. Gone are the days when territory could be controlled through the strategic use of gunboats and garrisons. Revolutions against well-established powers are unlikely to be won by conventional armed forces. Consequently terrorism and insurgencies seem attractive. These new kinds of conflicts are won through attrition. Eventually one side tires enough to go home. Perseverance wins.

We will see this happen in Iraq over the next few years. In reality the war in Iraq is already lost. It is lost because you know what I know in my heart: we don’t have the stomach to fight this war indefinitely. For all of Bush’s bravado you can see the reality in declining armed forces’ recruitment rates. By embracing an all-volunteer army we have decided in effect that we will wage only elective wars. Only those who choose to fight it will put their lives at risk. Even College Republicans, meeting this weekend in Arlington, Virginia don’t seem to have the stomach for it. They are glad to support our troops by saying the right words. But they are largely unwilling to put their bodies where their mouths are. War has become somebody else’s problem. For those of us not fighting it, our part is reduced to that of cheerleader.

Sensing a lost cause and no sense of urgency, baby boomer parents are encouraging their children to go to college rather than fight America’s distant wars. Congress has repeatedly said no draft, no way, most recently right before the last election. The message is clear: like with our deficit spending and reckless tax cuts, we shall have our cake and eat it on the national security front too. This translates into armed forces, already stretched to the breaking point that must eventually break. Money alone cannot win wars. It requires both materiel and boots on the ground. Lacking either of the two it fails.

We were briefly awake after 9/11 but have gone back into our happy, delusional slumbers. It is better to slap yellow Support Our Troops stickers on the back of our SUVs than encourage Junior to enlist or even to buy hybrids. Life is good. Our X-Boxes have the latest games. And besides, there is a new Batman movie at the multiplex. In our hearts we know the war on terrorism is in shambles. Yet it provides a certain balm to not openly acknowledge the fact and to throw the onus on our dysfunctional leadership.

So others step in where we increasingly fear to tread. While we are distracted in unnecessary and unwinnable wars much more tangible threats exist that we are poorly prepared for. One exists above the 38th parallel. A madman that now seems to have acquired nuclear weapons runs North Korea. But because more troops are needed in Iraq, we shuffle some from South Korea. Our pompous behavior will not even let us engage in dialog with North Korea unless they will first agree to all our conditions. Meanwhile North Korea lobs practice missiles over the Sea of Japan and scares the bejesus out of their long time enemy, the Japanese.

But North Korea is hardly the only worrisome national security issue facing us. It turns out that North Korea may have gotten a lot of its nuclear parts from our so-called ally Pakistan. And Pakistan seems to be rife with its own internal problems that could explode into civil war. And this could place its considerable nuclear arsenal in the hands of real terrorists. Instead, we are more concerned about Iran doing the same thing. In addition there are unsecured or poorly secured nuclear stockpiles all over the remnants of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. While Iraq represents zero threat to our national security, those vulnerable nuclear stockpiles offer very real and scary threats. It is unlikely that while we have been distracted in Iraq and elsewhere that terrorists have been idle. In fact there is evidence that terrorists are hard at work trying to put together a nuclear bomb.

While our buttons keep getting pressed we are largely missing the strategic problem of an emerging Chinese superpower. Much like the British showed the Japanese how to create a modern navy, we are busy giving China many of the tools it needs to challenge our superpower status. And the Chinese have been very busy moving from an agrarian to an industrial economy. We help them build automobile plants and open Wal-Marts. This infrastructure provides the basis for sustaining their wealth and gives them the means to rapidly improve their own military. Meanwhile the Chinese are spreading their influence across East Asia and the Pacific. They are creating a de facto commonwealth where loosely aligned countries like Indonesia and Vietnam provide the oil, goods, or the labor that helps them sustain their growth rates. China is a country about the same size of the United States. With no real adversaries it is free to fully tap its abundant resources to build up an Asian version of the United States, just without our democratic principles. In the short term we love the cheap goods we get in return. In the long term we exacerbate our own superpower status.

We can hope that China will emerge as an enlightened superpower like Great Britain was. But the early readings are that this will not be the case. Their sense of nationalism and their history of warfare suggests otherwise. It is a country that seems determined to grow very quickly into both an economic and military superpower. Finding conscripts for their armies is no problem. The supplies of peasants are plentiful and military service is not necessarily an elective. It is a country where you learn to do as you are told and to subsume your individual desires when needed for the goals of the state. Despite its modern trappings it remains a dictatorship.

A nuanced approach by America over the next generation toward China might allow us to become long-term strategic partners instead of future adversaries. But that probably will not happen. It is not part of the Chinese culture to integrate their culture too much with other cultures. We lack a nuanced approach because our political system encourages short-range tactics rather than long-range strategic approaches that are broadly supported by both parties. So it is likely that China will continue to be far down our list of national security concerns. Instead, we’ll be dealing with increasingly costly brushfires caused by our complex needs from the rest of the world.

But mostly we will find it more convenient to ignore these problems. For it is always Morning in America now. We are fat, happy and easily distracted by our vices. Sometime in the next decade or two we will wake to find that we are no longer the superpower we thought we were, the Chinese are in the driving seat, and that we will be playing an increasingly poor defensive game.

Every empire has its time. Ours is drawing to an end.

One thought on “America: An Empire In Decline

  1. I agree with your basic point – that the US’s days as a superpower (or, at least, a sole superpower) are numbered – but have to quibble with some details.

    The worrying thing about China is its size: it’s marginally larger than the US in land mass, and is about 4.5 times larger than the US in population.

    Historically, China has not been big on agressive conflict. The culture is very self-centered, in that they tend to view themselves as The Best, and other nations should simply not bother them. The Chinese, unlike the Japanese, British, or Russians, do not have a substantial (or any, to my recollection) colonial history.

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