Piers Brendon, a fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge, wrote an interesting op-ed for yesterday’s New York Times. In it, he points out why those bemoaning—or cheering—the end of American global dominance may be premature. I think the article is an interesting read, and I agree with Brendon’s ultimate conclusion the the American “empire” is not heading for imminent collapse—in the short to mid term. I am less optimistic in the long term.
Brendon points out numerous differences between the Roman and British Empires as they headed towards dissolution and the contemporary American situation, pointing out America’s advantages over these previous imperial hegemons in terms of military superiority and economic and political stability. American decline, accordingly, is neither predictable nor inevitable from these examples.
Brendon criticizes fellow Brit and Yale historian Paul Kennedy for the inaccuracy of many of his short-term predictions in his classic The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. In so doing, however, Brendon misses Kennedy’s most important point, which is simply this: All great powers become former great powers. All dogs may have their day in the sun—and, indeed, may go to heaven—but no dog gets to dominate the global kennel ad infinitum. The question, therefore, is not really “if” the American Empire will end but “when.” The equally important followup question is under what circumstance will this end occur?
Rome fell, ultimately, because of the inability of the Roman political, economic and—as importantly and inseparably linked to the first two—technological systems to expand to encompass the millions of “barbarians” crowding in on its frontiers. With their faces to the window of the Roman world—and its prosperity—these peoples, uninvited to the Roman party simply sought to crash it (and burn it to the ground, in the process.) Once the barbarians rough parity in military technological superiority with the Romans circa the third century AD, the fate of the empire in the west was probably certain. The collapse of Roman hegemony led to The Really Great Depression: the collapse of the Mediterranean market system know as the Dark Ages. It took the European world a millennium to recover. One most hope that the American Empire does not go out with a similar bang.
With 2 billion people living on a dollar or two a day and billions more living on only marginally more, however, such hope is not a certainty. Half of humanity has its nose pressed against the glass of the global banquet the richer half has been enjoying for the last century or so. Like the barbarians of yore, if these poorer people don’t get into this global game, they may be tempted to try and kick it over. The biggest lesson of Saddam Hussein and the case of the missing WMDs is not that a tin-plated third world dictator should aspire to nuclear weapons. That biggest lesson was that, in this the 21st century CE, a tin-plated third world dictator CAN acquire nuclear weapons. The even scarier lesson is that sub-national groups like Al Qaeda MAY and, probably, eventually WILL be able to acquire such weapons as well. America’s wars from Vietnam onwards have shown that superior battlefield technology does not always translate into assured victory and does not prohibit significant costs. Should the destructive capacity of radical groups achieve anything approaching parity with American military technology than America might well find itself in this century in the same situation as Rome. Which, again, would be a double-plus ungood outcome.
Going out with a polite, chin-thrust-forward-carry-on-wot-wot British-style whimper need also not be the American future. The British decline, however, has more in common with America’s position that that of the Romans. England was already losing its dominance in industrial production by the turn of the last century. By World War I, England’s role as the global financial hegemon led by the pound sterling as the default global currency replaced industrial output as the most important measure of the Empire’s global economic power. Pound hegemony slipped in the 1920s and crashed permanently in the 1930s, culminating with the replacement of the pound by the dollar as the global anchor currency at Bretton Woods in 1944. Soup to nuts, it took about 50 years for the slide in English industrial and financial hegemony to result in a final fade in its global military and political hegemony.
Though the United States is still the largest industrial economy measured by output, the EU is collectively larger. China holds the title of largest exporter, and its industrial sector continues to expand. Finance, meanwhile, has been the faster growing sector of the American economy and much of America’s continued global economic power comes from the role of the dollar, diminished as that may be against other major currencies, as the continued defacto global currency. By 2050, it is extremely likely that both China and India will have eclipsed the U.S. in industrial output. The ability of the U.S. to maintain the dollar as the global reserve currency while simultaneously dealing with a declining share of global industry, carrying decades worth of accumulated negative balances of payments and with an increasingly aging, cost-intensive and productivity diminished population will become problematic. Over the next half–century, therefore, a scenario in which a gradual decline in American hegemony mirroring that of the English a century before is most plausible. Except that, in America’s case, there is not likely to be a new, friendly emerging global hegemon under whose financial and security umbrellas the fading power might seek refugee. Perhaps the Indians might some day play that role, with American presidents going hat in hand to 7, Race Course Road like British prime ministers to the White House. China seems a less likely to serve as such a munificent benefactor.
Except, again, that the United States may, if it’s both lucky and wise, beat the hangman’s noose Dr. Kennedy (and history) placed around great powers. Until China has had a democratic revolution, the People’s Republic is unlikely to be able to generate enough confidence from the global capitalist class to turn the yuan into a global brand. The EU is still too unstable for the Euro to take this role, and the Yen does not have the domestic demography to pull off the job. The dollar is likely to remain, for decades to come, the global reserve currency if only by default. It will take decades, under the best of circumstances, for either China nor India to generate the economic and military hard power of the U.S. Both countries’ per capita income levels are a fraction of America’s. Nor is it likely that either will be able to eclipse American cultural soft power and capture the hearts and minds (as well as imaginations) of the world’s peoples. (Though Bollywood gives India a much better crack at this than Sino-cinema has).
In short, while Britain had the U.S. to replace it, there is currently no heir in the wings to snatch the American hegemony crown away. Which leaves the barbarian option as a possible trigger of American demise. Or leaves the U.S. with the option of cheating the game and being the last great national power in human history. The U.S. has, since WWII, worked to great a global order based not just on the power of an individual state but upon the rule of international law as established and maintained by international institutions. From the U.N. to the IMF, these global institutions have been America’s baby. Perhaps with more commitment and nurturing, the U.S. can, over the next half century, shape a global-system government by international consent rather than national hegemony. When the time inevitably comes for the U.S. to turn over keys to the global hegemony machine to the next contender (as will happen, be it years, decades or centuries from now) wouldn’t it be nice of that contender is actually a cooperative community of mankind in which Americans play a major and prosperous role?
Americans have been, without question, the luckiest (as in dumb, stupid lucky) people in history. Come on, get real. If Americans couldn’t make a big go of being handed, by quirk of geology and human geography, the biggest, resource-richest unclaimed—but for a few millions of people 4,000 or more years behind on the technological curve—lands on the planet, we’d have had to be the DUMBEST people in history! Americans have also, on the whole, been a relatively wise people. Let us hope that, as the century unfolds, wisdom is not replaced by hubris, least Mr. Brendon’s optimism prove to be unfounded.