Monday, March 12, 2012

Robert Kagan on USA Decline

This article is a much needed antidote to the inveterate pessimists out there who allow wishful thinking to run far ahead of the facts.  The USA is suffering from self inflicted economic damage brought about by rather bad financial policy that may well have sobered up a lot of fools who thought themselves above the law, economic or otherwise.

The USA learned that the only creditable strategic deterrent is to outspend the whole world in terms of deliverable military power.  The second leg on that deterrent is to promote friends into self sufficiency so that they can never become allies of your enemies.

In fact the only two creditable threats to the present world order happen to be India and China who are way more creditable as threats to each other than as a threat to the West itself from mere geographical proximity.  In practice of course, China is on the way to transitioning to a modern democratic system comparable to what India already enjoys, even if they do not believe it.  Thus the three great centers of the modern world will share common political ideas and common economic interests and be totally bound by trade.

Thus will arise a communion of nations rather than an empire as others understand it.

The rest of the world that actually tries to challenge this growing hegemony can be separated into the Islamic crowd and the rest.  The rest will make their transition into modernism surprisingly quickly and are doing it now.  The Islamic world continues to see a rise in fascism that acts counter to the modernizing tendencies of the population itself and will continue to drag its feet.  I do not think they can hold it off for long and the actual pending demise of the oil crutch will upend all that even.

In the end it is not and never has been about the USA as about modernism itself.  A modern world in which Western values are established needs almost no force of arms at all.  The truth remains that war is swiftly going out of business and local empowerment is the future of business everywhere.

Robert Kagan: Rumours of America’s demise are an exaggeration

Special to National Post  Mar 10, 2012 – 11:45 AM ET | Last Updated: Mar 8, 2012 6:05 PM ET

Shannon E. Renfroe/AFP/Getty Images

The USS Nimitz enters San Francisco Bay. Despite much talk of America’s decline relative to other countries, the U.S. military remains the world’s dominant fighting force.

In a new book, excerpted below, acclaimed foreign-policy expert Robert Kagan challenges the conventional wisdom that U.S. global power and influence are waning:

Much of the commentary on American decline these days rests on rather loose analysis, on impressions that the United States has lost its way, that it has abandoned the virtues that made it successful in the past, that it lacks the will to address the problems it faces. Americans look at other nations whose economies are, for the moment, in better shape than their own, and which seem to have the dynamism that America once had, and they lament, as in the title of Thomas Friedman’s latest book, “That used to be us.”

It doesn’t much help to point out that Americans have experienced this unease before, that many previous generations have also felt this sense of lost vigour and lost virtue. Even in 1788, Patrick Henry lamented the nation’s fall from past glory, “when the American spirit was in its youth.”

The perception of decline today is certainly understandable, given the dismal economic situation since 2008 and the nation’s large fiscal deficits, which, combined with the continuing growth of the Chinese, Indian, Brazilian, Turkish, and other economies, seem to portend a significant and irreversible shift in global economic power. Some of the pessimism is also due to the belief that the United States has lost favour, and therefore influence, in much of the world, because of its various responses to the Sept. 11 attacks.

The detainment facilities at Guantanamo, the use of torture against suspected terrorists and the widely condemned 2003 invasion of Iraq have all tarnished the American “brand” and put a dent in America’s “soft power” — its ability to attract others to its point of view. There have been the difficult wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which many argue proved the limits of military power, stretched the United States beyond its capacities and weakened the nation at its core. Some compare the United States to the British Empire at the end of the 19th century, with the Iraq and Afghanistan wars serving as the equivalent of Britain’s difficult and demoralizing Boer War.

With this broad perception of decline as the backdrop, every failure of the United States to get its way in the world tends to reinforce the impression. Arabs and Israelis refuse to make peace, despite American entreaties. Iran and North Korea defy American demands that they cease their nuclear weapons programs. China refuses to let its currency rise. Ferment in the Arab world spins out of America’s control. Every day, it seems, brings more evidence that the time has passed when the United States could lead the world and get others to do its bidding.

Powerful as this sense of decline may be, however, it deserves a more rigorous examination.

Measuring changes in a nation’s relative power is a tricky business, but there are some basic indicators: the size and influence of its economy relative to that of other powers; the degree of military power compared with potential adversaries’; the degree of political influence it wields in the international system — all of which make up what the Chinese call “comprehensive national power.” And there is the matter of time. Judgments made based on only a few years’ evidence are problematic. A great power’s decline is the product of fundamental changes in the international distribution of various forms of power that usually occur over longer stretches of time. Great powers rarely decline suddenly. A war may bring them down, but even that is usually a symptom, and a culmination, of a longer process.

Some of the arguments for America’s relative decline these days would be more potent if they had not appeared only in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. Just as one swallow does not make a spring, one recession, or even a severe economic crisis, need not mean the beginning of the end of a great power. The United States suffered deep and prolonged economic crises in the 1890s, the 1930s, and the 1970s. In each case, it rebounded in the following decade and actually ended up in a stronger position relative to other powers than before the crisis. The first decade of the 20th century, the 1940s, and the 1980s were all high points of American global power and influence.

Less than a decade ago, most observers spoke not of America’s decline but of its enduring primacy. In 2002, the historian Paul Kennedy, who in the late 1980s had written a much-discussed book on “the rise and fall of the great powers,” America included, declared that never in history had there been such a great “disparity of power” as between the United States and the rest of the world. John Ikenberry agreed that “no other great power” had held “such formidable advantages in military, economic, technological, cultural or political capabilities … The preeminence of American power” was “unprecedented.” In 2004, Fareed Zakaria described the United States as enjoying a “comprehensive uni-polarity” unlike anything seen since Rome. But a mere four years later, Zakaria was writing about the “post-American world”; and Kennedy, again, about the inevitability of American decline. Did the fundamentals of America’s relative power shift so dramatically in just a few short years? The answer is no.

Let’s start with the basic indicators. In economic terms, and even despite the current years of recession and slow growth, America’s position in the world has not changed. Its share of the world’s GDP has held remarkably steady, not only over the past decade, but over the past four decades. In 1969, the United States produced roughly a quarter of the world’s economic output. Today it still produces roughly a quarter, and it remains not only the largest but also the richest economy in the world.

People are rightly mesmerized by the rise of China, India and other Asian nations whose share of the global economy has been climbing steadily, but this has so far come almost entirely at the expense of Europe and Japan, which have had a declining share of the global economy. Optimists about China’s development predict that it will overtake the United States as the largest economy in the world sometime in the next two decades. This could mean that the United States will face an increasing challenge to its economic position in the future. The sheer size of an economy, however, is not by itself a good measure of overall power within the international system. If it were, then early-19th-century China, with what was then the world’s largest economy, would have been the predominant power instead of the prostrate victim of smaller European nations. Even if China does reach this pinnacle again — and Chinese leaders face significant obstacles to sustaining the country’s growth indefinitely — it will still remain far behind both the United States and Europe in terms of per capita GDP.

Military capacity matters, too, as early-19th-century China learned, and as Chinese leaders know today. As Yan Xuetong recently noted, “Military strength underpins hegemony.” Here the United States remains unmatched. It is far and away the most powerful nation the world has ever known, and there has been no decline in America’s relative military capacity — at least not yet. Americans currently spend roughly $600-billion a year on defence, more than the rest of the other great powers combined. They do so, moreover, while consuming around 4% of GDP annually, a higher percentage than the other great powers but in historical terms lower than the 10% of GDP that the United States spent on defence in the mid-1950s or the 7% it spent in the late 1980s.

The superior expenditures underestimate America’s actual superiority in military capability. American land and air forces are equipped with the most advanced weaponry, are the most experienced in actual combat and would defeat any competitor in a head-to-head battle. American naval power remains predominant in every region of the world.

By these military and economic measures, at least, the United States today is not remotely like Britain circa 1900, when that empire’s relative decline began to become apparent. It is more like Britain circa 1870, when the empire was at the height of its power. It is possible to imagine a time when this might no longer be the case, but that moment has not yet arrived.

But what about the “rise of the rest” — the increasing economic clout of nations like China, India, Brazil and Turkey? Doesn’t that cut into American power and influence?

The answer is: It depends. The fact that other nations in the world are enjoying periods of high growth does not mean that America’s position as the predominant power is declining, or even that “the rest” are catching up in terms of overall power and influence. Brazil’s share of global GDP was a little over 2% in 1990 and remains a little over 2% today. Turkey’s share was under 1% in 1990 and is still under 1% today. People, especially businesspeople, are naturally excited about these emerging markets, but just because a nation is an attractive investment opportunity does not mean it is also a rising great power. Wealth matters in international politics, but there is no simple correlation between economic growth and international influence. It is not clear that a richer India today, for instance, wields greater influence on the global stage than a poorer India did in the 1950s and 1960s under Nehru, when it was a leader of the Non-Aligned Movement, or that Turkey, for all the independence and flash of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, really wields more influence than it did a decade ago.

As for the effect of these growing economies on the position of the United States, it all depends on who is doing the growing. The problem for the British Empire at the beginning of the 20th century was not its substantial decline relative to the United States, a generally friendly power whose interests did not fundamentally conflict with Britain’s. Even in the Western hemisphere, British trade increased as it ceded dominance to the United States. The problem was Britain’s decline relative to Germany, which aimed for supremacy on the European continent, sought to compete with Britain on the high seas, and in both respects posed a threat to Britain’s core security.

In the case of the United States, the dramatic and rapid rise of the German and Japanese economies during the Cold War reduced American primacy in the world much more than the more recent “rise of the rest.” America’s share of the world’s GDP, nearly 50% after the Second World War, fell to roughly 25% by the early 1970s, where it has remained ever since. But that “rise of the rest” did not weaken the United States. If anything, it strengthened it. Germany and Japan were and are close democratic allies, key pillars of the American world order. The growth of their economies actually shifted the balance irretrievably against the Soviet bloc and helped bring about its demise.

When gauging the impact of the growing economies of other countries today, one has to make the same kinds of calculations. Does the growth of the Brazilian economy, or of the Indian economy, diminish American global power? Both nations are friendly, and India is increasingly a strategic partner of the United States. If America’s future competitor in the world is likely to be China, then a richer and more powerful India will be an asset, not a liability, to the United States. Overall, the fact that Brazil, India, Turkey and South Africa are enjoying a period of economic growth — which may or may not last indefinitely — is either irrelevant to America’s strategic position or of benefit to it. At present, only the growth of China’s economy can be said to have implications for American power in the future, and only insofar as the Chinese translate enough of their growing economic strength into military strength.

If the United States is not suffering decline in these basic measures of power, isn’t it simply true, nevertheless, that its influence has diminished, that it is having a harder time getting its way in the world? The almost universal assumption is that the United States has indeed lost influence. Whatever the explanation may be — American decline, the “rise of the rest,” the apparent failure of the American capitalist model, the dysfunctional nature of American politics, the increasing complexity of the international system — it is broadly accepted that the United States can no longer shape the world to suit its interests and ideals as it once did. Every day seems to bring more proof, as things happen in the world that seem both contrary to American interests and beyond American control.

And, of course, it’s true: the United States is not able to get what it wants much of the time. But then, it never could. Many of today’s impressions about declining American influence are based on a nostalgic fallacy, that there ever was a time when the United States could shape the whole world to suit its desires, could get other nations to do what it wanted them to do, and could, as the political scientist Stephen Walt put it, “manage the politics, economics and security arrangements for nearly the entire globe.”

If we are to gauge America’s relative position today, it is important to recognize that this image of the past is an illusion. There never was such a time. We tend to think back on the early years of the Cold War as a moment of complete American global dominance. They were nothing of the sort. The United States did accomplish extraordinary things in that era: the Marshall Plan, the NATO alliance, the United Nations and the Bretton Woods economic system all shaped the world we know today. Yet for every great achievement in the early Cold War, there was at least one equally monumental setback.

Excerpted from The World America Made, by Robert Kagan, published by Knopf. © 2012 by Robert Kagan.

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