[Viewpoint]America’s best days are behind itConventional wisdom has it that since the United States has been a hegemon, or superpower, for 60-plus years, its unique position in the world will remain pretty much the same for the foreseeable future. This somewhat comforting conclusion fails to look at and understand disturbing yet undeniable trends that have occurred in the United States during the past 20 years, particularly when compared to the immediate post-World War II years.
The United States (with the exception of Pearl Harbor) emerged from the Second World War completely unscathed and its industries standing head-and-shoulders above all industrialized nations in the world. A superpower or hegemon? Of course we were. Our unrivaled growth fueled the political rehabilitation and economic recovery of Western Europe and Japan. This, along with the New Deal reforms (Social Security and the Wagner Act, among others) eventually brought most Americans into the middle class, a huge and noteworthy achievement. Despite the anti-communist hysteria of McCarthy, our support for some right-wing dictatorships abroad and the uphill struggle against racism, Americans could justifiably be proud of their country. We have the oldest uninterrupted representative government in history. The vibrancy of our culture is a reflection of our heterogeneous yet free society. Hollywood movies, jazz music, baseball and other cultural treasures from the United States are enjoyed and respected by countless people around the globe.
Now, for the bad news. For the past six-and-a-half years, the United States has seen its middle class shrink with engineering and blue-collar manufacturing jobs moving overseas. The few jobs created during the Bush years have only been in domestic services, health care and real estate. Employment in jobs that create tradeable goods and services have not improved during Bush’s tenure ― just have a look at the most recent Bureau of Labor statistics.
The United States is also saddled with every kind of debt imaginable. The U.S. has gone from being the leading creditor nation to the No. 1 debtor nation in the world; we import far more than we export. Our citizens currently have, on average, a negative savings rate for the first time since the Great Depression. This means their debts exceed their savings, an ominous turn of events.
Moreover, George W. Bush has been so busy giving tax cuts to his ultra-rich buddies that government budget deficits now stand at well over $500 billion. These levels of debt are unsustainable.
There will be a big financial correction, one that’s going to make the dot-com bubble look like a high school food fight. It could conceivably plunge the world into a new depression, starting with foreclosures in the American housing market.
Remember, American corporations increasingly employ foreign workers in factories and offices outside the United States. Consequently, their sales and profits are not indicative of the overall health of the U.S. economy.
This is no way to run a country, especially a superpower. As the still most powerful country, the United States might fight Al Qaeda, for the time being. How can we do that when Al Qaeda is in Afghanistan, yet our attention is needlessly diverted to Iraq, a nation without weapons of mass destruction or definitive links to Osama bin Laden? The Iraq War has been the single greatest misadventure committed by the United States. Violent Islamic extremism will not be defeated with imperialist blunders in Iraq, suspension of civil liberties by the Bush administration at home or unbridled corporate control over the world economy and their manipulation of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. How can any state in the world today have confidence in and derive inspiration from us?
Since the breakup of the Soviet Union and its empire, the world has gone from a bipolar rivalry to a supposedly unipolar supremacy headed by Washington. Being on top for the past 15 years seems to have only generated complacency, deceit and arrogance in Washington. Whether new superpowers will emerge or not is anybody’s guess, but the best days of the United States are behind it. There is no doubt the U.S. will continue to be a major power for years to come because of its size (land and population) and its residual influence in the world. Will China and/or India become new superpowers?
It’s too early to tell; both countries have enormous problems to overcome before reaching that stage.
Are the unipolarists or multipolarists correct? The verdict is still out. The conservative interventionist view holds that Canada and other smaller states cannot be expected to prevent massacres such as the ones committed in Rwanda or Bosnia. However, multipolarists think that countries such as Brazil, South Africa, and yes, even China have within the past few years started to assume a greater responsibility in international peacekeeping duties and in aid to developing countries.
The neocon obsession with warrantless searches and denial of habeas corpus for suspects, along with the neoliberal drive to impose so-called free trade over fair trade has badly tarnished whatever moral authority, diplomatic leadership and economic guidance the United States once possessed. Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, Evo Morales in Bolivia, Kirschner in Argentina, Correa in Ecuador and Ortega in Nicaragua have left or are in the process of leaving the IMF and the World Bank ― two international institutions too long dominated by Washington.
In the cultural realm, countries such as India, China, Brazil and Mexico are developing their own film industries and moving forward on the world stage. Dance companies from Mexico, the Philippines and South Africa tour around the world. Musicologists speculate that the most innovative music of the 21st century will largely emerge from Africa, South America and the Caribbean. Most other countries are successfully making the transition to democratic political institutions and cultural exchanges, albeit slowly. As nations around the world display their cultures and mingle with those of others, there will be plenty of collaborations and relationships that are creative and constructive, but bear little direct connection to the United States.
It is very difficult, if not impossible, to have a republic and an empire simultaneously -- just examine the fate of the Romans or the British. The U.S., with 5 percent of the world population, spends more on military matters than almost all other nations combined ― that is the very definition of an empire. The U.S. as a nation has bitten off far more than it can chew. Americans must learn again to live within their means and accept the need to cooperate with other nations. It’s going to take a tremendous amount of effort, ingenuity and time to get America’s economic and political systems back into good working order. John Quincy Adams, the sixth U.S. president, once said America can best lead by example rather than through force, deception or arrogance.
It may be old advice, but his message is timely as well as timeless.
*The writer is a professor at the Graduate School of International Studies, Hanyang University.
by Joseph Schouweiler