It’s too soon to write off the “shining city on the hill”.
What are the critics complaining about?
When President Biden held a summit for democracy last week, foreign policy experts “ridiculed him”, says Matthew Syed in The Times. “What’s the point?” they asked. The American empire is finished. Great-power rivals like China aren’t remotely interested in what the US and its allies get up to. When Australia announced it was going to join an American diplomatic boycott of next year’s Winter Olympics in Beijing, a Chinese Communist Party spokesman said: “Who cares?”
Don’t empires always collapse eventually?
Yes, and experts in such matters warn that – in part because of the pandemic – the US is exhibiting symptoms of a society in what Axios’s Bryan Walsh calls “real existential peril”. It wouldn’t be the first civilisation “overthrown by a microscopic pathogen”. The Antonine plague struck the Roman empire at its zenith in the late 2nd century AD, coursing along thriving trade routes and killing up to eight million people. (Rome’s deadliest military defeat saw 50,000 lose their lives.) Another pandemic in the 6th century – a precursor to the Black Death – may have killed “half the Roman empire”, ending Emperor Justinian’s hopes of a revival. Covid isn’t anything like as bad, but it underscores the dark side of globalisation.
What are the other symptoms of civilisational collapse?
Inequality and social unrest. Elites hoarding wealth and power at the expense of everyone else creates disharmony, says Walsh, and undermines the “collective solidarity needed to respond to other threats”. The 400 richest Americans have added $1.3 trillion to their wealth this year, a 40% rise, while many ordinary folk survived on government handouts. Meanwhile, says Syed, the “vapid culture wars, the petty arguments over whether the word ‘curry’ amounts to cultural appropriation, the banal warfare between red and blue”, are playing into China’s hands.
So can China take America’s place?
It’s unlikely. Despite endless headlines proclaiming “the rise of China”, nobody looks to Beijing for moral leadership. Americans should remember, says Syed, that they are the “custodians of an enlightened system”. The US Congress this week voted to ban imports from China’s Xinjiang region over fears that a million Uighur Muslims are being held in internment camps and treated as slaves. Both sides of America’s supposedly fractured political system came together and voted to do the right thing. No country in the world except the US could stand up to Beijing alone and expect to come out on top.
That’s not how Beijing sees it
Perhaps not, but we shouldn’t forget, as Edward Luce says in the FT, that America still has by far the biggest army in the world, and that it has been “expensively misjudged” before. In 1990 the US told Saddam Hussein it had “no opinion” on “Arab-Arab conflicts” as Iraqi divisions massed on the Kuwaiti border. Three months after Saddam had occupied Kuwait, the US mustered several hundred thousand troops next door in Saudi Arabia. And in 1999 Serbia’s president, Slobodan Milosevic, bet that Nato would pack it in after a few days of air strikes on his country. Seventy-eight days later he conceded Kosovo’s independence. “Even 9/11 was a misjudgement,” says Luce. Papers found in Osama bin Laden’s lair showed he thought the attacks would drive America away from the Muslim world. “We know what happened.”
But does America have the spine any more?
It’s true that US leadership has faltered. The last election, as Syed puts it, was between a “lying buffoon and an ageing veteran out of his depth”. So it’s no surprise a recent poll showed the American people had a higher regard for cockroaches than for their lawmakers. But when US institutions function, they constitute “the most potent form of foreign policy yet invented”. Between the 1970s and 2008, says Syed, the number of democratic nations increased from 35 to 108, as people around the world decided that they wanted a taste of “prosperity, liberty and broadly rational administration”. Immigrants yearn to go to “free America”, not “totalitarian China”. Even senior CCP officials have been surreptitiously shifting their personal wealth to the US, “all too aware of China’s tenuous property rights”.
What about the economy?
Eight of the world’s 10 most valuable companies are American, up from three in 2010. The share of countries that use the dollar as their anchor currency has risen from 30% in 1950 to 60% today. And despite China’s fêted economic boom, the US still accounts for a quarter of global GDP, about the same proportion as in 1980. Over the same period, the EU saw its share drop from 35% to 21%. Markets reflect the “collective wisdom of millions” who continue disproportionately to invest in American companies and flock to the dollar. Not bad, says Syed, “for a nation that is finished”.
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