Has the US peaked and is in decline?
August 8, 2008 2:24 PM   Subscribe

Some books you might want to read about the US and recent political developments in the world.

In 1987 Paul Kennedy published The rise and fall of great powers. He predicted the decline and collapse of the USSR and analyzed patterns that came with the rise and fall of great powers in the last 500 years. A superpower basically gets builds on economic strength, over-stretches its power, exhausts itself by over-stretching and finally falls, at least by the theory of Kennedy. Kennedy points out that nearly every power has reacted to decline with increased military spending, which leads to a feed-back effect. Money and resources that are needed for economic growth are consumed by an ever increasing military budget. In 2006 nearly 50% of the worlds military spending was done by the US.

Recently we have seen problems in Georgia and other former USSR states (Orange revolution in Ukraine). Brzezinski laid out his most significant contribution to post–Cold War geostrategy in his 1997 book The Grand Chessboard. He defined regions of Eurasia and in which ways the United States ought to design its policy toward each region in order to maintain its global primacy. Brzezinski recommends in this book that the US should support and encourage separatist movements in and around Russia and China. Currently the US has military bases not only in Eastern Europe but also in Uzbekistan and Kirghistan. The US also wants Ukraine and Georgia to join the NATO.

Seven years ago, in 2001, the French scientist Emmanuel Todd wrote "After the Empire: The Breakdown of the American Order", a book that was widely received as left wing US-bashing. Recently this book has been re-reviewed more positively and Todds description of the US housing bubble, industrial decline, trade deficit and "military theatricalism" might be more than just US-bashing. Todd predicted in 1976, at the age of 26, the decline of the USSR in "The Final Fall: An Essay on the Decomposition of the Soviet Sphere" what could be seen as a kind of track record. Emanuel Todd claims that the US has peaked and that the future economic center will be Eurasia. With Europe and Asia connected by Russia, the central piece of geostrategic interests

Here, Todd and Brzezinski agree that Russia holds the key to many geostrategic scenarios. For Todd it is Russia that will economically connect Eurasia, for Brzezinski this is a threat and hence separatist movements should be supported.
Amazingly Todd sees fewer problems with Muslim extremists due to increasing literacy rates especially among the females but not everybody agrees with him.
posted by yoyo_nyc (18 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I'm starting to feel like the US has become a nation of geopolitical hypochondriacs, constantly checking our position in the world....sure that we're dying of some horrible malaise.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 2:28 PM on August 8, 2008 [4 favorites]

I'm skeptical that any credit should be given simply for predicting the downfall of the Soviet Union. From what I've seen some Westerners were pretty much doing that every decade between 1917 and 1989.
posted by XMLicious at 2:39 PM on August 8, 2008

I know some aliens have been predicting the downfall of planet earth for the last 4.54 billion years, and when the LHC turns on they'll be all "I told you so, I told you so!"
posted by qvantamon at 3:22 PM on August 8, 2008

I read Todd's book in summer 2001 and thought it was a fairly standard defence of the multipolar model that was then Chirac's big idea (as opposed to the single hyperpower model that the US was following).

Personally, I was sceptical then that multipolarity would happen any time soon, but, though it galls me to say it, Chirac was right.

However, multipolar world != absolute decline of the US. Relative decline, maybe, but even then if we can construct a law-governed international order (hi, Dubya!) I am hopeful that the rise of the new powers can be much more peacable than the rise of the old.
posted by athenian at 3:47 PM on August 8, 2008

Actually, I read Todd's book in 2003, which is the publication date on Amazon and seems right (I was lent a review copy by a friend I didn't know in 2001).
posted by athenian at 3:51 PM on August 8, 2008

I can't see how America can rise from where it is at the moment. It seems pretty stuck in its ways.

Sorry for whoever lives there.
posted by AzzaMcKazza at 4:46 PM on August 8, 2008

The US I grew up in is already dead. What we have now is a fascist police state dangerously close to becoming a total dictatorship.
posted by mike3k at 5:05 PM on August 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

Weird. Kennedy's book is mentioned in a book I'm reading, where the author made the point that the book was talking about the Russia and not the US. After reading the comment, I thought that it summed up the current problem in the US as well.
posted by drezdn at 5:07 PM on August 8, 2008

Sorry for whoever lives there.

Try it, you might like it.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 5:46 PM on August 8, 2008

I'm starting to feel like the US has become a nation of geopolitical hypochondriacs, constantly checking our position in the world....sure that we're dying of some horrible malaise.

Given that a great deal of America's economic and military power now rests on the faded memory of what it once was or is yet to become, and not so much on its recent blundering and current standing, it's predictable that this would happen. Of course, it's also possible that our imperial overreach and economic instability are indeed signs of a terminal illness. In which case it's not hypochondria; it's recognition of our own mortality.
posted by ornate insect at 6:58 PM on August 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

Chalmers Johnson should also be mentioned. His books Blowback and Sorrows of Empire are good reads and talk about US bases all over the world and the costs of Imperial over stretch.

He's been talked about a number of times here:
It appears...that the people of the United States prefer the Roman approach
An Interview with Chalmers Johnson, Parts 1 & 2
Blowback: The Cost And Consequences of American Empire plus War And Conflict In The Post-Cold War, Post-9/11 Era

Also worth mentioning is Fareed Zakaria the Indian born editor of Newsweek and his new book The Post American World that deals with similar themes of America's relative decline.

It is interesting to look at the US defense budget. The US is spending less as a percentage of it's own GDP on the military than it did at the height of Vietnam or Korea, but as a percentage in the world it is disproportionate. At the height of the Reagan years the US was also spending a similar percentage to today. However, most other countries have collected a 'peace dividend' and have spent less on the military since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the 80s US defence spending was about 25% of global defense spending as was the US's percentage of global GDP. Today, however the US spends of 50% of the world's spending on the military but still has about 20-25% of global GDP. The War Street Journal likes to play up how the US defence spending is less as a percentage of US GDP than it was, but this ignores other countries defence spending reductions.

Of course all of this could be fairly easily fixed. If Obama becomes President, withdraws from Iraq, calms things down with Iran, talks to the Pushtun in Afghanistan and reduces defence spending the US could easily fix all it's big strategic problems other than Israel.
posted by sien at 7:21 PM on August 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

sien--Unfortunately, however, the economic problems awaiting America's next President threaten to make the geo-strategic problems largely irrelevant. Bush has dug us into an economic hole, and Obama will need to tackle our tremendous debt, balance the budget, prevent the recession and housing crisis from spiraling out of control, and generally mend the excesses of Wall Street. China, India, and Europe are all much, much economically stronger now than ever before, and the dollar is much, much weaker. In my opinion, unless America radically alters its current economic course, some form of meltdown seems inevitable.
posted by ornate insect at 7:33 PM on August 8, 2008

Of course, it's also possible that our imperial overreach and economic instability are indeed signs of a terminal illness. In which case it's not hypochondria; it's recognition of our own mortality.

That is possible. However - societies, like people, are mortal. It's the obsession with the method of our passing that makes the illness. I've noticed a growing tendency towards this particular mindset lately - so many people asking (either through morbid curiosity, a genuine wish to see us fall, or simple fear) "is this it? Is this what takes the US down?" It's getting a bit pathological in my view, and I think it's discouraged a lot of people who might otherwise try and improve matters, rather than sit around on deathwatch, as they are doing now.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 7:39 PM on August 8, 2008

ornate insect:

The US is not in a huge economic hole. There will, or may well be now, a US recession.

The US budget deficit as a percentage of GDP is ranked 22nd in the world. If the US is in a huge economic crisis then so are the profligate governments of Germany, Canada, Italy and Singapore to name just a few. Also the US has the huge advantage that it borrows in its own currency. When the dollar has devalued so has the value of the US's debt. Also, end the Bush tax cuts and withdraw from a few wars and the US can fix the budget deficit. There are few countries that can do that.

As for foreign debt, well, this is a problem, however, the devaluation of the dollar will have a sizable effect. However, again, a number of developed countries run similar per capita deficits including the UK, Spain and Australia.

The housing price crash is clearly a problem. However, things will come back and it should be put into perspective that it is considerably easier in many large American cities to buy a house than it is in much of Europe or Australia. Compare median house prices against median income in Dallas, Houston, Austin and Denver to those in Melbourne, Perth or Sydney.

The US is also still the richest sizable country by per capita income compared to the rest of the developed world. I've lived in the US, Europe and Australia and the GDP per at PPP figures are pretty much indicative of relative wealth. It also has the most dynamic scientific and engineering sector in the world. As an example, just from last week if you want to feel up about the US's capacity in these area check out the fantastic discovery of a vastly cheaper catalyst for electrolysis at EETimes or The Economist

Yes, the US has problems, big problems right now, but when put in perspective it really isn't that dire.

(As long as their is no US led war with Iran - but then everyone is in probably in dire straits and even this is looking less likely - as a proxy for the likelihood look at the price of oil futures and prices which have been falling rapidly in the last few weeks).
posted by sien at 8:22 PM on August 8, 2008 [2 favorites]


Parag Khanna - The Second World: Empires and Influence in the New Global Order. Its fantastic. A wide sampling of his shorter work is available on his website, including the NYTimes Magazine cover story he did that showed he was willing to go further than Fareed Zakaria, and actually spell it out and tell the truth.

I'm (obviously) a big fan.
posted by paisley henosis at 9:06 PM on August 8, 2008 [2 favorites]

That wasn't a pot-shot at sien, I just didn't preview. I really like Mr Zakaria, and when I have access to US CNN again, I plan on watching his show. Personally, I feel like his writing often comes tantalizingly close to the truth, and then flees from it and turns into a forced happy ending to the story.

Very smart, interesting man to listen to talk, though, I was a fan of his PBS show, which i felt was much less timid.
posted by paisley henosis at 9:11 PM on August 8, 2008

How about Ron Paul's The Revolution: A Manifesto?
posted by aknappjr at 6:27 PM on August 9, 2008

What we have now is a fascist police state dangerously close to becoming a total dictatorship.

I get where you're coming from, but I always think it's a bit insulting to people who have actually experienced true fascism/dictatorship to say things like that.
posted by Rykey at 1:36 PM on August 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

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