Middle Israel: Barack Obama and the decline of America

Great nations rise and fall not only on their muscles but also on their souls.

obama speaks to crowd 248.88 ap (photo credit: AP)
obama speaks to crowd 248.88 ap
(photo credit: AP)
"There's no reason that Japan won't continue to grow," Yale historian Paul Kennedy said in July 1988, shortly after publishing his seminal The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. "Japan's economic drive is pushing it toward center stage," he told Time magazine in that misleadingly uneventful summer. Clearly, talk of the decline of the American empire did not begin with 9/11. Then again, the Bush-era's events gave better reasons to question America's long-term global dominance. Now, as the Bush era fades away, the question is: What does its election of a black president mean for America's superpower status? Kennedy saw before others that the USSR's well-sculpted muscles were hiding rotten guts, and that its economic backwardness meant imperial decline. That was a lot more than the CIA managed to predict, having spent decades counting fighter planes, battle tanks and artillery pieces. Still, what originally sparked speculation over America's decline was not Soviet guns but Japanese money. That is what made Clyde Prestowitz, a former trade negotiator in the Reagan administration, declare the so-called American Century already over in 1988. "The big development in the latter part of the century is the emergence of Japan as a major superpower," claimed the author of Trading Places: How We Allowed Japan to Take the Lead. In fact, the following decade actually saw Japan decline. The recessionary clouds that gathered above Japan had "Made in China" written all over them, as the giant neighbor's labor was markedly cheaper, and its ability to mass-produce pretty much anything eclipsed Japan's. All this was initially lost on Japan's Western admirers, who in the late '80s were seriously discussing its new wealth's potential transformation into military growth and diplomatic sway. Kennedy actually did detect some of Japan's weaknesses, like its demographic shrinkage, and noticed their negative impact on its superpower potential, but he too insisted that superpowers are the sum of their military might and economic depth, and what makes them decline is military overreach. While that now sounds frighteningly familiar, it also ignores other dimensions of power, ones that Barack Obama's election encapsulates. IT TAKES no historian to understand that America's global leadership has reached a military and economic boiling point. Kennedy's theorem about military overreach undoing empires now seems ominously applicable to the US. The costs of America's Iraqi presence will clearly have to be slashed, and that is why Obama is likely to retreat, at least from Iraq's cities. When that day arrives, the markets may finally smile at America, but geopolitically the question will arise in earnest: Is America giving up on policing, let alone changing the world? And if so, is its role as the sole superpower over? Decline is by definition a relative term, and America's many eulogizers were never short of choices to anoint as Uncle Sam's successors. Two decades ago, when Japan was the eulogizers' toast, all were impressed, and rightly, with its foreign aid program, which by the late '80s reached an annual $50 billion and surpassed America's. In the '60s it was Sputnik's launch into outer space, an achievement that shocked the West and made many suspect that the Soviets had become scientifically superior to America. And now it is the so-called BRIC powers - Brazil, Russia, India and China - that are turning America's eulogizers on with their new economic vitality. The Obama presidency will indeed be measured by the state of the gap between America's clout and these emerging powers' sway. Yet this doesn't at all mean America is on its way out. THE SUBSTANCE of superpowers, scholars now agree, is first of all military reach. A superpower must by definition possess the capacity to arrive quickly anywhere with troops that can impose their government's will. That rules out, for now, Brazil, India and Japan, but Russia and China sure can throw their weight around, and this is while America's delivery in its two current wars has not been decisive. Then there is the economy. As Kennedy concluded already before the USSR's downfall, superpowers must also be financially super. That obviously calls into question America's current condition, considering that its entire investment-banking industry is now lying in the middle of Wall Street as fallen and broken as the Twin Towers on 9/12. Has the US lost its financial superpower status, as German Finance Minister Peer Steinbrueck argued last month in the Bundestag? Is the American superpower itself history? Not quite. First of all, the economic crisis has not given rise to an alternative power; everyone is in it together. And if there is no rising alternative then there is no declining superpower, only a superpower in crisis. In fact, all the would-be successors have themselves been exposed as economically ill by the crisis, from China with its overproduction of cheap goods to Russia and its overreliance on extraction of raw materials, all of which now face drastically reduced demand. And that is also why the military abilities of Russia and China must also be seen in the light of their economic weaknesses. They too will need money should they fight long and distant wars, and the difference between them and America is that they will have even less of it. Beyond this, the American superpower has advantages that transcend war and economics. Culturally, none of America's rivals offers even a fraction of its originality. The world still rotates around an axis made of American inventions, from the airplane, the motorcar and the computer to the motion picture, the skyscraper and spaceship. There is no sign for now of a Russian, Indian, Japanese or Chinese Alexander Graham Bell, Orville Wright, Bill Gates or Steve Jobs. Now add to this America's social power. America has just tapped into deep social aquifers in a way that none of its rivals will do any time soon. China distances its masses from civic leadership, Russia abandons millions to the devices of organized crime, Brazil has even more millions teeming in favelas, India still has pariahs who can only dream of American blacks' acceptance, and Europe keeps at arm's length vast immigrant populations. America, with all its problems, is socially healthier than all of them. Surely, the Obama euphoria has yet to be followed by deeds and results; chances that those will herald a great American recovery are as good as chances they won't. But Obama's victory has already confounded many pessimists with the sheer reminder that superpowers rise and fall not only on their muscles and guts, but also on their souls, namely their social vitality. In this sense, Obama's America is light years ahead of its rivals.