Empire's Decline: The US, China, and India
Joseph Gerson is the Program Coordinator of
the New England Region of the American Friends Service Committee
and the author, most recently, of Empire and the Bomb: How
the US Uses Nuclear Weapons to Dominate the World (Pluto Press,
2007). Gerson reviews:
Dark Ages America: The Final Phase of Empire by Morris Berman (W.W. Norton, 2006);
Second Chance: Three Presidents and the Crisis of American Superpower by Zbigniew Brzezinski (Basic Books, 2007);
The Post-American World by Fareed Zakaria (W.W. Norton, 2008). A longer version is available at http://www.afsc.org/newengland/pesp/Empire-Book-Review.htm.
As the bumper sticker tells us, "Denial Ain't a River in Egypt." The US Empire has passed its zenith and has begun what is at least a relative decline. While the Bush administration's calamitous wars and disastrous domestic policies have accelerated the process, it is a result of long term trends within the US and internationally that have been apparent to anyone - including the CIA - who took the time to look.
The economic, political, and social dislocations resulting from the shifting tectonic plates of global power will not be limited to distant lands beyond the Department of Homeland Security's walls. Instead, as we are beginning to learn from the soaring prices of food and fuels, the sharp decline of the dollar, and the US economy's lack of resiliency in the wake of the sub-prime mortgage scandal, the decline of the American imperium has already begun to exact a serious toll from poor, working class, and middle class US Americans.
As oil is traded increasingly in Euros and Renminbis (China's currency), fewer petrodollars will be invested in US banks and industry. This means less money for mortgage and business loans, and ultimately for jobs. As the dollar declines in value and US interest rates remain low, greenbacks will be dumped by foreign treasuries, deepening the dollar's devaluation.
Investors will either seek higher interest rates in Europe and Asia, or they will be able to buy up US corporations, properties, and resources on the cheap, making local or national self-determination that much more difficult. And, unless the power of the military-industrial complex, which consumes half of the US national budget, can be weakened, paying down the national debt will mean the pain of "austerity," as many in the Third World have learned.
Help, unfortunately, is not on its way. Symptomatic of the cultural and political forces that have contributed to the decline, only a few in our country are speaking these truths or openly talking about what Fareed Zakaria has termed "The post-American world." Although these issues will determine the quality of US lives for decades to come, John McCain or Barack Obama aren't discussing or debating them.
What Ails the US?
The most limited of these diagnoses of what ails the United States, written with the goal of restoring US "leadership," is Zbigniew Brzezinski's Second Chance. Brzezinski was Jimmy Carter's hawkish National Security Advisor and has served as a senior advisor to Barack Obama.
Second Chance is a manifesto - now available in an airport bookstore near you - that provides analytical and ideological underpinnings for Obama's (and to a lesser extent McCain's) approach to foreign policy. As Brzezinski notes, within a decade Beijing could have greater influence with Persian Gulf monarchies than Washington.
Brzezinski's prescriptions, if achieved, might briefly shore up US power, but Berman's and Zakaria's deeper analyses explain the domestic and international dynamics that of necessity will lead to US decline and the "rise of the rest."
Berman's book, Dark Ages America: The Final Phase of Empire, is about our culture and who we, as US Americans, have become. He includes a damning description of US history that will be familiar to many on the left, but more important is his analysis of the crumbling cultural and economic foundations of the US empire. Dark Ages will never be popular fare. It is a book of big ideas, cultural and economic theory, a long view of world history, and eclectic references ranging from Karl Marx and Doris Lessing to Tacitus and (oy!) Charles Murray.
All civilizations and empires are expressions of the dynamic interactions of their economic, intellectual, cultural, spiritual, military, and political foundations. With considerable intelligence and intellectual courage, Berman explores the rot in each of these timbers of the American imperium.
During the Bush II years, he explains, "we have entered the dark ages in earnest, pursuing a short-sighted path that can only accelerate our decline what we are now seeing are the obvious characteristics of the West after the fall of Rome: the triumph of religion over reason; the atrophy of education and critical thinking; the integration of religion, the state, and the apparatus of torture and the political and economic marginalization of our culture."
Anticipating McCain advisor Charles Black's boast that another terrorist attack would boost John McCain's presidential campaign, Berman cites polling data about the lack of support for the First Amendment to the US Constitution, freedom of the press, and the numbers of people who want wartime protests outlawed. Berman warns that "we may be only one more terrorist attack away from a police state."
At the very least, with the rise of historic income inequalities and the dominance of a consumer culture in which most US Americans identify themselves as consumers rather than citizens, we are in danger of losing the cultural foundations of democracy. In an era when the president's spokespeople boast that it is the president who "creates reality," when people are urged to go shopping in a time of war, and when a "democratically" elected Congress refuses to fulfill its mandate to bring warring troops home or to at least consider impeaching officials who have committed war crimes for "high crimes and misdemeanors," it is difficult to argue with Berman's conclusions.
Powershift: from West to East?
Fareed Zakaria was just twelve years old and living in his native India when Jimmy Carter took the oath of office. Opting for an "American," rather than an Indian, dream, Zakaria came to study in the US where he has enjoyed a meteoric rise, becoming the youngest managing editor of the elite Council on Foreign Relations' Foreign Affairs and more recently, the Editor of Newsweek International.
A "realist," Zakaria is frustrating because of his apparent disregard for the inequities and injustices of liberal and neoliberal corporate globalization and his misreadings of US history.
So why read The Post American World? What I value is that this young and widely read establishment figure is naming the moment, exploring structures and dynamics that are shaping the future, and helping to open a discussion about the place and roles of the US in a world that he describes as undergoing the third of "three tectonic power shifts over the last five hundred years."
Three shifts? The first was the "rise of the West," beginning in the 14th century. Second was the late 19th century "rise of the US," which "became the most powerful nation since imperial Rome." Finally there is "the rise of the rest," an era marked by a reduction in the US share of the world's wealth, China's annual GDP growth rate having hovered around 10% for almost three decades, and the economies of 124 nations having recently grown at a rate of 4% or more per year. (Clearly, the recent rise in oil and food prices could slow this process down.) Today, the world's tallest building is in Taiwan, the richest person is Mexican, the biggest publicly traded corporation is Chinese, and the wealthiest endowment fund is Arab-owned. That says something about power. While much of humanity remains impoverished, the number of people surviving on a dollar a day has fallen from 40% in 1981 to 18% in 2004, with projections of 12% by 2015. Zakaria reminds us, "Even if India and China never get past middle-income status, they are likely to be the second- and third-largest economies for much of the twenty-first century."
With familiar references to world history, Zakaria reminds us that the five centuries of Western dominance have been an aberration. The future that I hope my Latino grandson will enjoy will likely be "non-Western." Non-Western nations (we must come up with a better word for this majority of humankind) have histories, values, and ambitions which challenge deeply held Western values and paradigms, and we need to find non-imperial ways to practice authentic human solidarity.
As Zakaria writes, the majority of people in India and China "see themselves as [living in] developing countries too poor to be concerned with issues of global order, particularly those that involve enforcing standards and rights abroad. Second, they are not Protestant, proselytizing powers and thus will be less eager to spread universal values across the globe."
I especially appreciated Zakaria's chapters about China and India. Having recently returned from China and struggling with how to convey its richness and complexities, as well as our responses to them, I found Zakaria's description of "The Challenger" a delight. Over the last 30 years the income of the average Chinese person "has increased nearly sevenfold."
To be heretical for a moment, China's economic, political, and cultural rise appears to demonstrate that, like Singapore, in the era of neoliberal globalization, centralized planning can be successful in strictly economic terms - particularly in the early stages of capitalist development. The resulting transformations also "produce disruption and social upheaval;" witness last year's more than 18,000 worker, peasant, and community protests across China.
An important experiment to ensure greater stability is taking place in Shenzhen, the birthplace of Deng Xiaoping's "special economic zones." There, the local legislature is being given expanded powers, some local officials are being directly elected, steps are being taken to ensure greater judicial independence, and the Party is undertaking efforts to make itself more open and accountable. This comes at the same time as a clamp-down on human rights activists and their lawyers in the run-up to the Olympics.
Zakaria has it right when he reports that, like Iraq, China will not become a "Western-style liberal democracy overnight." How could it? China "is more likely to evolve first into a 'mixed' regime like many Western countries in the nineteenth century or East Asian countries in the 1970s and 1980s, which combined popular participation with hierarchy and elite control."
The US and China are working together to contain non-state terrorism, to denuclearize the Korean peninsula, and to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power. China's priority is building its economic, not its military power. Yet some in the US fear Chinese economic and military challenges to the US dominance of the Asia-Pacific region - in particular the creation of an Asian economic system, with China as its hub, that marginalizes the US.
Zakaria is not confused by the hype about India's rise and US dreams of making India into Washington's ally against China. With clarity that I haven't seen elsewhere, he provides a concise summary of India's post-colonial history, an introduction to Hindu worldviews and their impacts on Indian culture and politics, a description of how the world's largest and highly decentralized electoral democracy actually works, and an explanation of why India's recent growth has almost rivaled China's. While the country may have "several Silicon Valleys" he writes that "it also has three Nigerias within it - that is more than 300 million people living on less than a dollar a day."
Zakaria may be wrong, but he argues that "The Future Is Here," in the United States. Despite the "most worrying" element of the US national debt and the "do nothing" political system, he sees academia as the United States' "best industry," pointing to the US lead in nanotechnology and biotechnology, the competitiveness of the US economy (despite its social costs) and the energy and innovation that are consequences of having a more youthful workforce (as a result of immigration) than that in China, Japan, or Europe.
So where does this leave us? In addition to organizing the next demonstration to bring US troops home from Iraq, for a peaceful resolution of the war in Afghanistan (and increasingly Pakistan), and going into the schools to help students understand military recruiters' lies and propaganda, we need to give greater thought about, and take action to help ensure that, the inevitable decline (at least relative and probably absolute) of US power is not as destabilizing as it could be - especially for those who will suffer from it the most: the poor and the working and middle classes.
It means envisioning, and in the Gandhian
tradition of devising a constructive program, beginning to create
the alternatives that will provide real security for the US people,
and to others, in the "Post-American World." This goes
beyond what many of us understand as traditional anti-war and
economic justice work, because it will necessitate taking up Berman's
challenge in Dark Ages America: finding ways to heal our