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An irrelevant superpower

December 05, 2011


IS America in decline? Commentaries about American power trajectory often focus on the larger size of its military and economic muscles compared with other countries.

However, the superpower contest is unlike a bodybuilding contest where the participant with the most oversized muscles wins without having to demonstrate their practical utility.

Power is the ability to influence the external environment in line with one’s goals. Thus, a superpower must be able to shape the global order primarily in its own favour while keeping others content with their smaller shares of the pie. It must also effectively resolve emerging global problems so that other countries do not look for alternative leadership or order. Hence, a superpower’s success lies in having not large but effective muscles, consisting of military, economic, political and moral (soft) power.

Militarily, America’s defence arsenal dwarfs that of all other countries combined. This military might is certainly effective in keeping Iran and North Korea in check; keeping global trading sea lanes open; and occasionally in further reducing the fast-shrinking ranks of troublesome dictators. However, with the demise of the USSR and China’s focus on economics, conventional military threats, which the American military is best geared to tackle, are fast disappearing. The main threats today are unconventional insurgencies and as America’s experiences in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan reveal, American might is less effective in eliminating them.

Economically, despite its recent decline, America still overwhelmingly dominates global finance, R&D and high-tech industries. However, an effective superpower must be able to devise a global economic system which generally runs smoothly. It must also have the resources to provide fiscal and monetary stimuli, generous foreign aid and access to its own market to jumpstart the global economy when it occasionally runs into trouble. The free-market system imposed by America globally causes frequent global economic crises. Worse still, America does not have the money to rescue its own or the global economy in the current crisis, which it caused itself due to its earlier financial over-deregulation.

Politically, its domination in key global institutions is increasingly under challenge. In the UN, it has failed to win approval for actions against several countries, most humiliatingly when even its close European allies refused to sanction Iraq’s invasion.

In the WTO, it has failed to further trade liberalisation as emerging countries have opposed its proposals which favour rich countries. Worse still, its national political system suffers from gridlock as the Republicans keep moving rightwards to the exasperation of increasingly centrist Democrats. Thus, urgent national and global problems requiring decisive American action fester given the lack of a ‘Washington Consensus’ as the oversized and hapless bodybuilder impotently flexes its cosmetic muscles.

Finally, moral power stems from the natural attraction of an entity’s cultural, political and economic prowess which encourages others to voluntarily follow it without the use of the other powers. This is the arena where America’s stock has depreciated the most. As the world discovers America’s gridlocked and money-dominated political system, its ecologically damaging, socially unequal and crisis-prone economic system and its superficial consumerist culture, it is fast losing its appeal as the country to emulate.

Can America reclaim its lost glory? One must retrace its earlier recovery from the 1970s’ stagflation crisis to answer this question. Reagan resolved this crisis with the twin policies of neo-liberalism and neo-conservatism. Neo-liberalism was an economic policy of deregulation that increased private profitability at the expense of labour while neo-conservatism was a political policy to defeat the USSR by projecting American military power globally. Both policies succeeded initially as the American economy recovered and the Soviet Union collapsed. The 1990s marked the peak of American superpower as it reigned supreme politically, economically, militarily and culturally, master of all it surveyed.

However, within a decade, new problems started emerging to undermine American hegemony — the bust, 9/11, the Afghanistan and Iraq quagmires and finally the 2008 global recession. Ironically, the economic problems above were a direct outcome of neo-liberalism while the political debacles were a result of neo-conservatism. Thus, the current decline is actually the direct outcome of the twin policies adopted by Reagan to stem the earlier decline. Reagan is often called the vanquisher of a superpower. This title underestimates his accomplishments by 50 per cent. In reality, he was the vanquisher of two superpowers.

What solutions is America contemplating to deal with the current crisis? Republicans aim to strengthen Reaganism, i.e. the ideas which caused the crisis. Democrats have a few good half-ideas but lack the courage to champion them vociferously and the vision to develop them into a coherent strategy. Thus, one finds little intellectual strength within mainstream American society to even re-establish American hegemony let alone tackle the emerging global problems like climate change, economic volatility, social breakdown and growing inequality.

These problems require building blocks very different from those which propelled American pre-eminence till recently, i.e. global dominance, materialism and self-interest. These problems require global democracy, increased economic equality and post-materialism, ideas alien to dominant American thought. Consequently, not only is mainstream America ill-suited to provide leadership for such a global transformation, it is the main hurdle in the way of its emergence. The main problem with American power is not its inadequacy but its irrelevance for dealing with today’s problems. While it still is the most powerful country globally, the title of superpower seems an over-exaggeration.

Who will replace America as the next superpower then? Many eyes instinctively turn towards China in this regard. However, despite its impressive progress, China is decades away from attaining that status, and may not even necessarily attain it. More importantly, given the lack of even domestic democracy there, a world dominated by China will be much worse than one dominated by America. The world does not need a new superpower but a new global order where global issues are dealt by democratic nations democratically. The king is dead; long live democracy.

The writer is a political economist at the University of California, Berkeley.