Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Myth of Decline?

Neoconservative pundit Robert Kagan's essay in the New Republic "Not Fade Away: Against The Myth of American Decline," has made something of a stir as of late. Among other things, it has been credited with influencing this year's state of the union speech, as noted on the page at the Brookings Institute where it has been republished, with the result that, once again, Kagan has spun a small book out of it.

In the original piece, at any rate, Kagan makes reasonable arguments about the limits to the influence of countries like Brazil, Turkey, India and even China (given its low per-capita income and constraining geopolitical position); the appearance of seemingly daunting challenges for primacy (like the Soviet Union and Japan), and serious frustrations on the international scene (like the "loss of China" and the Vietnam War), in the past, which proved to be less consequential than was first assumed; and the sheer distance of other actors from anything comparable to the military capabilities the U.S. enjoys.

However, his examination of the U.S.'s economic and fiscal problems is conveniently superficial, all but ignoring such issues as the country's deindustrialization, balance of payments problems, and mounting foreign and central government debt, problematic trends which are interconnected, long-running, well advanced and not easily ameliorated, let alone reversed.1 The result is that, while Kagan puts some of the recent exaggerations in perspective, he remains overoptimistic in his reading of the situation, as is evident when he (all too predictably) trots out the old analogy between the United States and the British Empire, and offers as his final judgment a rough equality between the United States' present position, and Britain's circa 1870--a reading which makes little sense when one crunches those numbers. That this is not more evident owes much more to the weaknesses of other actors (the European Union, China) than the irrelevance of the issues he fails to address.

1. Indeed, Kagan has some of his facts wrong. The U.S.'s share of world GDP has not remained constant during the past few decades as he claims, but slowly eroded, from 31.3 percent of Gross World Product to 23.2 percent between 1970 and 2008, according to United Nations data (cited here). This 26 percent drop in its share is not an insignificant difference in itself, but milder than another, sharper change: that of the U.S.'s share of world manufacturing, which has fallen from 28.4 to 17.6 percent of the global total--a 38 percent drop--in the same time period, one result of which has been China's overtaking the U.S. as the world's biggest manufacturer.

Reliving British Decline?
Niall Ferguson on Decline
An "East of Suez" Moment?
"Twenty Years After the Cold War: A Strategic Survey": A Short Version
Two New Reviews: Emmanuel Todd's The Final Fall and After the Empire
New Article: "Twenty Years After the Cold War: A Strategic Survey"
New Review: The Next Decade: Where We've Been . . . And Where We're Going, by George Friedman
Review: The Second World: Empires and Influence in the New Global Order, by Parag Khanna
Review: In Praise of Hard Industries: Why Manufacturing, Not the Information Economy, is the Key to Future Prosperity, by Eamonn Fingleton

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