Don’t Write off America

It’s fashionable to say the US is in terminal decline. Don’t bet on it – still less wish for it

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The decline of America has been long predicted, though rarely with such enthusiasm as in recent times. The election of a president seen as embodying hope, not just for America but the West, should moderate the declinists’ fervour, although I doubt if it will. Their will to see America go down is too great, and they can comfort themselves with the hope that the US may be too far gone economically and the rising powers too well advanced for Barack Obama to make too much difference.

What is interesting about the declinists’ view is not so much whether their analysis is correct – personally, I have confidence in the US, although God knows the country has problems – as the relish among Europeans at the humbling of their major ally. In France, of course, it is palpable, here it is unthinking orthodoxy among many, and I do not see too many tears of regret from the originators of the term schadenfreude. Obama or no Obama, there is a feeling that American power in the post-Cold War world has grown too big and needs to be diminished by means of something called a multi-polar world. Nothing seems more obvious to many a Briton or European, and nothing more questionable to me.

What most declinists want is for America to stop being American and for its citizens to transform themselves into full-blown Europeans, with a socialist economy, a pacifist foreign policy and the rest. In other words, the US should recognise itself as a botched enterprise and come home, spiritually speaking, to what the former Secretary for Defence Donald Rumsfeld called “old Europe”. To some, the Obama election will seem a first step in that homebound journey, with his closure of Guantánamo, his readiness to talk to Iran, his nuclear disarmament offer to the Russians, his banning of “water-boarding” and encouragement of stem-cell research. I suspect they are wrong. Culturally, politically and psychologically Obama does not strike as me a European manqué – no one from Chicago ever has.

There is something neurotic in Europe’s view of the US, something perpetually out of kilter. Think of the crush on Bill Clinton felt by many women, the demonising of Bush and now Obamamania. We seem unable to get a cool, factual grip on the country, one that is free of fashion, inchoate historical resentments or delusions of superiority. Neurotic too – in the sense of arbitrary and unstable – is our view of American culture and society. It is possible to say anything and its opposite about the US and still command instant agreement. They are pinched Puritans and simultaneously sexually depraved, religious maniacs sold out to hedonism and materialism. America is a country of individualist greed and self-seeking, a place where egotism has reached the point where philanthropists publicly vie with one another to throw billions at museums, the arts, medical research, charities and international aid. Its popular culture is crass and degenerate except when it is black or radical. And its tendency towards obesity is as imbecilic as its dedication to the gym. So mesmerised are we by this monstrous accumulation of contradictions that we can’t tear our eyes from it, whether it is TV shows like The Wire or The Simpsons, the works of John Updike or of the magisterial science writer E.O. Wilson.

Anti-Americanism made more sense in Cold War days. Then it had a logic, as a kind of rational aberration: the liberal Left wanted a weaker US, because they believed the Soviet way of life had much to offer and might one day triumph. But the anti-Americanism we see today, in which no serious alternative system of production, social organisation or international order is advanced, makes no sense at all. The only logic to wanting to see America humbled is that of the cutting off of noses and the spiting of faces. Never mind if Europe is once again exposed to easterly winds or whether the gas is on or off, never mind if Iranian theocrats develop a warhead with a delivery system that can carry it to Paris, Berlin or London.

It would be going too far to say that anti-Americanism can drive you crazy, but it can certainly rob you of intellectual honesty and a healthy regard for your own interests. It is especially prevalent in the arts, but then that is a field where, like juveniles or lunatics, people are not seen as responsible for their political opinions, so there is little point in citing the wilder statements about America of celebrated writers, artists, ballerinas or playwrights.

Then there is France, where the Sartrean anathema against the US remains in force among many. I recently read an interview in a Russian-French publication with Emmanuel Todd, a respected historian and demographist. No rancorous old communist or Putin apologist, he nevertheless made a remarkable statement: that the difference between the American and Russian world view was that the first was hegemonic and the latter egalitarian – a wilfully perverse observation that tells us nothing about the US or Russia, but a great deal about France and the French.

The excesses of America’s home-bred Americanophobes, such as Noam Chomsky or Gore Vidal, are almost rational by comparison, in the sense that a revulsion against the self is a natural phenomenon, a sort of legitimate point of view especially in a guilt-ridden Puritanical psychology. But Todd does not have that excuse. To be fair, his latest book, Après La Démocratie (Gallimard, Paris, 2008), has a programme – an outright plea for European protectionism – but its salient characteristic, as ever, is a compulsion to talk America into the grave: “Between the decline of the United States and the arrival of China at its maturity, Europe represents once again, and for several decades to come, the greatest concentration of scientists, engineers, technicians and qualified workers on the planet.”

The attempt to write off democracy in America, one of the greatest achievements of humankind (what other country is capable of mounting an election campaign like the one we have just witnessed?) as a self-evident failure, in contrast to the vibrant new protectionist Europe to come, and to obliterate American successes in science and technology, could be dismissed as so extreme as to be irrelevant to the debate.

But that would be to forget that, as the current crisis warps political sanity, we may be entering a phase where rationality could follow the global economy into recession.

For a sane view of the USA you have to look to Americans themselves, just as you look to them for the best science, the best orchestras, novelists, architects, art historians and (so I am told) classicists. The clearest statement of the facts about the US, its enemies and critics, is by Michael Mandelbaum, a foreign policy professor at Johns Hopkins University esteemed for the steely precision of his analyses.

Why is it, he asks in The Case for Goliath, that whereas states as strong as the US are historically subject to alliances to check them, no such anti-American alliance has formed or shows any sign of forming today? “The explanation for this gap is twofold. First, the charges most frequently levelled at America are false…second, far from menacing the rest of the world [the US] plays a uniquely positive global role. The governments of most other countries understand this, though they have powerful reasons not to say so explicitly.”

There follows a highly contemporary message: that America’s willingness to pursue the international activism we publicly deplore and privately welcome depends not so much on the rise of China but on the demands of Medicare and the social security budget. Three things about the US global involvement, he writes, may be safely predicted: that other countries “will not pay for it; they will continue to criticise it; and they will miss it when it is gone”.

How keen are we in practice to dilute and redistribute US power? If it is to be a multipolar world, who, beyond Europe, would form these poles? India, Japan, Russia, China, the Middle East, South America, presumably. But you cannot line up countries or regions as candidates for a global oligarchy by virtue of their future power or influence.

How stable are the last four of these countries and regions, and how democratic, mature, honest or corrupted are their societies? If they are to form the underpinnings of a new international order, slipped into place deftly so as not to bring everything down as America withdraws, we need to know how much weight they can bear, as well as how they might bear down on us.

Insomuch as a multipolar world is needed it exists already. It makes sense to encourage emerging countries to engage with specific problems, economic, diplomatic and environmental, and it looks like happening more under Obama. But from there to a kind of international ruling clique, two of whose most powerful members would be one-party states with a controlled press, would be something else.

Do America’s critics actively want to see Russia and China pulling more strings in the world, and America fewer? If so those strings could stretch to Western Europe and to Britain itself. Of course, we must welcome the opening doors of China and her entry into ever more international organisations. But as Asia adapts to Beijing’s rise, have we reached the stage where we actively want China’s autocratic power and influence to grow in the Pacific, and that of our fellow democracy to diminish?

In the Middle East, it may be right to talk more to Iran or Syria, although with all due scepticism and caution. After all, Europe’s “wiser-than-thou” diplomacy in the area does not appear to have made a whit of difference to Iran’s nuclear development, apart from buying her time for a bit more uranium enrichment. And while our press runs political glamour pieces on President Bashar al-Assad, he remains hand-in-glove with Hizbollah and shows few signs of reforming an odious regime. How safe would you feel in a multipolar world underpinned in the Middle East by a country avid for a nuclear weapon and whose president has religious visions while addressing the United Nations? (I preferred Khrushchev’s shoe-banging.) Or by Syria, a Baathist regime style soviétique, with a taste for nuclear adventurism of its own, aided by North Korea?

Then there is the world economy. Currently, America works like a global central bank through the IMF, does most to ensure and protect oil supplies for other countries (for which she is routinely condemned), most to finance the UN and gives a boost to other economies by acting as de facto consumer of last resort. Do we need less of America and more of less reliable nations in these roles too? Vladimir Putin complained at the Davos Forum in January about excessive reliance on the dollar as a reserve currency. That is a point for debate, although one reason the world relies on it so much is that for all its troubles it remains more reliable than the rouble and the renminbi. It helps, for a start, to be convertible.

Putin is not alone, and others in the West make similar complaints. No doubt much of it is part of the ritualised resentment Professor Mandelbaum writes of, addressed for the benefit of domestic audiences to the whipping boy of the world. But the day could come when an America preoccupied with the cost of its own reinvention might weary of the lash. If the world decided it would be better off under the thumb of a sort of untried and undemocratic oligarchy, the feeling in the US might develop that if you think you’ve got a better hole to go to, with more congenial company, go there. Just don’t be surprised if we build up the earthworks around our own hole once you’re gone, too high for you to come crawling back.