March 16, 2012 9:03 pm

American nightmare

The arguments of those who bemoan US decline can seem overwrought but China’s rise is clear for all to see

The World America Made, by Robert Kagan, Knopf, RRP£14.99, 149 pages

The Age of Austerity: How Scarcity Will Remake American Politics, by Thomas Byrne Edsall, Doubleday, RRP£15.99, 256 pages

Eclipse: Living In The Shadow of China’s Economic Dominance, by Arvind Subramanian, Peterson Institute, RRP£19.50, 236 pages

After America: Get Ready For Armageddon, by Mark Steyn, Regnery, RRP£19.95, 424 pages

Becoming China’s Bitch and Nine More Catastrophes We Must Avoid Right Now, by Peter D Kiernan, Turner, RRP$27.95, 434 pages

Americans seem to want to read about national decline. The more dire the prediction, the more heated the prose, the more colourful the book title, the better. Conservative commentator Mark Steyn’s jeremiad After America: Get Ready for Armageddon made it to number four on the New York Times’s bestseller list. Peter D Kiernan’s Becoming China’s Bitch briefly topped the Amazon chart.

On first inspection of Kiernan’s luridly titled work, I assumed it had bubbled up from the wilder fringes of talk-radio. But no, Kiernan was a senior partner at Goldman Sachs for many years. Reading his ravings, I can only conclude that something went badly awry with the bank’s famously rigorous recruitment processes.

 

The book’s title might lead the reader to expect a provocative tract on US-Chinese relations. In fact, this is just one of a huge number of topics that the writer yokes together under the general theme of impending catastrophes that threaten America. In a losing battle to structure his thoughts, Kiernan makes a great many lists. He starts with “five factors that freeze us”, preventing America from dealing with its problems. These are the media, lobbyists, think-tanks, religion in America and its political parties – which seems pretty comprehensive. He then moves on to 10 “impending catastrophes” that he would like to see dealt with, only the first of which concerns America’s relationship with China. This he describes, obscurely, as “a co-dependency which is decoupling”.

Kiernan’s writing is dazzlingly bad. One dreadful metaphor will have to serve, as a foretaste and a warning. Ending his chapter on US-Chinese relations, he concludes: “Both parties have a passion to lead the dance, and each has its own rhythm. So let us dance warily, thoughtfully, and with leonine grace. For this is a power tango and it’s far from predetermined who in the circle will hold the rose in their teeth.”

 

By the standards of Kiernan, Steyn is a model of lucid restraint. However, by more normal measures, his writing and thinking are maniacal. Steyn’s argument is not just that US has deep problems but that we face the “likely prospect” of a “catastrophically convulsed America that descends into Balkanised ruin and social collapse”. His villains are the standard enemies of the Tea Party right: excessive federal spending, high debt levels, a social welfare state that he argues is simultaneously bankrupting and demoralising the US, political Islam and, above all, President Barack Obama. Steyn accuses the president of betraying the essence of America by introducing European big government to the land of the free. These days immigrants searching for the American dream are, according to Steyn, doomed to disappointment. With heavy-handed wit, he jokes that: “It’s like docking at Ellis Island in 1883, coming down the gangplank and finding everyone excited about this pilot program they’ve introduced called ‘serfdom’.”

There is no doubt that both Steyn and Kiernan are in tune with the American zeitgeist, particularly among conservatives. A poll taken in 2010 by Fox News, the right’s television channel of choice, found that 62 per cent of Americans think that their nation is in decline; more than double the 26 per cent who believe its on the rise. That makes the hysterical tone of such books doubly unfortunate – because they are touching on real anxieties and real problems that need to be analysed seriously. Persistently high unemployment and a squeeze on the incomes of the middle class do pose a real threat to the “American dream”. The fact that the federal government cannot balance its books suggests that the pressure on US living standards will intensify. The implications for America’s role as the world’s “sole superpower” are also obvious.

Fortunately, not all “declinist” books are as feeble as the works of Steyn and Kiernan. Thomas Edsall and Arvind Subramanian have both written serious works that repay close attention.

Edsall is a veteran political reporter and the author of Chain Reaction, a classic study of the role of race in American politics. This makes it a slight shame that he devotes so much of The Age of Austerity to economics, which is not really his forte. The argument that America is in economic difficulties is illustrated with long quotes from other works (including my own book), which gives it a slightly derivative feel.

 

Edsall’s book really comes alive, however, when it turns to the political effects of austerity. He believes that US politics will increasingly be characterised by a struggle for resources: “The two major political parties are enmeshed in a death struggle to protect the benefits and goods that flow to their respective bases.” The Tea Party, as Edsall sees it, is a “coalition of the haves”, intent on hanging on to its benefits. Some 75 per cent of Tea Party members are over the age of 45; one-third are retired. It is the elderly, above all, that benefit from America’s established social programmes: Social Security (pensions) and Medicare (medical benefits for the elderly). Obamacare, as the Tea Party has dubbed the president’s legislation for universal healthcare, is deeply unpopular on the Tea Party right, according to Edsall, because, in an age of austerity, it implicitly threatens social programmes that favour the elderly “haves”.

As ever, Edsall is alive to the racial politics of America. He points out that 78 per cent of current social security recipients are white, but that they will “receive these entitlement payments over the next several decades from the payroll taxes of an increasingly black, Hispanic and Asian work-force”. In 2010 some 39.2 per cent of the population between the ages of 20 and 45 came from an ethnic minority. The political implications are grim.

 

While Edsall focuses on domestic politics, Subramanian’s penetrating book, Eclipse, is about global economics and geopolitics. A dense but rewarding piece of economic analysis, Eclipse argues that the Chinese economy is poised to become larger than that of the US – and then swiftly to widen the gap. Subramanian, once a senior researcher at the International Monetary Fund and now a fellow of the Peterson Institute in Washington, argues that the world’s economy and then its politics will become increasingly China-centred. A key development will be when the Chinese renminbi displaces the US dollar as the world’s reserve currency. Given the fact that China is already the world’s largest trader, Subramanian argues, controversially, that this moment could come within a decade.

Subramanian and Edsall are sober and precise where Kiernan and Steyn are wild and overstated. But, together, this welter of declinist books (and there are many more) invite a riposte. Foreign policy analyst Robert Kagan’s The World America Made is that rejoinder – and it has found favour in high places. In his recent State of the Union speech, President Obama asserted: “Anyone who tells you that America is in decline ... doesn’t know what they are talking about.” Afterwards, the president’s aides let it be known that he had been greatly impressed by Kagan’s book. It is easy to see why this might appeal to Obama. It is at once a robust defence of the role that America plays in world affairs and a determined rejection of the “myth” that America is in decline. At under 150 pages it is also very short, which must be appealing if you have a time-consuming job such as being president of the United States.

 

Nonetheless, the book’s brevity means that it is more a spirited essay than a full rebuttal of the “declinist” school. The first two-thirds are, in any case, more about why American decline would be a bad thing than whether or not it is taking place. Kagan’s argument is that the postwar world order, in which free-market economics and democratic politics have advanced, has depended on American power rather than globalisation or technological progress. In Kagan’s view, the world as a whole has benefited hugely from a US-led order: “During the period of American hegemony, the global economy produced the greatest and most prolonged era of prosperity in history.” But precisely because a liberal world order is dependent on an underpinning of US power, Kagan argues that it is considerably more fragile than many people believe. If US decline becomes a reality, then a liberal world order could crumble with it – much as the fall of Rome led to the Dark Ages. In a post-American world, we might discover that “the alternative to American power was not peace and harmony but chaos and catastrophe”.

This part of the book is fluently argued and – to my mind – quite powerful. But it is not until he is two-thirds of the way through his essay that Kagan turns to the question: “So is the United States in decline?” Unfortunately, here, the argument becomes less convincing. Kagan makes the eye-catching claim that America’s share of the world economy has remained roughly steady, at around a quarter of world output, since the late 1960s. He has not plucked these numbers out of thin air – and cites the US government’s official figures to bolster his point. However, there are other sources that suggest a sharp decline has indeed taken place. The IMF suggests that the US accounted for 31 per cent of world output, as recently as 2000, and that this had fallen to 23.1 per cent by 2010. As Subramanian points out, if the figures are calculated using purchasing power parity, then the Chinese economy may already have overtaken that of the US. The numbers that Kagan chooses incline him to take a much more sanguine view of America’s global position than may be justified. He writes: “China’s economy is projected to overtake that of the United States, at least in terms of sheer volume, at some point this century.” In fact, projections by The Economist magazine suggest that this point may arrive as soon as 2018.

Of course, there is no obvious reason why the gloomier numbers cited by the likes of Subramanian and The Economist are necessarily more accurate than the more optimistic US government figures that Kagan uses. But this is not a debate that Kagan even enters. That is because the points he is keen to make are essentially political and philosophical, not economic. The statistics he cites are merely the foundations of the larger argument that he is building. Unfortunately, if the foundations are unreliable, the larger construction also begins to look a bit wobbly.

Kagan is more convincing when he returns to the more familiar territory of geopolitics. He makes some solid and important points about why Chinese economic weight will not translate automatically into political clout. Unlike the US, China has other large powers, such as Japan and India, as close neighbours. America also still spends more on its military “than the rest of the other great powers combined”. When the US goes to war, it usually does so in the company of allies – whereas Russia and China are relatively friendless states.

All of these arguments are important ripostes to the hysteria spread by the likes of Kiernan and Steyn. But I could not help feel that, in slapping down the declinists, Kagan has over-corrected. Travelling around the world as a reporter and columnist, I have found that an erosion of US economic and political power, and a shift towards China, is already palpable. In the Middle East, the US is winding down two unsuccessful wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – and finds its influence threatened by the Arab Spring. Europe’s leaders are appealing to Beijing, rather than Washington, for emergency financial assistance. In Africa, a continent is being transformed by Chinese investment. Even in the Americas, Chinese influence is growing: Brazil now does more trade with China than with the US. As I was swept along by the force of Kagan’s prose, I was reminded of that old Groucho Marx joke: “What are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?” In this case, the eyes have it.

Gideon Rachman is the FT’s chief foreign affairs commentator and author of ‘Zero-Sum World’ (Atlantic)

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2014. You may share using our article tools.
Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.

SHARE THIS QUOTE