The number of recent books and articles dealing with the concept of “decline” should not be so astonishing: to paraphrase the British historian Arnold Toynbee, quoted by US journalist Fareed Zakaria, during the decade following the collapse of the Soviet Union a lot of people in the US thought that “history is something unpleasant that happens to other people.” These were the times of US academic Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history”. America’s hegemony was here to last for a century and maybe more, he thought.
Then history came back with a vengeance. The 11 September 2001 attacks, the US-led invasion of Iraq, and the terrible and lasting financial crisis of 2008 all blackened the mood. The “decline” thesis became more popular, but it was also fiercely contested. The shape of the US’s main allies, the European countries, provided arguments for both sides.
Those who supported the thesis of US decline considered that their decline weakened the US, which could no longer rely on them but could not afford to let them sink either. Those who did not support the thesis said that European decline, real despite these countries’ sometimes good economic performance, proved that the US remained the main or even the sole world power.
Zakaria’s long paper, published in the May/June 2008 issue of the US journal Foreign Affairs, is another very interesting contribution. First of all, he identifies some key components of America’s power and success that are now considered by US President Donald Trump as causes of the present crisis.
For instance, he says that the US is a country that knows how to attract immigrants, to use their potential and their dynamism, and to assimilate them into the nation. “Half of all Silicon Valley start-ups have one founder who is an immigrant or first-generation American,” Zakaria says. He also says that the US has succeeded in getting rid of old-fashioned industry and has let this go to other countries, allowing the US to focus on the newest technologies and to benefit from the new economy. The US, he adds, has made the most of globalisation.
We are already familiar with many of the arguments for the “not in decline” thesis. But Zakaria adds others in his article. He asks whether US hegemony will endure the same fate as Great Britain’s, for example. The British empire at the end of the 19th century was considered to be the most powerful the world had ever seen. At its height it covered a quarter of the world’s land surface and included a quarter of its population. Its finances were also sound, as it was the first truly global market and the “connectivity” of the system was impressive.
All of a sudden, an ill-advised war with the Boers in South Africa during the first decade of the 20th century launched the decline process. Could it be that the US trajectory will be the same? Zakaria convincingly says that the two situations are different. First of all, Great Britain’s main problem was economic decline — it had launched the first Industrial Revolution but had been late in joining the second. It increasingly lagged behind emerging industrial players, and its growth was much slower than Germany’s or the US’.
Shrewd politics masked this decline, however. Zakaria mentions, but does not really discuss, UK historian Niall Ferguson’s argument that Great Britain should have stayed out of World War I. A serious discussion of this thesis is impossible, as we cannot know if Germany would have quickly won the war and emerged stronger in the event of British neutrality, or whether it would have exhausted itself.
However, the US economy rests on a very sound basis. I am unable to assess the technicalities, but the argument sounds convincing. Its pre-eminence is also enduring, as it has been the world’s largest economy since the second half of the 1880s. Its share of world output has remained relatively constant at somewhere between 20 and 25 per cent. It is true that after 1945 it was for some years much higher than that, but this was due to exceptional circumstances in that other economies had been destroyed by World War II. Most of the world’s technological innovations are also American.
Military strength is another key difference: Great Britain was the world’s first naval power, but it did not have reliable land forces. The US is clearly at the top of nearly all military domains. Moreover, the burden of its military budget is lighter and more sustainable. Geography and demography are also not the same. The British were at best just two per cent of the world’s population, and the British Isles are very small. The US’s main problem, by contrast, is political: it has a dysfunctional political system that does not allow for the planning and implementation of sound policies.
Zakaria dismisses the statistics that tend to point to declining capacities, especially regarding education, the budget deficit and debt. While I am not in a position to judge, I find his arguments convincing.
Two key problems, however, are mentioned but are not really discussed in depth. The first is that the challenges the US faces are much more complex and difficult than those Great Britain had to confront. The second is that the growing inequalities that are a consequence of globalisation are leading a growing proportion of the American population to oppose the recipes that made the country great. These two problems have been worsened by political ineptitude. A third issue is the possible decline in work ethic in the US and of the Puritan ideals that were behind capitalist economic growth.
Zakaria devotes a lot of time to discussing the relative decline of American capital markets. They are not doing worse than usual, but the competition has become tougher, and the US has not adapted to it. It no longer has the world’s lowest corporate taxes — quite the contrary — and this trend has not changed since Zakaria wrote his article. The country seems reluctant to learn from others.
A substantial shift has occurred, Zakaria says, and the US has been slow to take notice, in that there is no longer a real “Third World”. Quoting the London Financial Times columnist Martin Wolf, Zakaria notes that economists used to discuss two basic concepts: capital and (qualified) labour. Both of these are now very affordable commodities almost everywhere. What distinguishes economies now are ideas and energy. Is the US still the world’s main source of energy and new ideas, he asks.
The writer is a professor of international relations at the Collège de France and a visiting professor at Cairo University.