I am continuing my discussion of the study by US commentator Fareed Zakaria in the May/June 2008 issue of the influential US magazine Foreign Affairs. We left it with Zakaria stating that capital and labour were today affordable commodities that were available everywhere. What distinguishes economies are ideas and energy, he says. On both counts, America is and should stay at the top.
Where is the problem? Zakaria says America’s decline has been announced many times over the last 70 years. But it has never occurred. He states that the analyses were nevertheless correct. What happened was that US presidents and the country’s political system rose to the challenge and succeeded in correcting the trajectory and changing the country’s path. America knew how to adapt in order to stave off decline, he says.
I am not sure he is right about this, however. Analyses that said that the US was doomed may look superficial and even stupid with the benefit of hindsight, grossly underestimating America’s assets and its resources. But Zakaria’s main idea lies elsewhere: The US government knew how to lead and how to conduct and oversee changes, he says.
Yet, today this is no longer the case, and the country’s political system is now hugely dysfunctional. The US economy is vibrant, and its culture shines. These things are not the sources of the country’s problems. Its problems stem from its political system and its apparent inability to do anything sensible. On most issues everybody knows what should be done as experts usually agree on remedies. And yet the governing elites in the US are unable to deliver.
The political system in the US is one of checks and balances, so there needs to be a culture of compromise and a mastery of the art of negotiation. The system needs bipartisanship, the ability to bridge differences, and a sense of long-term imperatives. These things, Zakaria says, have been lost. The lobbies have become increasingly powerful and are able to block many necessary measures, including those which are not painful. The system, he writes, has been “captured by money, special interests, a sensationalist media and ideological attack groups.”
I am not an expert on the US political system, and I have problems with narratives opposing a “brilliant past” to a “bleak present” as I am quite sure that the past had its own share of serious problems. But let us assume for the time being that this description of the present state of affairs is accurate: All the European officials I know also complain about the unbearable media, the lobbies and the ideological pressures on the European political scene, and the situation is probably not very different in the US.
However, we still have to assess whether this is an accident that can be easily corrected, or whether it is the inexorable result of structural developments. I tend to think that the growing partisan polarisation in US politics is the mirror of deep divisions within American society. Ideologies are answers to the growing complexity of the social landscape, and of issues relating to globalisation and governance. Those who launched the globalisation process underestimated the casualties, and many groups were simply not ready for it.
Zakaria does not discuss this, however, and he simply says that the partisan polarisation in the US is preventing the country from doing anything sensible on key issues like subsidies, healthcare, tax reform, pensions and immigration. “A can-do country is now saddled with a do-nothing political process designed for partisan battle rather than problem solving,” he says.
He describes what he considers to be sound policies: To accept the “rise of the rest” (the other powers), to celebrate this, and to work to ensure that the world system America made remains committed to American values. If America “brings in” others, he says, the world will remain liberal. If it tries to oppose their rise, nationalism and bellicosity will spread. While not denying America’s influence, I nevertheless think that Zakaria overestimates it.
In sum, for Zakaria the US faces serious problems that are to be explained by its dysfunctional political system. Other powers are also rising, and the US should accept this fact, in so doing retaining its leading influence, if not its hegemony.
This assessment is a strange combination of optimism and pessimism, and it eschews some key questions. The idea that “America should accept a relative decline to retain its lead and to guarantee the survival of a liberal world system” sounds too simplistic. At best, such a strategy is necessary, but not sufficient. World order and peace are collective endeavours. At worst, it forgets that military might and soft power are also relevant, and on both these counts America is and will remain unmatched.
Zakaria acknowledges America’s military supremacy, but says that on any other measure there has been a progressive shift. He may or may not be right on the economy and finance, but he is surely wrong on America’s soft power.
I am not sure that America is in fact in decline, relative or not. I am not sure that its main competitors are in good shape. In answer to the question of whether America’s political system endangers America’s economy and leadership Zakaria answers with a sweeping yes. But the same could be said of the political system of any major player in the world today. In any case, the presidency of Donald Trump will be a crucial test.
An underlying premise should also be questioned. It seems that some scholars today tend to consider that the world should be unipolar. If it stops being so, they say, then America is necessarily in decline.
America’s share of global output has never reached the heights it saw in the second half of the 1940s since, but no one has said that this indicates that the US is declining. The figures of the post-1945 years are to be explained by exceptional circumstances and the destruction of the European economies. My point is that the post-1989 unipolar world system was an accident due to the collapse of the former Soviet Union, and we should not be surprised if this unipolar world order does not last.
The rise of other powers does not mean the US is in decline. The rise of these powers may help those who are fed up with American diktats and who are looking for other options, but it will also encourage still others to better their relations with Washington.
The writer is a professor of international relations at the Collège de France and a visiting professor at Cairo University.