Can the US Brace Its Fall?

"Is the American era over?" That was the big question that launched a lengthy analysis by veteran international affairs reporter James Kitfield in the influential National Journal last May. Significantly, the article – which featured interviews with an all-star cast of former top U.S. policymakers – was titled "The Decline Begins."

Nine months later, the notion that Washington has entered a "New American Century" – a phrase used by the nationalist and neoconservative unilateralists who championed the Iraq war – in which the U.S. can do whatever it wants, where it wants, and when it wants, without consulting anyone else, seems largely to have gone the way of the dodo bird.

"We are in a multipolar world," Defense Secretary Robert Gates told a Washington Post columnist recently in what has to be considered the ultimate heresy to pro-war hawks led by the likes of Vice President Dick Cheney and Gates’ predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld.

Indeed, last month’s image of President George W. Bush imploring King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia to increase oil production to boost the battered U.S. economy helped bring home the notion that the commander in chief’s word no longer serves as an imperial command.

"It’s affected our families. Paying more for gasoline hurts some of the American families," Bush told reporters just before his meeting with the king. After the meeting Saudi Arabia’s oil minister made clear that Riyadh would increase production only "when the market justifies it" and not before.

Almost as pathetic in their own way were the recent exhortations by Gates – the steward of a military establishment that spends more money each year than the combined defense budgets of all of the world’s other nations – for Washington’s NATO allies to contribute 7,000 more troops to help U.S. forces pacify Afghanistan six years after Rumsfeld and his neoconservative advisers contemptuously spurned their offers of help.

That the response Gates received was not much more favorable than that delivered by Saudi Arabia’s oil minister to Bush’s entreaties spoke volumes not only about the way that his administration has both misunderstood and mishandled its "global war on terror," but, more ominously, about the weakness and fragility of the alliance which Washington led to victory against the Soviet Union in the Cold War.

The last time that policy circles buzzed about Washington’s "decline" came during the waning years of the Cold War, when Yale Professor Paul Kennedy published The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. The study argued that the U.S. was falling into a familiar historical pattern where the combination of huge military budgets and ever larger deficits led inevitably to the kind of "imperial overstretch" that transformed once-mighty empires into shadows of their former selves.

Kennedy’s theory, however, did not anticipate the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union, an earth-shaking event that, combined with Washington’s decisive victory in the first Gulf War, left the U.S. as the world’s undisputed "hyperpower." This status was celebrated by neoconservatives like Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer who, at the time, coined the phrase, "The Unipolar Moment." The status was also reflected in the Pentagon’s draft 1992 Defense Planning Guidance (DPG), which, in turn, became the inspiration for the Project for the New American Century (PNAC) in 1997 and Bush’s first National Security Strategy (NSS) released six months before the Iraq invasion.

At the time, Kennedy himself suggested that Washington may have somehow escaped the laws of history, noting that the sheer size of the U.S. economy, and its technological prowess and military dominance, were unprecedented. "I’ve gone back in history and never seen anything like it," he exclaimed at one seminar.

"People are now coming out of the closet on the word ’empire,’" exulted Krauthammer. "The fact is no country has been as dominant culturally, economically, technologically, and militarily in the history of the world since the Roman Empire."

What a difference five years and an invasion and bungled occupation of Iraq make! References to the Roman Empire at this point are more likely to refer to its decline than to its power – an observation confirmed even by Donald Kagan, a dean of neoconservatism and Kennedy’s colleague at Yale, whose sons, Robert and Frederick, have been champions of the Bush Doctrine and the Iraq War.

"I’ve argued that not since the Roman Empire has anyone had such extraordinary power as the United States after the Cold War," Kagan told Kitfield. "But all of the elements of our strength are now being challenged, and it’s perfectly possible that we are seeing a relative decline in U.S. power that will prove lasting."

Indeed, that possibility has been transformed into a probability, if not a certainty, by a growing number of policy analysts who see major structural shifts in the distribution of global power – both "hard" and "soft" – none of which are likely to lead to the maintenance, let alone the enhancement, of Washington’s post-Cold War dominance.

Not only have both Iraq and Afghanistan shown the world the limits of U.S. military power, but they are also exacting an increasingly fearsome toll on Washington’s ability to wage war.

Despite gains in the security situation in Iraq over the past year, top Pentagon brass and independent experts are warning that the current pace of deployments is creating a "hollow force" both in terms of personnel and equipment. In an echo of Kennedy 20 years ago, "overstretched" is the adjective most frequently associated with the U.S. military.

Just as Kennedy had warned against the deadly long-term impact on empires of budgetary deficits, the Bush years have seen an explosion not just of government debt – currently more than $9 trillion – but also of trade and balance-of-payments deficits. Much of this is due to the high price of oil and gas imports – which a growing number of experts now believe has become a permanent fixture of the international economy.

The results of the evolving global economy include a much-weakened dollar and increased reliance by both the U.S. government and U.S. business on foreign creditors. Among these creditors are state-controlled agencies (or sovereign wealth funds) some of which – notably those of China, Russia, and oil-exporting Gulf states – are not enthralled, to say the least, with Krauthammer’s unipolar vision.

If, for commercial or political reasons, any of these creditors decided to dump their hundreds of billions of dollars of dollar-denominated assets – or in the case of key energy exporters, for example, to price their commodities in a currency other than the dollar – the economic impact would be "grave," according to Charles Freeman, retired U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia. Freeman’s point was echoed for the first time last week in the U.S. intelligence community’s annual review of the major global threats facing the nation.

The possibility that some combination of those creditors, whose own commercial ties have been growing at an accelerating rate, could decide to act in concert in order to constrain Washington’s freedom of action – in Central Asia or Iran, for example – is the emerging nightmare of U.S. policymakers.

Some analysts, including the director of the Geopolitics of Energy Initiative of the New America Foundation (NAF), Flynt Leverett, profess to see the emergence of a potential counterweight to U.S. power – one, significantly, that does not depend on the cooperation of Washington’s Western allies.

"A ‘community’ of largely non-democratic manufacturing powers and energy exporters is already laying the groundwork for real strategic collaboration, aimed at limiting America’s ability to carry out [its] hegemonic agendas," Leverett, who served in the National Security Council under Bill Clinton and Bush, wrote recently in the National Interest journal published by the Nixon Center.

As a result, the degree to which Washington can slow its decline and preserve its primacy will depend increasingly on its willingness to suppress its unilateralist reflexes and "to take account of the perceptions and interests of others in its foreign-policy decision-making," according to Leverett.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.