There’s a certain current of thought, which runs across parts of both the Left and Right, that enjoys proclaiming the Death Of America. Its proponents often come from contradictory and conflicting backgrounds. Anarcho-communists and anarcho-capitalists; nationalists and libertarians; opponents of Western imperialism and proponents of Chinese, Russian, and Islamic imperialism. The general thesis is usually fairly similar: the things that made America great – capitalist power, superpower status, oppression of the Third World, religious values, or what have you – are disappearing. Massive debt, geopolitical shifts, and/or demographic transformation will cause America to shrink its global reach even as it ruptures internally. The ultimate result varies too. Followers of the American Cato hope for a return to the constitutional Republic of old. Others favour a Leftward shift. Pessimists predict secession and war. There was a time when I found these predictions convincing, especially from libertarian and other analyses.
These days, I am far more skeptical.
To be clear, the data points which these predictions are based on put America in a pretty bad place. Yes, the debt is out of control. Expansion of welfare and warfare have destroyed America’s finances and reputation alike. Its governors govern badly. Its weary military “advises” even wearier troops against ISIS members with fire in their hearts and suicide vests over them. Despite this, Iran still gets held at arms length. At the same time it is getting challenged by Russia politically and China economically. Over-regulation at home, overextension abroad, and badly managed spending in all spheres.
But here’s the other side of the story. Whatever the ultimate fate of the USD and its global status, the United States still has tremendous wealth in its borders. Its population is over three hundred million, compared to China and India with over a billion each, but its economy is still among the biggest in the world and for now second only to China. Within its borders lie both natural resource wealth and technical specialization. New York’s economy is the size of Australia’s, and even poor, ruinous Detroit stands alongside Ireland. That sort of wealth doesn’t vanish in a puff of smoke if the USD collapses entirely. Even in a global economy where business can be outsourced across countries, the USA makes up a huge fraction of both production and consumption. It’s also a hub for service industries like consulting, marketing, advertising, finance, and law.
Abroad, the idea that America is in an across-the-board decline is also untrue. The disastrous Middle Eastern conflicts have drawn a lot of the world’s attention. Doubtless, the idea that you could overthrow a couple of dictators and eventually turn the region into Massachusetts plus minarets was an insane one. The American consensus is also being challenged in Ukraine by Russia and in the Asian and African spheres by China. But there is another side to this story. The countries which make up China’s backyard are not pleased to see its shadow falling over them. Some of Asia’s other growing economies would prefer America to have their backs. The US recently renewed its military commitments to the Philippines and Japan and is increasing its presence in the former. Other affected countries include Vietnam, Malaysia, and of course Taiwan.
This situation is very different from the Middle East. We are looking at political back and forth between growing economies with fairly stable states. There could be unforeseen circumstances: perhaps a demagogue will feed the flames of war following some crisis. For the time being, a full scale war between powers in the Asian region seems unlikely. That being so, America has an interest is maintaining close relations with those countries which will increasingly become its economic partners in the Asia-Pacific region. India’s alignment is still undetermined, but everyone has a stake in its future development. That’s why Prime Minister Modi is getting superstar treatment.
The rise of China may also cause other countries to reconsider their position. As China increases its African investments, the honeymoon will begin to fade and the realities of clashing cultures and interests will set in. While it is doubtless that China will become a political force on the continent, it may well be that some countries will play a double game or even favour American and Western investors who give them a better deal. From Asia to Africa, Brand America will remain a strong one.
All in all, I expect to see three major trends:
First, many Americans will find themselves interacting less with the US Federal Government (USG) on a regular basis. This will occur as the USG is finally forced to restructure failed programs like urban renewal and likely the current social security model. The private sector will continue moving in to repair government failures in areas from transport to education. Bankrupt Detroit is a prime example. Businesses are coming to its downtown core, the population of which is economically and demographically distinct from the rest of the city. The gentrifiers follow with their demands for security, good schools, and better governance, and with the means and willpower to make it happen. Many USG programs may return to state and even local levels after a long trend of federalization. Colorado and co are taking action on marijuana laws, and the South is attracting investment capital and domestic migrants sick of blue state taxes and regulation. Cities in said blue states may find creating their own charters to be a way to attract domestic migrants with initiative, brains, and ambition. As competition intensifies, it will make less sense to apply large programs across the whole country.
Second, the frontiers of American influence abroad will indeed morph and shrink. The world will become more multipolar as China and Russia try to stake out their own spheres of influence. Iran may act as a game changer for Shia Muslims in the Middle East. America and other Western countries will need to give resource-rich countries better deals. On this, the narrative of decline does have many of its facts straight, if not all of its derived predictions.
However (and thirdly), America may find itself actually exercising greater influence in those countries which choose to remain in its sphere. With the reality of China right next door, the US may be able to act more unilaterally to secure trade deals, military contracts, and political favours in Japan or the Philippines. This relationship will be especially important in the African countries.
In summary, I expect the America of the next generation to be one characterized by both stabilizing global power and a reduced, restructured domestic USG role. This is not contradictory. In fact, this is what the America of the Founding Fathers actually looked like. The average American pioneer might barely interact with the same USG that was waging successive wars against North African pirate kingdoms. The Presidents who conducted these wars? None other than one Thomas Jefferson and a certain James Madison. To view these changes as the end of America is naive. Perhaps unsurprisingly, one notices that the purported hard-headed realism of American Demise so often seems to complement the political wet dreams of its proponents.