American Götterdämerung Is a Perennial Pundit’s Game

By Sandra I. Erwin
It appears that on any given day in Washington, as of late, someone is unveiling a book, releasing a study, giving a presentation or briefing foreign-policy wonks about the impending demise of America as we know it. These are indeed boom times for “declinist” literature.

They are all variations of the same theme: The world is becoming multipolar, America’s era of supremacy is over, there will be new players and new rules in the global power game.  

Lending credibility to this worldview was the November 2008 report by the National Intelligence Council, “Global Trends 2025,” which predicts that the U.S.-dominated international system that emerged following World War II will be revolutionized. It also foresees an unprecedented transfer of wealth from West to East, and the rise of the BRIC’s (Brazil, Russia, India and China) as legitimate new disruptors of the global balance of power. It foresees that gaps in national influence will continue to narrow between developed and developing countries.

The NIC’s judgment was seen inside the Beltway as a sign of impending downfall. But contrarians are now pushing back, arguing that the national intelligence analysts missed the mark, that they were overly influenced by the disheartening course of events in Iraq and Afghanistan and by the September 2008 U.S. economic meltdown, and that they failed to take a broader look at historical trends.

Not surprisingly, the combination of an economic downturn and the authoritative imprimatur of an NIC report predicting America’s decline became “congealed into a conventional wisdom very quickly,” said Eric S. Edelman, former U.S. ambassador to Finland and Turkey, who also served as undersecretary of defense for policy during the George W. Bush administration.

Edelman last month unveiled a counterview to the NIC study, “Understanding America’s Contested Primacy,” published by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a defense policy think tank in Washington, D.C.

At a briefing on Capitol Hill, Edelman cautioned that much of what is in Global Trends 2025 is accurate analysis. But he questioned why the NIC in 2008 painted such a drastically different picture from the one laid out in its 2004 report, “Mapping the Global Future 2020,” which had concluded that the era of unipolarity and U.S. primacy was likely to continue for as far as the eye could see, Edelman said.

“What was it that changed so dramatically between 2004 and 2008 that would lead to this radically different conclusion?” he asked. One factor was the inconclusive counterinsurgency wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that have been draining the country of treasure and of lives, and were “creating a sense in the international community that the United States had not managed affairs very well,” he said.

Edelman also saw as a dubious claim the NIC’s statement about a “seemingly inexorable rise of the so-called BRICs,” which, as it turns out, originated not from intelligence analysts but from Goldman Sachs’ financial gurus.

Predictions of America’s fall, according to Edelman’s study, are as cyclical as the stock market.

Prophets of doom have surfaced periodically over the course of U.S. history — usually at the end of every decade since the end of World War II. In the late 1940s, after the Russians exploded a nuclear weapon, is was the end of America’s nuclear monopoly and proof that we had lost our edge. At the end of the ‘50s, after Sputnik and the missile gap, there was a sense that the nation was playing second fiddle to the Soviet Union. At the end of the ‘60s, another wave of declinism spread as a result of the Vietnam War. In the late ‘70s, it was the oil crisis, and President Carter’s “malaise” speech, “even though he didn’t actually use the word malaise in the speech, but in which he talked about trying to do less as a nation,” Edelman noted.

At the end of the ‘80s, influential historian Paul Kennedy wrote “The Decline of the Great Powers.” In the United States, it was seen as an augur of dark times that would result from imperial overstretch. At the end of the ‘90s, historians were predicting the end of the nation state. “And since the United States was the leading nation state in the international system, presumably it would decline along with the role of the nation state,” said Edelman.

If this debate were strictly academic, it could be ignored as irrelevant drivel. But Edelman insists that this is a “debate with real consequences, because how policymakers, both in the executive and the legislative branch, think about America’s role in the world is, to some degree, conditioned by what role they think we need to be playing in the world, and what we’re capable of playing.”

So who’s right and who’s wrong?

Reality, as if often the case, is far more nuanced than is convenient for most pundits who are trying to make a point. Yes, the nation faces a crushing debt, is dangerously addicted to foreign oil and to foreign capital, and its military forces remain bogged down in a war that most Americans believe is unwinnable. Not a pretty picture, but the current malaise still may not be enough to qualify as proof of the apocalypse.

Topics: Business Trends

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