Tuesday, September 26, 2006

The Decline of the American Empire?

This article in The Economist caught my eye.

It seems to indicate an academic and well as a political and financial sclerosis that is afflicting the United States.

America has been an extraordinary intellectual power house in the sixty years since the end of the Second World War. Albeit that many Nobel prize winners, like Einstein or Edward Teller, were born outwith the US, nonetheless they were no less passionate Americans for being immigrants- and America won the lions share of academic recognition.

As a child, my father worked for several American corporations and visited the States often. I well recall visits to our house from colleagues who had become friends- they seemed taller, friendlier and much richer than any other people I had met. They had cine cameras- which seemed to me to be science fiction in 1971. I eagerly read the National Geographic Magazine- adverts for speed boats and huge cars- unimaginable luxuries it seemed at the time. Alistair Cooke, each week, would intone in patrician cadences the doings of this rich, diverse and extraordinary land.

Above all there was Apollo.

The missions to the Moon still thrill me- and the names of Armstrong, Aldrin, Collins, Conrad, Gordon Bean, Lovell, Swigert, Haise, Shepherd, Roosa, Mitchell, Scott, Worden, Irwin, Young Mattingly, Duke, Cernan, Evans and Schmitt- still have more power to move than any football team ever could. The desolate, stunning wastes of the Moon had the power to transform the vision of the human race. Above all Apollo was American- the triumph of America.

If- God forbid- America ceased to exist, it would be remembered for all time for Apollo- the greatest act of collective endeavour in human history.

Yet America seemed to be extraordinarily terrible- the power of the nuclear bomb- which only the US has ever used in anger- seemed to make the "city on a hill" greater and more terrible.

Of course there were setbacks- the great crisis of the 1970's when Saigon fell, Nixon resigned and Apollo was cancelled. Yet by the mid 1980's America seemed to have overcome all things- richer and more powerful than ever it bestrode the world like a colossus.

Yet all was not well- instead of getting fitter, America became fatter- vastly, morbidly fatter.

Instead of economic investment the US began to borrow- on a scale never seen before and a speed never seen before. From being the worlds largest creditor, it became the largest debtor, eventually in September 2006 for the first time in 100 years it was paying more out than it received in investments.

Gigantic sums were being spent by the US Federal government on Defence and Homeland Security, yet these bureaucracies were wasting trillions of dollars- as the humiliation of the folding of New Orleans in 2005 showed. The increase in the American defence budget after the atrocities of September 11th was greater than the total defence budgets of all conceivable rivals.

Yet, from having been one of the most mobile and dynamic societies, the US closed down the escalator of social mobility. The gap between rich an poor became a chasm. The restrictions on immigration after 9/11 persuaded the worlds brightest brains to go elsewhere- the City of London, in particular, benefited and in financial services it rapidly overhauled New York.

The great names of the American auto industry- Ford, General Motors and so on- were brought to the brink of ruin by inflexible production and poor model lines.

In the midst of this confluence of crises the American constitution and political system revealed its age. The gerrymandering of electoral districts created a self-perpetuating, closed elite- divorced from the interests and wishes of the American people. Thus when George W. Bush was elected on a vote substantially less than Al Gore, no outcry was raised- the constitution was sacred and could not be reformed- even though American claims to democracy at the highest level now seemed empty.

The fact that George W. Bush was both inarticulate and inept was not as dangerous as his messianic vision. America had fallen into the hands of Religious extremists. Committed to the literal truth of the revelation of St. John, America's new millenarians committed the US to inactivity on Global warming- "gods will"- and one sidedness in the Middle East in order to promote the battle of Armageddon. The United States had fallen from the hands of technology into the hands of a mediaeval cult. The ideological certainties of the neo-Conservatives found a ready ear in a President determined to complete the work of his father and destroy Saddam Hussein. Yet the clarities of the White House led to a catastrophic failure of policy and imbrogled the US in a desperate struggle which it was ill equipped to fight and could not afford to lose.

The United States and the global system now face challenges that may end in disaster. The triumph of liberal, secular, humanism can not even be taken for granted in the US itself. The vision which took humans to the Moon, and might by now have taken us further out towards the stars, has been lost. The death cults of suicidal Islam and American end-timers threatens the prosperity and peace that we have created.

Europe, divided and fractured, and afflicted with a growing demographic deficit can not provide alternative leadership.

Unless the Americans can address their political, economic, social and cultural problems, the West risks eclipse- or worse.

A second dark ages, though still a small risk, is now a possibility.


Tabman said...

Cicero, "Above all there is Apollo." :o)

andyt said...

Do please cheer up - don't we have the 'Asian Tigers' (notably India and China) to lift us out of our economic gloom? India is also a remarkably well-functioning democracy (despite its many tensions)and I'm sure Chinese political communism can't last forever (economic communism has been all but abandoned). America -we love 'em, but we can live the emerging super-powers.

Etzel Pangloss said...

The real American empire has only just begun. (Empires do not necessarily require capitalism)

I think the USA would be remembered for Hollywood if it dissapeared today.

There have been many dark ages..

Etzel Pangloss said...

bad speeling , sorry

Cicero said...

There certainly is Apollo- recommended on my side bar...

The Asian Tigers - China very politically unstable, India, very economically backward- rather unlikely leaders for global Liberalism. Maybe after the Chinese revolution, though, we might see better things.

Hollywood- Yes, the film Apollo 13 actually cost more dollars than the Apollo mission that it portrays.