The decline of America has been predicted for most of its history, Clemenceau famously once said that "America is the only country to have gone from barbarism to decadence, without the usual interval of civilization". Yet, in fact the United States has overcome many serious challenges in the past, not least the existential challenge of the civil war, and proved itself a robust and flexible political entity and an economic and social powerhouse. If, as a foreigner, I can hardly share the jingoist sentiments of many of its boosters, yet nevertheless I have always found much to respect and admire and often to like about the United States.
However, it would be foolish to deny that the United States faces new and significant challenges, and the national humiliation of the credit rating downgrade is a spectacular own-goal inflicted upon the country by its own political class. In the face of the relative rise of new powers in Asia, especially China, could it be that the United States now faces not only greater global competition, but that its domestic challenges could threaten the global position of the United States from within?
The United States is a very wealthy society. It generates new wealth from new ideas in a truly admirable way. Apple, for example, is probably the single most successful innovator in the global corporate world. Hugely admired, it has generated spectacular wealth for its founders in only a matter of a couple of decades or so. By contrast, the state where Apple makes its headquarters, California, is a political and fiscal basket case. The politics of the Golden State have been tied in a mesh of special pleading and spending and fiscal limitations that makes it next to impossible to balance the books. In an increasingly literal sense, California has become ungovernable.
Nor is California alone, the entire US, to a greater or lesser extent, from town government level to the Federal government itself, is unable to deliver on the promises that it makes with a budget that is sustainable. The political retribution visited on those who raise taxes is matched only by a similar retribution to those who cut high spending programs. The so-called Tea Party refuses to countenance further tax rises, yet they do not have the political integrity to explain to the voters that this will mean drastic reductions in expenditure - not just the easy target of "welfare mothers", but across the board, from military spending to investment tax breaks. By international standards the United States is a relatively low tax country, but in so many ways the increase in the activities of the government now makes it look like a high spending country.
High spending and low tax means big deficits, and this is now no longer a sustainable policy either. Yet the American debt downgrade is not a matter of the debt capacity of the United States: the country remains exceptionally rich. The issue is one of political capacity. S&P doubts the political will of the American political class to raise taxes and genuinely tackle the deficit.
Which brings us to the political choices that the Americans now face.
Personally I have found much to admire about President Obama, in particular the dignified way that he conducts himself. A thoughtful, perhaps calculating, figure, I nevertheless feel a lot happier about a President who clearly uses his intelligence to consider issues: "No drama Obama" has looked like a safe pair of hands. Yet, I certainly do recognize that the President has made mistakes. He has suffered from Gordon Brown's disease of trying to micro-manage issues which in reality he can only do well be leaving well alone. Regulation is not always the best way to deliver a political agenda, and there is no doubt that this administration has continued to dramatically increase the regulatory burdens on both businesses and individuals.
I, for example, will no longer travel to the United States, where I once lived and worked, because the level of information that I now need to provide for a simple border clearance is simply too onerous. The bureaucracy is astonishing to someone now used to the borderless Schengen zone of the EU. Of course the US has the perfect right to screen or restrict foreigners seeking to enter their country, but the capricious and non-user friendly US borders now make it too much of a pain for me to bother with. I now spend my tourist money elsewhere and meet my American friends in London. My spending might only have been a few thousand, but duplicated on a global scale, the cost of to the US economy is nonetheless significant.
Which brings us to Iowa.
Whatever the original impetus, the so-called Tea Party is no longer in the hands of Libertarians who would challenge such over regulation, but highly prescriptive social Conservatives, such as Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachmann. These are not just polarizing figures, they are dangerous. They offer strident voices, defying compromise as a betrayal of principle. They do not offer intellectual coherence: they offer simplistic populism. Reducing arguments to a series of slogans is of course the stock in trade of a politician, but it is still shocking to me to see the gigantic disconnect between the purported vision of Bachmann and simple reality.
Yet it is this trite populism that has overcome the far greater intellectual strength of candidates, such as Mitt Romney, for Michelle Bachmann has emerged as the victor in the Iowa straw poll. It may not mean much- at this stage in the campaign, there is still much to play for, yet even this very early test has winnowed out some potentially credible candidates, such as Tim Pawlenty, while leaving Michelle Bachmann stronger: that is not a result that cheers.
The Republican party needs to offer up a serious challenger to President Obama, and Bachmann is simply not it. If the US where to choose such a figure as its leader- for President Obama is eminently beatable- then it would confirm beyond doubt that the political culture of America lacks the vision to retain its global leadership. The failures of the wastrel President Bush would be repeated and the country would continue to disengage and decline.
That is not a prospect that any Westerner can view with anything but horror: for the decline of the US would mean the decline of the West, and there are no other potentially hegemonic powers that believe in freedom and the values of democracy in a way that we can recognize. The choice of the Republican party for the next Presidential election needs to be serious: for there is a serious debate at stake, and the United States stands on the cusp of a new epoch.
American can recover, if the political class wills it. Equally it can accelerate into decline, if the political class wills that too. The Republican party nomination is no sideshow, but if a freak candidate is chosen, then it will only reinforce those voices that suggest that the United States has lost the political maturity to deal with its problems.