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March 25, 2023

US declinism, once again in the spotlight

As I was mentioning in a previous column here, a wide debate has been going on for several years in the USA over the position of this country in the international system of states. Is the USA still holding the top place in this system, in other words are we still living in an ‘American world’? Or, on the contrary, the emergence of giants, firstly of China, translated the system to a ‘post-American world,’ as described by one of the participants in this debate (F. Zacharia)? What must the USA do to keep – or regain – its first place in the global hierarchy of states? What are the consequences of this large-scale modification of the international system of states, and can it definitively occur without a war? Because this starts from the multi-century historic fact which demonstrates that changing the system hierarchy, replacing the hegemon occurs through a generalised war (hegemonic, in scientific terms) that involves all the big powers.

As the debate has been going on for years – there have been, since 2005, articles in which experts wondered what kind of systemic structure will replace the unipolar one in the future – the large-scale events that occur are immediately placed in relation with the declinism of the USA, hence with this country’s incapacity to further sustain the costs of global leadership. In 2010, for instance, historian Nial Ferguson considered that the start of the Greek financial crisis – which is still going on – announced the end of the American hegemony. Other international relations experts see the ‘Arab Spring’ as a product of the United States’ withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan. Naturally, if this becomes a prerequisite of the analysis, the American declinism – real or not – determines even practical policies, as the states of various regions see them from this perspective.Experts however explain that declinism is a recurrent theme in the American political and cultural landscape. It has been noticed that, in the 1960s, the launching of the Sputnik by the Soviets started the “fever” – and debate – of declinism, or losing the supremacy – to be more precise – same as the later decades periodically projected the same ‘fear.’ In the ‘60s, there appeared also the so-called issue of the “missile gap,” which undoubtedly influenced the planners of the American strategy, along with the internal unrest that existed in the USA over the fight for civil rights. A decade later, Nixon and Kissinger invented the “triangle of colossi” of the Cold War, introducing China in the global power game, based on the Vietnam syndrome and a perceived American inability to sustain Moscow’s competition. In the ‘80s, American bookshops were full of books about Japan, “the rising sun” of the system, meant to replace the US. Ever since the end of this decade, few years before the Cold War ended and America saw its systemic supremacy confirmed, historian Paul Kennedy had predicted the decline of the USA, touched by “imperial overstretch,” arguing that “the sum total of the United States’ global interests and obligations is nowadays far larger than the country’s power to defend them all simultaneously” (1987). The ‘90s somehow quelled this periodic “fear” with the optimistic and confident opinions voiced by US politicians about the “unipolar world” and the “indispensible nation.” It was the expression of the impetuous advance of globalisation and of the American presence all over the world, wherever a systemic crisis needed to be managed, from the Gulf to Somalia, from Haiti to Kosovo, and after September 11, 2001 in Afghanistan and Iraq, monitoring terrorist networks at global scale.China’s amazing emergence after 1979, when the Deng reforms were initiated, the two-digit annual economic growth of this gigantic country, its fast advance in the global hierarchy changed this period of dominant confidence and absence of declinist temptation. Coupled with the feeling of being acutely isolated at global scale – ‘why they hate us?’- and bogged down by the Iraq and Afghanistan insurgency, the declinist current resurfaced. This is what Joseph Joffe names “the fifth wave” of declinism, which adds to the previous elements a very strong and damaging new one. This is the financial issue, with huge US deficits that require astronomic loans taken from the international market in order to avoid default – a mountain of debts that overshadows the future of the USA. According to some experts, the virulence of this “fifth wave” issue is so acute that if the US decided to militarily oppose an eventual attempt by China to unify Taiwan by force, then America should support its protégé by using money borrowed from China. Of late, some experts tend to believe that things are even “worse than they appear to be” regarding the systemic decline of the USA.What must be said about this “fifth wave” of declinism is that it gains momentum as the US presidential campaign gets closer. Few months ago, ‘The Economist’ commented: “People tend to think in black and white. America is either in decline or it is ordained to be for ever the world’s greatest nation. Government is either paralysed or it is running amok, stifling liberty and enterprise and snuffing out the American dream. The election campaign accentuates the negative and sharpens this binary illusion.”Ever since the presidential campaign kicked off this year, several months ago, the issue of ‘declinism’ appeared as a campaign theme against the current Administration. Things were said like: “This president is a declinist. He views America as one of equals around the world.” (T. Pawlenty, former Minnesota governor). The acting president has been described as not meeting the exigencies of American exceptionalism, which claims that the grandiose destiny of the USA is to always be the vanguard of the world. Undisputedly, this position voiced by the Republicans must spark the answer of Democrats, so the debate will heat up as elections get closer.One thing is for sure. Behind these positions there is a clear and simple electoral message – choose a Republican president! – so the growing debate over the American declinism in the coming months has obvious origin and purpose.This however does not mean that there is no scientific reason for a debate on US declinism.

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