For a tangible case study in the theory of decline, one need only fly from an aging US airport to one of Asia's glittering new air hubs.
By Shaun Tandon
WASHINGTON: In the annals of history, new powers have challenged the old on blood-soaked battlefields, in chandelier-decked negotiating rooms and through the brandishing of ahead-of-the-curve technology.
And then there’s Muscatine, Iowa, a quiet town on the Mississippi River once home to Mark Twain.
When Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping visited Muscatine in February, he was seizing on his connection to the town forged during a study excursion 27 years earlier to stage a made-for-television US trip.
While his tone was friendly, the visit may eventually be remembered as a historical marker — Xi is expected to become China’s top leader next year and, sometime during his presidency, his country is forecast to surpass the United States as the world’s largest economy.
Behind the ubiquitous red-white-and-blue flags that proudly dot the American landscape, a passionate debate is under way on whether the United States has already seen its best days.
The United States is saddled with historic debt after a decade of war and the Great Recession yet leaders are rarely able to agree on much other than that the political system is dysfunctional.
Unemployment rates in recent years have been at their worst in three decades and income inequality is by some accounts at modern highs.
For a tangible case study in the theory of decline, one need only fly from an aging US airport to one of Asia’s glittering new air hubs.
And yet students from around the world flock to US universities. Few objective observers can argue that the country that invented the airplane, the Internet and “The Simpsons” is short of innovation and creativity.
And that is to say nothing of the staggering gap in military spending between the United States and every other country.
Sole, indispensable power
Talk of US decline is hardly new — the Vietnam War and Japan’s meteoric economic rise were also both, to some eyes, the beginning of the end of the American moment. And yet the question is shaping out to be a defining national debate in this election year.
Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee to seek the White House, has relentlessly attacked President Barack Obama for what he charges is a focus on managing decline instead of asserting the “exceptionalism” of the United States.
In the early days of the Obama administration, some aides — while careful not to assert that the United States was in decline — said they were studying the lessons of previous global transitions, such as the US eclipse of Britain as the top power a century ago, in hopes of avoiding conflict with China.
That tone has changed. In January, Obama said that his commitment to working with other nations had restored “a sense of America as the sole, indispensable power.”
In a recent speech, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton offered a robust defence of an active US role in the world and assured that 2012 “is not 1912”, when friction between a declining Britain and a rising Germany set the stage for global conflict.
Decline has also become a favourite theme for prominent US scholars. In new books, Robert Kagan of the Brookings Institution and former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski both argue that US decline is exaggerated and that the world is far better off with a strong United States.
Yet whatever the reality, the very perception of US decline has effects. In a widely read recent essay, Wang Jisi, one of China’s top experts on the United States, said that Chinese policymakers are convinced of US decline and increasingly see US actions — even longstanding policies such as urging more respect for human rights and selling weapons to Taiwan — as signs of a diminished power trying to keep down a rising China.
China seen from Iowa
Which brings us back to Iowa. Despite all of the historic talk of China’s rise and America’s fall, the people of Muscatine expressed views that are arguably more nuanced than those of many politicians. Numerous people in the town of 23,000 said that they had visited China, either for work or study, and the local high school offers instruction in Mandarin.
When I asked residents about China, several voiced concern about human rights in the communist state but just as many saw China’s economic growth as beneficial. No one, when asked, seemed to be losing sleep about China overtaking the United States.
Muscatine is not a fluke. Recent nationwide surveys have shown that more Americans than not believe that China will replace the United States as the top power. Yet polls also consistently show that most Americans see China favourably.
With a population more than four times that of the United States and consecutive years of rapid growth, it would seem inevitable that China will emerge as the world’s largest economy.
Yet even many Chinese support a strong United States — if nothing else, as a consumer market for its products. On the other side of the Pacific, meanwhile, any leader who openly renounces the country’s role as a world leader is seen as committing political suicide.
And so, regardless of Americans’ boundless self-confidence and Xi Jinping’s conciliatory words, the United States and China seem destined for more friction, not necessarily on the battlefield or even in the marketplace, but in beneath-the-surface moments in quiet places like Muscatine.
The idea of US decline is hotly contested, but the debate itself is at no risk of declining.