In his 2004 book “Colossus: The Price of America’s Empire,” the British historian Niall Ferguson offered an interesting premise for what might ultimately bring about the decline of the United States.
Rather than being prompted by external phenomena, Ferguson wrote, decline might come from domestic financial dynamics, not least a ballooning fiscal crisis resulting from the American tendency to consume much and save little. The US, he warned, faced an impending social security crisis because Americans were living longer and the fiscal system was inadequate to pay for future generations. The self-defeating ways to deal with this reality, he continued, were to engage in massive increases in income and payroll taxes, to slash social security benefits by equally dramatic amounts, or to cut discretionary spending to zero.
Whether the massive debt incurred by the US government to absorb the repercussions of the financial shock of 2008 will accelerate this process is open to debate. But there is no doubt that the Obama administration has embraced a self-consciously skeptical worldview, with a willingness to openly admit to American limitations, financial and political. But, it’s not clear that honesty is the best policy in this case.
Take Obama’s speech last December, announcing his new Afghanistan strategy. What was to be a statement of American resolve was, in several passages, undermined. Instead of describing an America united in strength, Obama stated that “[in] the wake of an economic crisis, too many of our neighbors and friends are out of work and struggle to pay the bills. Too many Americans are worried about the future facing our children. Meanwhile, competition within the global economy has grown more fierce. So we can’t simply afford to ignore the price of these wars.”
On Afghanistan specifically, Obama stressed that Washington would not bankroll a nation-building project, because such a scheme “sets goals that are beyond what can be achieved at a reasonable cost.” How odd it was, then, that the American project as defined by Obama could only truly succeed if the administration actually does engage in nation building. In other words, the US is dangerously close to wanting to have its cake and eat it too in this period of acknowledged financial realism.
Most empires generally survive on two things: money and what we can call an ethos of domination: a sense of international entitlement and mission. In the case of the US, both have taken a beating in recent years, though American decline remains a relative concept. However, Obama, more than George W. Bush, has taken a bite out of America’s imperial ethos. From the start, as a presidential candidate, Obama highlighted American constraints, mainly to defend his idea of the country needing to seek cooperation rather than confrontation in the world. That was, perhaps, valiant, but the prospect of a weak America has great costs.
That’s because imperial powers can be instruments of stability, essential regulators of the global order. As Ferguson noted, the British Empire played an essential liberalizing role in the world economy, by being “an engine for the integration of international capital markets.” In the years “between 1865 and 1914 more than $4 billion flowed from Britain to the rest of the world, giving the country a historically unprecedented and since unequaled position as global net creditor, the ‘world’s banker’…or, to be exact, the world’s bond market.”
For the writer and academic Fouad Ajami, however, it is less the material than the psychological that preoccupies him when examining America’s, and Obama’s, newfound despondency. In a recent article in The Wall Street Journal, Ajami lamented what he called “the truth about the Obama presidency,” which he defined as “retrenchment abroad, and redistribution and the intrusive regulatory state at home.” Ajami expressed his anxiety with the administration’s essential isolationism, obscured by the “patina of cosmopolitanism” in the president.
“We’re weary, the disillusioned liberalism maintains, and we’re broke, and there are those millions of Americans aching for health care and an economic lifeline. We can’t care for both Ohio and Anbar, Peoria and Peshawar. It is either those embattled people in Iran or a rescue package for Chrysler,” Ajami wrote with barely concealed bitterness.
The desirable interplay between economic restrictions and political power is one the Obama administration has yet to properly define. In many respects power is as much about illusion as reality, even if the reality of US power still remains more compelling than the illusion. For the US to revel in its difficulties can also mean international instability. One needn’t like American power to realize that what America loses, the global political and financial system will lose too.