America as superpower: shaken, not deposed
Some see demise, but others cite enduring signs of US power.
The eagle has crash-landed – or has it?Skip to next paragraph
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The US financial crisis that has all but certainly thrown the world's largest economy into recession is also prompting pronouncements that what had been dubbed "the American century" is over.
From gleeful declarations in places like Iran and Venezuela that the era of American superpower is finished, to the more-measured statements of European leaders about a new era of "multipolarity," the conclusion is the same: A global power structure based on US predominance and leadership is in shambles – never to rise again.
Such a conclusion follows the predictions of shrinking American global power that flowed from the Iraq occupation.
Yet others say, "Not so fast!" and predict the American era will continue – in part because the world has devised no alternative to it. If nothing else, the need for coordination in the face of the globalized economy's first epic financial crisis will provide a test of where America's power and leadership really stand, they add.
In fact, the first sign of a coordinated response to the crisis came Wednesday, with the United States orchestrating a round of interest-rate cuts by the world's major central banks. The American initiative is designed to begin restoring confidence in markets and ease fears of a global recession.
Still, what seems clear is that the experience of the Bush years, now drawing to a close amid the worst economic calamity in eight decades, have bolstered those who long predicted a clipped American eagle. "What George Bush did was turn a slow decline into a precipitous one," says the noted Yale University sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein, who has been predicting the end of the American empire since the 1980s.
"We've had two standout factors: the Iraq war, which not only demonstrated but actually accelerated this decline in power, and then the way this president put the American government in such deep debt," Mr. Wallerstein says. "What we see playing out before us is the culmination of these actions."
What that scenario doesn't consider is that the current financial crisis is like a raging sea lashing all boats and not just the US, others counter. That has been evident in this week's plunging markets in Europe and Asia, and in frantic efforts to prop up some tottering European banks.
Still others point out that the US economy will remain the world's largest for the foreseeable future, just as the American military will face no challenger to its global superiority for at least many years to come. "The declinists predicting America's demise as the preeminent global power are in overdrive with the financial crisis, and the declinists are wrong once again," says Robert Lieber, professor of government at Georgetown University in Washington and author of "The American Era."
The US, he says, maintains a list of strengths over its international partners and rivals that includes such quantifiable tangibles as military superiority and economic size and productivity – as well as intangibles like flexibility and "a capacity for reinvention." America's "structural advantages matter much more than economic cycles," Mr. Lieber says.
More diffuse power
Yet even as the debate goes on, a number of realities are accepted by all sides. One is that new powers – China, India, and Brazil, to cite three examples – are rising to make for a less monolithic and more diffuse global power structure. "Clearly, lots of other countries count in ways that they did not before," says Lieber.