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America, Enjoy the Downward Slide

Can the United States sustain its power? Even more relevant is the question, Is it worth it?

August 16, 2012

Can the United States sustain its power? Even more relevant is the question, Is it worth it?

It was Dean Acheson, the U.S. Secretary of State at the start of the Cold War, who coined the memorable phrase “Britain has lost an Empire, but not yet found a role.” Still, Acheson would go all the way from Washington, D.C., to Jermyn Street in London’s Piccadilly for his shirts and to Saville Row for his suits.

Acheson’s penetrating logic — from the very man who is hailed as having been present at the creation of U.S.-led Western order — is now an apt way for Americans to think about the future of their country. It should help them conceptualize what the world has in store for them.

Americans were the most powerful people in the world during the second half of the 20th century, but they kept coming to Britain for the theater, art galleries and museums, as well as for pop music and even opera. And they went not just in London, but to Manchester, Edinburgh and Glasgow, too.

The British Empire — on which, as they said, the sun never set (it was a colonial wit who added “because God does not trust the British in the dark!”) — ran its course for a full century. It lasted from around the Battle of Waterloo, in 1815, until the beginning of the First World War, in 1914.

The British then spent the rest of the 20th century losing their empire. That process was capped by the handover of Hong Kong, its most important remnant, to the Chinese in 1997. But while losing the empire, the British gained a life. Art, music, sports, elegant living — they all became key parts of the British lifestyle and image.

Americans now face a similar challenge. In the hiatus between the two World Wars, they fought the British for top place. That spot was conceded by Churchill to Roosevelt. The consolation prize for the Brits was a “special relationship,” a junior role with veto power in the United Nations and the Bretton Woods institutions. Consider it the (not very regal) privilege of being the bag carrier of the new imperial power.

Americans have been the world’s top dog since 1945 and the world’s hyperpower since 1991. But they are now facing crunch time, much as Britain did after the Second World War. Can the United States sustain its power? Even more relevant is the question “Is it worth it?”

To their credit, Americans fought the Cold War almost single-handedly. The Brits were fine with the structure of NATO, but the French always sulked. Americans guarded the skies with their Strategic Air Command on a 24-7-365 basis. And they did so long after 1991, when its Cold War enemy, the Soviet Union, had collapsed.

The United States also spent money on a Navy that protected safe passage in waters around the world (which, incidentally, also benefited its trade rivals). Yes, any Briton can understand how exhilarating it was (and is) for Americans to be able to lord that prowess over the lesser peoples around the globe.

But as eager as U.S. politicians, military planners and matériel providers are to sustain its vast empire (which now extends into the innards of Africa), the issue has become one of affordability, not desirability. Hence, we are now in an age where Americans must ask whether they can really afford their empire. Or rather: Should they afford it?

Why go it alone?

Empires are nasty and cruel when they are powerful, but — surprise, surprise — they can be fun when they are in their decadent phase. To discover that, one does not have to go as far as Julius Caesar.

Caesar had the arrogance of burning the library at Alexandria because the Romans were too foolish to appreciate Egyptian knowledge. By the time of Marcus Aurelius, the Romans were more civilized.

And that is precisely the stage when the beautiful things of life get to be created. Who now recalls the vastness of the Austro-Hungarian (i.e., the Holy Roman) Empire, the largest and the longest living successor to the Roman Empire? Few people do. But any one who walks through the Hofburg and along the Ringstrasse in Vienna’s city center can admire the beautiful palaces, the art galleries, the great Opera House.

The Austrians declined reluctantly and made a mess of their first thirty years after 1918. But then they settled down to a relaxed life. Today’s quite non-imperial rule is this: If you want music, go to Vienna.

The Ottoman Empire, for its part, collapsed during the First World War. Alas, it never learned to decline graciously. Istanbul has its Topkapi Palace — but, with some exceptions on the coasts, Turkey is not a place of culture and easy living.

Kemal Ataturk, who dismantled the dysfunctional Ottoman Empire (Syria, anyone?) was trying to hard to compete with the west and make a mark. Turkey modernized into a dull place, although Istanbul in particular does have incredible potential.

In light of these very dissonant experiences, maybe the time has come for the Americans to ask the crucial question: What has the world done for us that we should do so much for the world? Why should we station troops in Germany and Korea, patrol the oceans, be the guarantor of air security — and all of that at our expense?

After all, trillions of dollars of public debt (but by no means all of the accumulated debt) are thanks to protecting the world. That has allowed others to skimp on defense and/or to forge ahead to compete with the United States.

While there certainly are other, more self-absorbed elements to the empire equation, it is still a legitimate question to ask why America should be the sole altruistic power. Middle East oil security is everyone’s business, not just the U.S. Navy’s and the U.S. taxpayers’.

The Chinese certainly enjoy the free ride. They can even point to the fact that a Navy build-up to protect oil lanes in the Middle East and throughout Asia’s oceans would be considered as an act of aggression by many in the United States.

The time may have come to say “I am not my brother’s keeper.” Yes, America, it can be liberating to lay down the burden and enjoy decline. It won’t happen immediately. Voices will be heard insisting that America should get back to the top. Why? Because it must.

But why not let the Chinese spend their money on patrolling the world and guarding the skies? Why not have them take on their fair share of maintaining the peace? That will require them to bear the cost of being ambitious as a superpower. Then their young men and women — not America’s — will die in remote places.

And all of that will be undertaken in the name of trying to bring civilization or peace or whatever. That was the case in Roman times in antiquity, in times of British rule two centuries ago, and now under American tutelage.

And sharing the burden of global safekeeping is by no means limited to the Chinese. Let anyone else do it, provided they have the money (and the madness) to want to do so. America should protect its borders and invest an adequate amount in its self-defense, but no more.

When that change was upon them, the British, too, thought the transformation as intolerable and too much of a letdown. But as I, an Indian-born economist who spent most of his professional career in London, can attest, the Brits managed to get it done.

Freed from the shackles of empire, they have had a good time, better than even they are willing to admit to themselves. Maybe America should learn from the Brits to decline gracefully

The wisest — though not the most glamorous or dynamic — of America’s post-war presidents was Dwight Eisenhower. In his farewell address to the nation on January 17, 1961, he warned against letting the military-industrial complex get too powerful. Sadly, America chose not heed his wise words.

Fifty years later, the damage to America’s budget, self-esteem and society can be seen in its huge debt, its neglected infrastructure and the economic devastation of the Great Recession. Which is why I would like to add to Eisenhower’s words of wisdom: “Americans, stop struggling to stay on the top. Turn around fast — and enjoy the view as you slalom down the slope.”

This essay was written as a response to Michael Lind’s essay, The British Seeds of American Decline, published by The Globalist on July 31, 2012.


"Britain has lost an Empire, but not yet found a role." That is now an apt way for Americans to think about the future of their own country.

While losing the Empire, the British gained a life. Art, music, sport, elegant living — they all became a key part of the British lifestyle and image.

Empires are nasty and cruel when they are powerful, but — surprise, surprise — they can be fun when they are in their decadent phase.

It is a legitimate question to ask why America should be the sole altruistic power. Middle East oil security is everyone's business, not just the U.S. military's.