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Are America's troubles all at home?

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COMMENTS

7 January 2010 16:56

It looks like one of the hot foreign policy topics of 2009 — American decline — is not yet passé, with The Atlantic giving it the cover treatment in its January issue. But I was left slightly unsatisfied by James Fallows' treatment of the topic. Not because of anything that's in the piece, but because of a couple of important points it hints at but does not pursue.

A crude abridgment of Fallows' closing argument is that, while there is tremendous vitality and dynamism in American society, its governance is sclerotic and badly in need of reform:

That is the American tragedy of the early 21st century: a vital and self-renewing culture that attracts the world’s talent, and a governing system that increasingly looks like a joke. One thing I’ve never heard in my time overseas is “I wish we had a Senate like yours.”

America's government has not adapted to the modern world, Fallows argues, and finds it difficult to tackle big, systemic challenges. Fallows presents plenty of examples to back this claim — crumbling infrastructure, gerrymandering, ineffective local government, low public funding of science, ballooning deficits, poor health care — but he also nods to a counter-example:

First with Iraq and now with Afghanistan, the U.S. has in the past decade committed $1 trillion to the cause of entirely remaking a society. We know that such an investment could happen here—but we also know that it won’t.

That suggests a question: how did a political system so manifestly incapable of tackling America's big domestic problems rouse itself to take on these huge military challenges? The shock of the 9/11 attacks is clearly part of the answer, but American military activism has been on the rise since the end of the Cold War — al Qaeda merely sent it into overdrive.

Perhaps the national security apparatus (including its executive and legislative elements) is the one piece of the American state that still functions well. That's not to say it has been appropriately used, but clearly it is capable of large scale action. What Fallows doesn't say is what we ought to make of this apparent exception. Is it symptomatic of the decline of American governance that only its national security complex seems to have any vitality, or should Americans examine this exception for clues about how to improve the rest of their government?

On to international matters, where Fallows recounts a number of familiar arguments about America's enduring strengths relative to its foreign competitors, particularly China. Equally familiar and unobjectionable to those of a broadly capitalist bent is Fallows' comfort with the rise of China. After all, it's hard to object to the fact that tens of millions of Chinese have been lifted out of poverty.

However, Fallows takes this argument a step further, implying there is no downside to China overtaking the US as the world's largest economy:

...one kind of “decline” is inevitable and therefore not worth worrying about. China has about four times as many people as America does. Someday its economy will be larger than ours. Fine! A generation ago, its people produced, on average, about one-sixteenth as much as Americans did; now they produce about one?sixth. That change is a huge achievement for China—and a plus rather than a minus for everyone else, because a business-minded China is more benign than a miserable or rebellious one. When the Chinese produce one-quarter as much as Americans per capita, as will happen barring catastrophe, their economy will become the world’s largest. This will be good for them but will not mean “falling behind” for us.

But in the relative and very important sense of national power, America will have fallen behind, and from an Australian perspective, that's not unreservedly a good thing. As a country that has enjoyed the benefits of American strategic pre-eminence in the Asia Pacific for several decades, we look with some uncertainty upon a future where that pre-eminence is no longer assured. Other regional allies and many Americans would feel the same way.

Fallows goes some way to acknowledging this point, saying that, '(a)s wealth flows, so inevitably will armed strength', and that a weaker US could 'therefore risk a military showdown or intimidation from a rearmed China'. But if I understand the argument correctly, he regards the erosion of America's military and soft power as subsets of the larger problem he identifies, that of American governance. Fix that, and the various elements of America's international standing can be restored too.

Yet it's implied in Fallows' own description of China's growth that no amount of domestic reform in the US is likely to change the trajectory of the two economies — with a much smaller population and more mature economy, America can never hope to match China's growth rates.

So barring a catastrophe in China's domestic economy, it looks like we will see a more contested and less settled strategic environment in the Asia Pacific, regardless of whether the US gets its domestic house in order. What I would love to hear James Fallows' views about is how China and the US will negotiate that transition.

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