01-11-2013 - Traces, n. 10

current affairs

America: in transition
First, the about face in Syria, then the shutdown of federal operations because of budget problems, and now Datagate. Three blows that are hard to take even for the one true superpower left. We asked a panel of experts if these crises are temporary or signs of a decline well underway.

by Mattia Ferraresi

The Syrian crisis has shown the limits of U.S. leadership in the hottest quadrant of the planet. The crisis over the budget law and the public debt ceiling that led to the shutdown of federal services for lack of funding has confirmed the dysfunction of domestic politics. The diplomatic crisis with European allies about the National Security Agency’s spying program has highlighted the need to find a balance between security and rights. Add to these critical situations the continued slowness of economic growth notwithstanding the injections of the Federal Reserve, and you have all the elements that induce various observers to view in them the features of American decline, a phenomenon seen in the disengagement of Barack Obama’s America from the international scene, and in the fragmentation of the domestic political panorama, crossed by ideologically polarized currents incapable of reaching compromise on the most urgent questions, from fiscal policy to social reform. By now, Americans are used to seeing Congress lurch from one crisis to the next, shoving problems off to the future with pieces of provisional legislation.
These symptoms seem to indicate a phase of decline of American power or at least a journey of redefinition of her role in a liquid and multipolar world. However, one should not forget that American decline is a cyclical theme: in 1988, the great expert in political affairs Samuel Huntington observed, not without a touch of irony, that the literature on the irreversible decline of the United States had reached a new apex of popularity for the fifth time since the 1950s. Be that as it may, the present poses many questions. How deep is the American crisis? What are its fundamental causes? Is it a transitory or structural phenomenon? What are the effects on the way America conceives of herself and her relationships with allies and competitors? We asked three observers of American politics to illuminate and provide perspective on this delicate phase in the life of the United States.

Two hundred years. Daniel Hamilton, Director of the Center for Transatlantic Relations of the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at Johns Hopkins University, begins by distinguishing between cyclic factors and structural ones: “The sense of American detachment from the Middle Eastern scenario does not concern the structure of American power, but certainly indicates a phase of transition, and America has lived through many of these. The same holds for the internal political debate: now it seems particularly disjointed and fruitless, but Washington has been going on like this for about two hundred years. The fact is that America’s power derives exactly from her capacity to adapt to the circumstances, not from a simple exhibition of economic, military, or strategic power. Certainly, we are going through a phase in which the face of America is changing profoundly, but I believe that the country has the energy to overcome this transition and return stronger and more influential than before. The economy is growing slowly, it is true, but it does not have structural problems that jeopardize recovery, in contrast to many European countries, and produces innovations of enormous impact in the fields of technology and services. Not to mention the boom in energy. Nor does comparison with competitors hold: the BRICS [Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa] are slowing and have neither the capacity for innovation nor the versatility of the United States.”
However, this does not alleviate the sense of powerlessness that comes from politics blocked by the intransigence of both parties: “At this moment, American politics lacks the idea that compromise is the main road for returning to growth,” continues Hamilton. “But it is too simple to blame the quarrelsomeness of the parties, the division between Republicans and the extreme wing of the Tea Party and so on. The point is that Americans, in the sense of the people and not just the ruling class, are going through a phase of redefinition of their own relationship with the State. In a certain sense, this debate is analogous to the one Europe is going through, but there the question concerns integration and the cessation of sovereignties, while here it has to do with limits to the federal government. The political impasse is also the reflection of a profound debate.”

Human capital. For Edward Luce, Washington columnist and commentator for the Financial Times, the scenario is much gloomier. Last year, Luce published his book Time to Start Thinking: America and the Spectre of Decline, a detailed analysis of the American crisis based on structural data and long-term observations. “In recent months, there has been too much commentary on the American decline, linking it to circumstances that could have been avoided and that were often self-inflicted by politics,” explains the British commentator. “There is the risk of confusing the political level, which is transitory and exposed to rapid changes, with the structural one: America is going through a structural crisis that is receiving too little attention from commentators. It is not a decline in absolute terms; it is a relative crisis that, however, impacts greatly on the nation’s geopolitical influence. The data of the International Monetary Fund says that the American economy in 2000 constituted 31% of the world economy, while now it is 23%: it has lost a slice of influence that will be difficult to recover.” And if for Luce the present is not rosy, the future is even less so, given America’s difficulty in exploiting its “human capital”: “American workers between 55 and 65 are among the best prepared and formed in the world. Those between 18 and 30, instead, are toward the bottom of the world ranking. This is a unique case in which the younger generations are less formed than the preceding ones, a factor that in the long run will be an enormous burden. America has excellent schools and universities, but over time she will be much less competitive than she believes.”
For Luce, the political model also has some evident fissures: “The difference with the European system is that here, 20% of the electorate blocks everything. Just that percentage to the Tea Party, and the legislative machine seizes up. The more extreme wing of the Republicans flexes its muscles at every battle in Congress, not only to affirm certain values, but also for a political purpose: it knows that it can be decisive and maximizes the effect of its action.”

Middle class. Luce’s vision intersects with that of Charles Kupchan, analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations and Professor of International Relations at Georgetown University, who entitled his most recent book, No One’s World. Kupchan sees a world divided between the West turned in on itself, criss-crossed with isolationist tendencies and focused on the domestic front, and the rising rest, the rest of the planet that is growing without a clear center of influence.
The American political crisis, on both the domestic and the foreign front, “is in large part of an economic nature, because we are witnessing the erosion of the middle class, which therefore seeks protection from the State.” In this sense, explains Kupchan, “the American political crisis is at once the cause and the consequence of the shift of power from the West to the rest of the world. In such a fluid and even convulsive phase, dominated by the thinning of the middle class, that is, the backbone of American society, unfortunately it is almost natural that politics tends to accentuate the antagonism instead of seeking common ground.”
Conclusion? “The twenty-first century will not be Chinese or Asian, but it won’t be American either.”