|01-11-2013 - Traces, n. 10
America: in transition
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.
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.”
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.”
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.