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674America's superpower status is about to end

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  • Greg Cannon
    Mar 31, 2005
      I'm not normally one for predictions of doom (well
      occasionally I am), but I don't think that's quite
      what this article is anyway, and it has interesting
      thoughts about the Bush administration's motives.
      There are two common ideas on the administration's
      motives: that either they're evil bastards out to
      steal as much from the rest of the world as they
      possibly can while forcing a semi-religious police
      state upon America, or that they have the highest
      moral principles possible and truly are trying to save
      the world. This article has an idea a bit different
      from either of those, and I think it's worth


      America's superpower status is about to end
      By Gwynne Dyer

      Assume that the people who run defense and foreign
      policy in the Bush administration are as ferociously
      intelligent as they think they are.

      What would their grand strategy be?

      The very phrase "grand strategy'' has a antiquated
      ring; enlightened modern opinion rejects the notion
      that relations between the great powers are just a
      zero-sum game. But this is a group of people who are
      steeped in traditional modes of strategic thought:
      Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Stephen
      Hadley and Condoleezza Rice would all have worked
      quite comfortably for Cardinal Richelieu or Count
      Bismarck. (Whether they would have been hired is, of
      course, another question.)

      They are, in addition, patriotic Americans who are
      firmly convinced that U.S. power is an instrument for
      good in the world. And they all know that the days of
      the United States as the world's sole superpower are

      They must know it. They cannot be unaware of the
      statistics the rest of us know: a Chinese economy that
      has been growing over twice as fast as the U.S.
      economy for almost two decades now, and an Indian
      economy that has been growing at around twice the U.S.
      rate for almost a decade already.

      And they surely understand the magic of compound

      China's economy will overtake that of the United
      States in one long generation if current trends
      continue. (Goldman Sachs predicted in 2003 that
      Chinese GDP would surpass that of the U.S. in 2042.)
      India, starting later and growing slightly slower,
      will not reach the same milestone for a further decade
      or more, but both Asian giants will be nipping at
      America's heels long before that. And economic power
      is the source of most other kinds of power.

      Per capita income in China and India will still be
      much lower than that of the United States, but it will
      not be that low: Goldman Sachs predicts a Chinese per
      capita income in 2042 comparable to that of Western
      Europe today. Combine this wealth with populations
      that will be three or four times bigger than that of
      the United States in the 2040s, accept that there is
      unlikely to be any remaining innovation gap, and
      Washington will be facing a formidable pair of
      strategic rivals.

      Most people are not panicked by this future because
      they assume that there will no longer be a Communist
      regime in China 35 years from now, and they know that
      India is a democracy already. There is nothing in
      either country's history or current behavior to
      suggest that they would behave less responsibly than
      the existing great powers have done (though admittedly
      the bar has not been set very high). But seeing the
      United States reduced to only one great power among
      others cannot be a prospect that appeals to American
      strategic thinkers of a traditional bent - so what is
      their grand strategy for averting it?

      They must have one. Paramount powers facing relegation
      always have one, although it rarely stays the same for
      long and it never, ever works.

      In the past four centuries we have observed three
      other "sole superpowers'' of the age slide down the
      slope of (relative) decline - Spain, France and then
      Britain - and none of them even came close to solving
      the problem: economics trumps everything else in the
      long run.

      People who search for a long-term strategy in
      neo-conservative policies invariably end up thinking
      there is none, but that's because they are looking for
      coherence. They expect too much.

      When strategists are confronted with an insoluble
      problem, they generally try to solve it anyway, and
      they are not above using irrational assumptions to
      stick the bits of rational analysis together.

      Great powers on the brink of decline typically have
      incoherent and foredoomed strategies to ward off their
      fate, simply because no better strategies are
      available. "I have not become His Majesty's first
      minister to preside over the dissolution of the
      British empire,'' Winston Churchill harrumphed in 1940
      - but from the Spanish armada of 1588 to the
      Anglo-French invasion of Egypt in 1956, the flailing
      efforts of paramount powers to ward off impending
      demotion from "superpower'' status have generally just
      hastened the process.

      How might this apply to the senior people inside the
      Bush administration? Some of them clearly believe
      exactly what they say, no matter how simplistic and
      delusional it may appear to outsiders, but others
      genuinely are strategic thinkers. These people will
      not speak in traditional power-political terms in
      public - instead they will use the "terrorist threat''
      or any other excuse that comes to hand to justify
      their strategies - but they know about the coming
      erosion of American power and they will be desperately
      seeking ways to avoid it.

      Is the invasion of Iraq, and the whole project of
      resurrecting Pax Americana that lies behind it, just
      such an attempt to head off impending relative decline
      by putting the U.S. back in the global driving seat,
      as much the "leader of the free world'' as it was in
      the halcyon days of the Cold War? Very likely.

      Will it work? Don't be silly. It never works:
      economics rules, and there is no way of stopping China
      and India from catching up with the current Lone
      Superpower short of nuking their entire economies.

      And no: I don't think they'd do that. But their little
      adventure will almost certainly have the long-term
      effect of hastening America's relative decline. That
      sort of strategy usually does.

      Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent columnist.

      Publication date: 03-29-2005
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