"Is the American era over?" That was
the big question that launched a lengthy analysis by veteran international affairs
reporter James Kitfield in the influential National Journal last May.
Significantly, the article which featured interviews with an all-star
cast of former top U.S. policymakers was titled "The Decline Begins."
Nine months later, the notion that Washington has entered a "New American
Century" a phrase used by the nationalist and neoconservative unilateralists
who championed the Iraq war in which the U.S. can do whatever it wants,
where it wants, and when it wants, without consulting anyone else, seems largely
to have gone the way of the dodo bird.
"We are in a multipolar world," Defense Secretary Robert Gates told
a Washington Post columnist recently in what has to be considered the
ultimate heresy to pro-war hawks led by the likes of Vice President Dick Cheney
and Gates' predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld.
Indeed, last month's image of President George W. Bush imploring King Abdullah
of Saudi Arabia to increase oil production to boost the battered U.S. economy
helped bring home the notion that the commander in chief's word no longer serves
as an imperial command.
"It's affected our families. Paying more for gasoline hurts some
of the American families," Bush told reporters just before his meeting
with the king. After the meeting Saudi Arabia's oil minister made clear
that Riyadh would increase production only "when the market justifies it"
and not before.
Almost as pathetic in their own way were the recent exhortations by Gates
the steward of a military establishment that spends more money each year than
the combined defense budgets of all of the world's other nations for
Washington's NATO allies to contribute 7,000 more troops to help U.S. forces
pacify Afghanistan six years after Rumsfeld and his neoconservative advisers
contemptuously spurned their offers of help.
That the response Gates received was not much more favorable than that delivered
by Saudi Arabia's oil minister to Bush's entreaties spoke volumes not only about
the way that his administration has both misunderstood and mishandled its "global
war on terror," but, more ominously, about the weakness and fragility of
the alliance which Washington led to victory against the Soviet Union in the
The last time that policy circles buzzed about Washington's "decline"
came during the waning years of the Cold War, when Yale Professor Paul Kennedy
Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. The study argued that the U.S. was
falling into a familiar historical pattern where the combination of huge military
budgets and ever larger deficits led inevitably to the kind of "imperial
overstretch" that transformed once-mighty empires into shadows of their
Kennedy's theory, however, did not anticipate the sudden collapse of the Soviet
Union, an earth-shaking event that, combined with Washington's decisive victory
in the first Gulf War, left the U.S. as the world's undisputed "hyperpower."
This status was celebrated by neoconservatives like Washington Post columnist
Charles Krauthammer who, at the time, coined the phrase, "The Unipolar
Moment." The status was also reflected in the Pentagon's draft 1992 Defense
Planning Guidance (DPG), which, in turn, became the inspiration for the Project
for the New American Century (PNAC) in 1997 and Bush's first National Security
Strategy (NSS) released six months before the Iraq invasion.
At the time, Kennedy himself suggested that Washington may have somehow escaped
the laws of history, noting that the sheer size of the U.S. economy, and its
technological prowess and military dominance, were unprecedented. "I've
gone back in history and never seen anything like it," he exclaimed at
"People are now coming out of the closet on the word 'empire,'" exulted
Krauthammer. "The fact is no country has been as dominant culturally, economically,
technologically, and militarily in the history of the world since the Roman
What a difference five years and an invasion and bungled occupation of Iraq
make! References to the Roman Empire at this point are more likely to refer
to its decline than to its power an observation confirmed even by Donald
Kagan, a dean of neoconservatism and Kennedy's colleague at Yale, whose sons,
Robert and Frederick, have been champions of the Bush Doctrine and the Iraq
"I've argued that not since the Roman Empire has anyone had such
extraordinary power as the United States after the Cold War," Kagan told
Kitfield. "But all of the elements of our strength are now being challenged,
and it's perfectly possible that we are seeing a relative decline in U.S.
power that will prove lasting."
Indeed, that possibility has been transformed into a probability, if not a
certainty, by a growing number of policy analysts who see major structural shifts
in the distribution of global power both "hard" and "soft"
none of which are likely to lead to the maintenance, let alone the enhancement,
of Washington's post-Cold War dominance.
Not only have both Iraq and Afghanistan shown the world the limits of U.S.
military power, but they are also exacting an increasingly fearsome toll on
Washington's ability to wage war.
Despite gains in the security situation in Iraq over the past year, top Pentagon
brass and independent experts are warning that the current pace of deployments
is creating a "hollow force" both in terms of personnel and equipment.
In an echo of Kennedy 20 years ago, "overstretched" is the adjective
most frequently associated with the U.S. military.
Just as Kennedy had warned against the deadly long-term impact on empires of
budgetary deficits, the Bush years have seen an explosion not just of government
debt currently more than $9 trillion but also of trade and balance-of-payments
deficits. Much of this is due to the high price of oil and gas imports
which a growing number of experts now believe has become a permanent fixture
of the international economy.
The results of the evolving global economy include a much-weakened dollar and
increased reliance by both the U.S. government and U.S. business on foreign
creditors. Among these creditors are state-controlled agencies (or sovereign
wealth funds) some of which notably those of China, Russia, and oil-exporting
Gulf states are not enthralled, to say the least, with Krauthammer's
If, for commercial or political reasons, any of these creditors decided to
dump their hundreds of billions of dollars of dollar-denominated assets
or in the case of key energy exporters, for example, to price their commodities
in a currency other than the dollar the economic impact would be "grave,"
according to Charles Freeman, retired U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia. Freeman's
point was echoed for the first time last week in the U.S. intelligence community's
annual review of the major global threats facing the nation.
The possibility that some combination of those creditors, whose own commercial
ties have been growing at an accelerating rate, could decide to act in concert
in order to constrain Washington's freedom of action in Central Asia
or Iran, for example is the emerging nightmare of U.S. policymakers.
Some analysts, including the director of the Geopolitics of Energy Initiative
of the New America Foundation (NAF), Flynt Leverett, profess to see the emergence
of a potential counterweight to U.S. power one, significantly, that does
not depend on the cooperation of Washington's Western allies.
"A 'community' of largely non-democratic manufacturing powers and energy
exporters is already laying the groundwork for real strategic collaboration,
aimed at limiting America's ability to carry out [its] hegemonic agendas,"
Leverett, who served in the National Security Council under Bill Clinton and
Bush, wrote recently in the National Interest journal published by the
As a result, the degree to which Washington can slow its decline and preserve
its primacy will depend increasingly on its willingness to suppress its unilateralist
reflexes and "to take account of the perceptions and interests of others
in its foreign-policy decision-making," according to Leverett.
(Inter Press Service)