May 6, 2024The Intersectiongeopoliticsforeign policy

The constituents of America’s strength are under severe strain

The United States stands to lose global influence if it continues on the current trajectory

Mint This is an unedited draft of The Intersection column that appears every other Monday in Mint.

I spent the mid-2000s arguing why Indian foreign policy must make a decisive shift towards the United States. The shadow of the Cold War had not yet dissolved and memories of US support for Pakistan’s proxy war were still alive in the minds of the country’s strategic establishment. The Vajpayee government had initiated a shift in thinking after the 1998 nuclear tests and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was pushing for a major breakthrough in the form of the nuclear deal.

Many in New Delhi — from cabinet ministers to young officers — had misgivings about the relationship and argued that partnering with a superpower would undermine India’s strategic autonomy. With the exception of the formidable K Subrahmanyam, very few were comfortable making the realist argument that a closer alliance with the United States was in India’s interest.

Towards the end of the George W Bush presidency it became fashionable in Washington — and helpful to Barack Obama’s election campaign — to talk about the decline of American power. Fareed Zakaria wrote a book about the post-American world in 2008. This played very well in New Delhi both because the predicted shift in the global balance of power towards Asia was good news, but also because it buttressed the old claim that the United States was on its way down. Time and again I found myself in a minority pointing out that declinism was a favourite American pastime for decades and Americans have been lamenting on the decline of their country for over 200 years.

I gave three reasons why fears of America’s terminal decline were exaggerated. First, the American political system is designed to recover from serious mistakes that its leaders (like all leaders) tend to make. Second, that its higher education eco-system is outstanding. And third, that it has long been the magnet for the world’s most talented and most enteprising people. As long as the United States held on to these advantages, I argued, it will remain the world’s dominant power.

In the past fifteen years, it is shocking how the United States has inflicted serious damage on all three pillars of its strength. No, I still do not think you should short the United States, but the harm it has inflicted on itself is perhaps unprecedented. Unless its self-correcting mechanism kicks in in time, decline is possible. Even after the 2008 global financial crisis, I never thought I’d write this sentence.

Consider the first of my three reasons: political resilience. Frequent elections, presidential term limits, policy adversarialism and institutional strength created the conditions for the American system to change policies once it was clear they failed. All political leaders and governments make mistakes, but not all systems can acknowledge them and change direction. Mao Zedong and his policies are still not officially wrong in China, but the mistakes made by Eisenhower to Biden are not only discussed threadbare but correctives are applied. Yet, in the past decade, extreme partisanship has wrecked self-correcting mechanisms. The US Supreme Court has reduced itself from being an credible arbiter to just another player. Congress has become dysfunctional. There is a highly controversial presidential election this year. There is, of course, a lot of resilience in the system at all levels, but it is under greater strain today than it has been in decades.

The university system is still the world’s best but is caught in deep crises of its own. The ongoing campus protests expose the contradictions and dubious policies that the American university has come to embrace in the past decade. For years a creeping climate of fear enveloped campuses as professors could be punished for falling foul of political correctness codes. Big donors and alumni groups became powerful. They abridged academic freedom, the single most important thing in education. As Timur Kuran wrote on X, US universities should never have abandoned institutional neutrality. And they should never had allowed DEI to morph into a system that promotes identity politics. Sooner or later, these missteps would come to haunt them. That day has arrived.” Students have noticed the gap between America’s ideals and current policy. I think that the pro-Palestinian protests will jolt the university eco-system to rethink the path it is on, but I cannot say for sure.

America still attracts good immigrants, despite controversies over how to deal with illegal immigration. The ability to acquire high quality human capital without spending a cent is an advantage few of its rivals possess.

Wikipedia has a good page on Kennedy’s book. In a recent essay he warns that while the current great powers prefer stability, it would be a folly to believe that the pattern of rise and fall has somehow ended.

The best analysis of the rise and fall of great powers is still Paul Kennedy’s 1988 book which the assemblage of experts in Washington seem to have forgotten. He showed that powers rise with economic growth and decline due to military overstretch. While the constituents of its dynamism are beginning to flash amber, it finds itself embroiled in the Russia-Ukraine and Israel-Palestine wars. Taiwan is an iceberg that lies somewhere ahead. With the Biden administration losing moral stature and undermining the rules-based world order, the US will have to rely ever more on hard power in pursuit of its goals. This risks the overstretch that Kennedy warned about.

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