That the United States is in decline is a truism that is almost in the nature of a cliché now. The question is whether the country is in absolute or relative decline. I would posit that the country’s decline is rather absolute. The reason(s) are not the “usual” ones stipulated by International Relations theory and practice but , in my opinion , pertain to the actual use of power- within and without- by the United States. Classic(al) International Relations theory states that power transitions (or even diffusion) are almost a norm in the world of states. Usually, the theory asserts, there is a rough balance of power that leads to relative peace; but, if a state accumulates too much power and disturbs a particular or a given balance of power, other states upend this “order” and challenge the powerful state by balancing against it. System polarity is determined, among other things, by the symmetries or asymmetries in the international system.
But, as we have observed, after the end of the Cold War induced structural bipolarity, the United States became a unipole. Tremendous power was concentrated in the country and the international system became unipolar. No clear cut challenger against the United States emerged for many years as the United States’ “unipolar moment” extended itself. The condition of unipolarity, however, engendered a certain hubris in the United States which lead to what may be called an “Imperial Overstretch” in the form of pre-emptive war against Iraq. The larger aim, embedded in this hubristic “Imperial Overstretch” was to reshape the Middle East in the image of the United States. During this interregnum, yet again, no clear cut challenger to the United States emerged but what was and perhaps is significant is that the United States was changing within. I will return to the nature of this change as the essay progresses. But, suffice it to say, this change was obscured by the unipolarity induced hubris which, among other things, did not allow the United States and its ruling elite, to fathom the profound structural changes that were occurring and reshaping the both the United States and the world in fundamental ways.
What was emblematic about these structural changes was the rise and emergence of China as a force in international relations- both at a systemic and economic level. As the Middle East descended into chaos and anarchy, save some pockets and islands of relative peace, China which took advantage of “globalism” and ensconced itself into the sinews of globalization, adopting utilitarian aspects of liberalism and the liberal order thereof, but retaining its political system and character, emerged as a potential challenger to the United States. A condition approximating or announcing the rudimentary prelude to a multipolar world, it also coincided with Russia’s attempts to reassert itself in world politics. The West’s certainties about itself, its philosophies and its role in the World- almost messianic in nature fed by certitudes of “scholars” ensconced in think tanks, universities and even in the foreign policy establishment of the United States- were in the midst of a putative challenge. Its central Idea and even ideal- the notion, concept and idea of democracy- no longer seemed as immanent as the West liked to believe. To cite an American scholar, who was at the forefront of feeding and nurturing the West’s certainties, Francis Fukuyama, the world began experiencing what he called a “democratic recession”. Contra democracy, many significant regions of the world started looking elsewhere for models and inspiration. Democracy and the West’s favorite politico-economic models and pet theories were or are no longer the only game in town, so to speak. A new world “order” appears to be on the anvil where China seems to be at the apex, for many and others are bandwagoning with China, in many parts of Asia and Africa. Russia is carving out its spheres of influence and Turkey is increasingly turning away from the West. In these fluid conditions, the European construct, or the European Union and its future looks bleak, unless and until it is salvaged by its core components, Germany and France. In essence then, it is not only the United States that faces multiple challengers but also the West, broadly speaking. It may even be that while the West appears to be in relative decline, the United States is in the midst of absolute decline.
The reason(s), I aver, pertain not merely to system polarity or narrowing of power differentials in the international system but by the inward retreat of the United States, its contempt for democracy, morphing of electoral democracy into a referendum, disrespect for difference and increasing intolerance or, in other words, a “democratic recession” in the United States itself. All these themes have created conjunctural trends in the country which are creating a moral crisis there. The United States, instead of a democracy, is gradually morphing into what Martin Wolf of the Financial Times has called a plutocracy, which is upending is moral foundations. This might be best reflected by the closing of the country to the outsider (an inversion of the Kantian ideal, among other things). The moral crisis that is gaining traction in the United States , also exemplified by the assumption of Trump to the highest office of the country, appears to be creating a crisis of legitimacy- within and without. Power and legitimacy are tied intimately to each other- especially from a moral perspective. Once the twin crises-moral and in terms of legitimacy- reach a critical mass, the United States will have to abdicate leadership in all domains. Unless and until there is a drastic course correction within and unless the country regains its moral compass, this decline is not only inevitable, but a matter of time. In essence, it is the concentration of power and its odious use that might have created the moral crisis in the United States. The question is what or who will replace the country? The answer to this question remains in the domain of the “unknown unknown”. What, however, can be said with certainty is that we live in interesting times.
—The author can be reached at: [email protected]