December 07, 2007

Problems with maintaining American Hegemony

The phrase "The American Century" accurately suggests the rise to dominance of the United States between 1900 and 2000. It is unlikely that this dominance can continue long into the new century, however. There are two sets of arguments to support this prediction: those that have to do with foreign affairs and those which are domestic.
The United States was the world's greatest military power at the dawn of the new millennium and the predominance of English as the language of science, the Internet, and business, ensures a central place to the United States in the new century. Yet, its economy no longer produces one third of the world's goods as it did in c. 1920. The greatest opportunities for growth lie in Asia, where China and India each have populations four times as large as the United States. Both are nuclear powers, and China has an ambitious space program with the goal of a manned mission to the moon. The "tiger" economies of nations such as South Korea, Taiwan, and Malaysia have already shown that Japan is by no means the only Asian nation capable of mastering advanced technologies and competing in the global marketplace. At the same time, the launch of the Euro currency and the expansion of the European Union to include new members has created a counterweight to the NAFTA free-trade zone of the U.S., Mexico, and Canada. (On the other hand, Europe's population is aging and shrinking, its labor markets are less flexible, and its taxes are higher.) The U.S. economy continues to grow, but as a percentage of the world economy it will become smaller.

Not only is the U.S. economy becoming a diminishing part of the world's economy, but also the globalization of business is eroding the centrality of the American market. In one sense, this globalization represents the triumph of American business values. Yet globalization also lessens the importance of nations, merging them into larger markets and into international organizations. Environmental problems such as global warming and energy shortages will almost certainly increase the pressure to think internationally, rather than in more narrow, national terms. Smaller countries have learned this lesson already, but it appears to be difficult for larger nations to recognize their interdependence, and hardest of all for the United States, as the last remaining superpower, to do so. Regrettably, Washington has not been a leader in reducing global air pollution, for example, and the 2000 election campaign did not result in an environmentally sensitive administration. Quite the contrary. President Bush, as a former (failed) oil entrepreneur, wanted to drill for more oil on public lands and nature reserves. His cabinet has many ties to the oil and automobile industries, but few ties to computer firms such as Microsoft or Intel. George Bush tried to think parochially in his first administration, but was forced to admit that global warming does exist halfway through his second administration.

Which brings us to some domestic reasons why the United States may slip a bit from its position of global hegemony. While the economy remains dynamic, the objects selected for development are not those best suited for the long term. The huge American investments in private automobiles and highways have created a rigid infrastructure that sprawls across a vast landscape, in contrast to other nations that have invested in high-speed trains and public transportation that concentrate the population and give them more transportation choices. In much of the United States, walking to the store is impossible. Consumers have no choice but to use their automobiles even to make the smallest purchase. Americans cannot easily change their consumption patterns to respond to rising energy costs. In the marketplaces for housing, transportation and conveniences, the majority of American consumers have ignored long-term environmental problems such as global warming, and thought too little about the energy needs of the rest of the world, while insisting on their consumption (and pollution) practices. If you want to see what the US might have done instead, visit a nation like Denmark or The Netherlands. They are also buying more cars than they used to, but in a pinch they can take public transport or bicycle. 

This Blog explores many topics, but the question of how the United States will adjust to a gradual decline of its hegemony remains a theme throughout. This is written without any pleasure at the changes described. I am, after all is said, an American, born in the middle of the American Century, witnessing the next act in the nation's history.