As Americans, we've grown used to lording it over other nations. Whether we see ourselves as the silverback gorilla whom nature has seen fit to endow with power over the crummier, weaker apes in our care, or more charitably, as the first nation among equals, American exceptionalism has been our birthright for generations. It has woven itself into our psyche to such an extent that to lose this exceptionalism would imply in our minds that something had gone horribly wrong in the world. We've come to think of ourselves as the center of the Universe, as a sort of modern version of the Roman Empire.
We protect the free world under what we've termed the "Pax Americana." We, like Rome, reserve for ourselves the right to preemptively march into nations we perceive as threats. It is a right we'd never acknowledge any other nation as possessing. Perhaps as a hopeful prediction for our nation's future role in the world, our forebears have ceaselessly emulated ancient Rome in crafting our civic architecture, our political institutions, and our national symbolism. Even our money is peppered with a crazy mix of emblems borrowed from Imperial Rome. And for the last sixty years, perhaps we've been justified in thinking of ourselves as the unquestionable superpower of our world, just as Rome was to theirs. But is that reign coming to an end?
To me, it seems that there are three ways in which one can identify a superpower: the military threat that nation can bring to bear against its enemies, it's prestige in the eyes of other nations and its economic power. By all three standards, American influence seems to be heavily on the wane, and with it our prospects for retaining our status as world superpower.
In terms of our military power, the United States is still far and away the strongest nation in the world. We have a nuclear arsenal capable of killing the world several times over (whoopee!), a large, well-equipped standing army and the world's strongest navy and air force. But what does all this power mean, in practical terms?
We can't very well exercise our nuclear superiority and expect to be around to enjoy it. While it may still have some practical use as a deterrent, the biggest threat to our national security no longer comes from an invasion, nuclear strike or any other attack from another sovereign nation, but rather that from an international and loosely organized terrorist group, a threat for which our nuclear arsenal poses no deterrent, as we can no more launch an effective nuclear attack against Al Qaeda than we could against the Jonas Brothers fan club.
Of course, should we suffer another terrorist attack like we did on 9/11, we could always send in the army to knock over another nation or two, but where? In the aftermath of the 9/11 attack, there was only one nation in the world which actively harbored our attackers, Afghanistan, and we've already played there. Just for good measure, we also invaded Iraq, but even for that meager result it took six years of fractious occupation and $675 billion (not to mention 30,000 American casualties) just to bring down a second rate, long-bankrupted nation comprised mostly of sand and falafel. Contrast that with the way we sliced through several of the world's most powerful industrialized nations during World War II.
While our military is still by far the strongest in the world, that doesn't mean a whole lot if the threat of invasion is no longer palpable. And it's not. Given the cost to our nation to invade and occupy a smaller, weakened state of 13 million people like Iraq (an act which, it should be noted, not only resulted in regime change in Iraq, but here in the US as well) the threat of invasion against much larger, stronger nations of 60+ million like Iran or Pakistan, the two nations that would pose the most natural targets in the event of another terrorist attack on our soil, seems less than credible. Even if we ignore the fact that Pakistan has a nuclear arsenal and Iran is quickly closing in on one, given our experience in Iraq, the notion that we'd be able and willing to sustain long, protracted invasions and occupations of either of these nations seems remote at best. So even though we have the strongest military in the world and likely will for the foreseeable future, what good does that do us if it doesn't carry with it any realistic threat of regime change? It's like having a ten inch dick but being alone on a desert island. As such, our military strength going into the 21st century does little more to earn us the status of superpower than Sweden's earns them.
Of course, a lot of what being a superpower earns one comes not from the overt exercise of that power, but rather stems largely from the perception of leadership or the prestige that others grant you. Unfortunately, while unassailable just ten short years ago, the hallmarks of this prestige and international regard have begun to elude us. Much of what international prestige gets you, in practical terms, is deference. When building up for the invasion of Iraq, even the nations that weren't necessarily on board with the invasion itself bought into the claim that Saddam Hussein was hoarding weapons of mass destruction without proof, largely as a result of their belief in the quality and trustworthiness of American intelligence. In the wake of Iraq, and the utter absence of anything even remotely resembling the stockpiles of horor we claimed were there, I think it's safe to say that this congenial deference has subsequently been squandered and that in future our accusations against other nations, no matter how correct, will be viewed with skepticism and distrust. This loss of prestige is only compounded by the almost universal (I think the Albanians are still cool with us) revulsion felt towards our hijinks at Abu Ghraib and the legal gymnastics we employed in order to violate our own Constitution in holding people indefinitely and without charge at Guantanamo Bay and other prisons.
Prior to the precipitous loss of our prestige in the global community, we probably could have coasted for a few decades as a superpower, even after we had no military and economic right to think of ourselves that way, based simply on the historic acquiescence of other nations in letting us set the agenda as the acknowledged leader of the free world. We could have even gotten many of them to help with the heavy lifting, as we did in Afghanistan and Iraq. But that well of trust appears to have run dry. As a result, the moment the practical basis for thinking of the United States as a superpower is extinguished, so will people's respect for us as such. We will be the unpopular kid whose birthday party is abandoned the moment it runs out of cake.
The third, and most important basis for our position as global superpower is our economic strength. It is the most central of the pillars of our superpower status because it is upon this which, to a great extent, the other two rely. And our nation's long term economic forecast does not look good. This is a reality which predates the current economic crisis and it is one which will outlast it. After World War II, the United States enjoyed thirty years as the unparalleled industrial king of the world. Of the other major industrialized nations, the Soviet Union removed itself from the international marketplace, while the industrial infrastructure of western Europe and Japan were utterly destroyed by the war. For decades, American industry was the only game in town. Whatever our corporations made sold like gangbusters, simply by virtue of there being no alternative. The global marketplace was our playground. This all began to change in the 1970's, however, when our shitty cars, overpriced goods and oversized appliances began steadily losing their share of the global market to their leaner, hungrier competitors from Germany, Japan, Korea, Italy etc.
As a result, the real wages of the American worker began to decline for the first time in generations. And, except for three anomalous periods economic growth, our economy has mostly sucked balls since the early 70's. The economic boom of the Reagan era was paid for with unsustainable deficits, the bull market of the late 90's was a result of the dot com bubble, and the growth between 2002-2007, as we now know all too well, was paid for by wildly overpriced real estate... and unsustainable deficit spending. Other than these three periods of robust economic growth fueled by little more than magical thinking and marketplace sleight of hand, the tale of the American economy over the last forty years has been one of inflation, stagnation and decline.
The sad thing is, we've yet to come to terms with these facts. We're borrowing just to pay the rent. Our national debt is growing at such a rate that former GAO Director David Walker went on record saying that if we continue to borrowing at this rate, our nation will be insolvent by 2050. But the government's not the only one running up the credit card. Private citizens are also borrowing at an unprecedented rate just to maintain their established expectations for their standard of living. For the first time since the Great Depression, Americans collectively have a negative savings rate. The average American carries more than $10,000 in consumer debt, and of course, millions of people have been using the equity of their homes like their personal ATM machine, borrowing against its never-ending higher value. This was about the only thing keeping the consumer economy afloat over the past five years and now, with the real estate crash, it is a practice which, for millions of Americans, now must abruptly come to an end.
This is not to say that in ten years we'll all be sporting mohawks and fighting miniature wars over gasoline and cans of dog food. However, it does mean that sooner or later we're going to have to wake up to our new economic realities and make some very hard decisions about how badly we want to continue to try to keep up appearances as the most powerful, richest nation in the world, all of which is very expensive. Like it or not, the 21st century is likely going to be one of a multipolar world, with the European Union, Russia, India and China all becoming far more important players and the United States just being one in a pack of powerful nations, rather than the world's lone exceptional superpower.
A funny thing about the Roman Empire. The fall of the western Roman Empire is seen today as a major, epic, historic event. And yet, for the Romans, it was almost forty years before anyone actually realized it was gone. Sure, their emperor Romulus Augustulus had been deposed by barbarians. But by that time, Roman emperors were being changed like office furniture. An emperor would be killed by disgruntled barbarians, sure, but they were always replaced by new ones. The Romans had gotten so used to ignoring the signs of trouble that it was decades before people finally woke up and made the strange realization that Romulus Augustus wasn't ever going to be replaced. The Roman Empire was over.
I can't help but wonder if some day, thirty years from now, people might not look back and suddenly realize that it was our age of unilateralism, squandered world opinion, and economic exhaustion in which the American Empire similarly came to an end.