How America became a lost, exhausted superpower
And how it may well get much, much worse
What does it feel like to live through an era of precipitous national decline? I suspect it feels quite a lot like life in the United States in 2017.
I don't just mean the relative decline that many analysts have begun to measure and that nearly everyone expects to accelerate over the coming decades. This relative decline compares America to countries in the developing world like China and India with vastly larger populations, where economic growth is likely to continue outstripping ours by such an extent that their economies will eventually surpass ours in absolute size. But such relative decline is perfectly compatible with continued growth and rising living standards within the U.S. Even as China grows larger than us, life at home could still continue on much as it has for decades, with ordinary Americans sensing little to no change in their quality of life.
But that doesn't seem to be the case here. What's happening in America isn't just relative decline. It looks like real decline.
For an especially extreme example of what real decline looks like, consider the case of Venezuela, which has seen its political system and economy stumble and buckle over the past two decades, only to enter into something like a death spiral over the past several months.
It's far too early, and almost certainly too pessimistic, to predict such a dramatic downturn for the United States. Yet there are numerous signs across a range of measures that the country may have reached a sort of zenith within the past generation and begun a downward trajectory that could well get steeper over the coming years and decades.
Here are just a few of these signs.
China's bid to reorder global trade. Barack Obama didn't work to pass the Trans-Pacific Partnership because he believed in the intrinsic wonderfulness of free trade and globalization. He did so in an attempt to deepen America's ties with such countries as Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, and Vietnam as a way to counter-balance China's efforts to increase its economic influence across Asia. But the Trump administration has scrapped the trade deal. An important front page story in Sunday's New York Times explains in detail why this was an enormous gift to China — and, by implication, why it could well turn out to be a world-historical debacle for the United States.
To say that China is seeking economic influence across Asia is to underplay the breathtaking scope of its efforts. Somewhat like America's postwar Marshall Plan for Europe though on a much greater scale, China has promised to undertake, help finance, and in some cases pick up the tab for more than $1 trillion in infrastructure projects in more than 60 countries across South and Southeast Asia, Africa, and Europe.
The "One Belt, One Road" initiative solves numerous problems for China. With domestic growth slowing after decades of rapid expansion, it keeps the country's industrial sector roaring. It provides an enormous number of jobs for Chinese workers. (The Times reports that when a single project in Laos reaches its peak, it will employ an estimated 100,000 people.) It locks dozens of countries into long-term lucrative maintenance contracts overseen by China.
But most of all, the infrastructure projects should contribute to economic growth in the countries benefiting from them, which will, in turn, greatly expand markets for Chinese goods and services. The projects are also likely to establish deep cultural ties between China and the participating nations — and teach their governments powerful lessons about the virtues of the Chinese model of state-led development.
It's an audacious display of geopolitical ambition that could well end up reordering world trade to such an extent that China becomes a political and economic hegemon that rivals or surpasses the U.S. across large swaths of the globe, while also leaving us frozen out of some markets and strongly disadvantaged in many others. The latter possibility is what makes the "One Belt, One Road" initiative a possible catalyst of real and not just relative decline for the United States: It may well realign much of world toward China and away from us, a process that (if it continues) will likely translate into a significant loss in political and economic power over the coming decades.
We're not well. Even before such shifts materialize, the U.S. confronts numerous worrying trends at home. Life expectancy fell last year. Rates of maternal mortality are much higher in the U.S. than elsewhere in the developed world, and getting significantly worse over time. Tens of millions of Americans are overweight. Suicide rates are up. As are rates of death from alcohol abuse and, of course, opioid addiction.
The party in power in Washington hopes to pass a law to reform the nation's health-care system in such a way that something on the order of 24 million fewer people have access to affordable care. It's hard to see how the consequence such reform would be anything other than a worsening of every single trend.
Donald J. Trump. American political culture is arguably more sharply polarized now than at any time since the years preceding the Civil War. In 2016 that polarization combined with the institutional collapse of the Republican Party, a weak Democratic Party nominee, and the quirks of the Electoral College system to deliver the presidency to a man of uncommon ignorance and sociopathological malevolence. Every day Donald Trump shreds the rule of law in novel ways — by lying constantly and continuously, by bringing corruption into the highest levels of the executive branch, by expressing contempt for and defying ordinary norms of democratic governance, by refusing to hire people to staff the federal government. And every day, the president's own party makes it worse by ignoring or making excuses for the transgressions.
Consider the consequences of Trump's actions (or inactions) in the crucially important area of foreign policy. As Jeet Heer pointed out in a valuable series of tweets, President Trump, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, and U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley constantly contradict one another. The end result is that the U.S. has no foreign policy to speak of.
Our fecklessness abroad. Combine this astonishing vacuum at the top with our increasing military impotence — since the war in Afghanistan began over 15 years ago, the U.S. has shown itself capable of projecting force across the globe but incapable of using it to prevail decisively in any conflict — and we appear to be a lost, exhausted superpower, in danger of succumbing to the kind of imperial overstretch that historian Paul Kennedy once identified as a crucial sign that a great power had entered a period of decline.
Now, American decline probably isn't inevitable — at least not at this moment in history. What we desperately need is for policymakers to do their jobs carefully and thoughtfully, recognizing the worst dangers and doing their level-headed best to forestall them, since that may be the only way to slow, halt, or reverse the current downward trajectory. The trouble is that politics in nations undergoing decline tends to be polarized, volatile, and prone to demagoguery.
And that raises a final, chilling possibility: Might Trump be both a symptom and a cause of American decline? If the answer is yes, we may have little choice but to hold on tight.