Just Above Sunset
January 30, 2005 - Decline and Fall Into Irrelevance

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Edward Gibbon (1737-1794) was inspired to write The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire while on a trip to Rome in 1764.  It was completed in 1788.  The full text is here if you’ve got too much time on your hands.


But there’s a lot of that decline and fall stuff going around these days.  And this was the week it was discussed all over.  The United States is an excellent place to be rich, but….


Consider these three books: 

The United States of Europe: The New Superpower and the End of American Supremacy

by T.R. Reid

Penguin, 305 pp., $25.95


The European Dream: How Europe's Vision of the Future Is Quietly Eclipsing the American Dream

by Jeremy Rifkin

Tarcher/Penguin, 434 pp., $25.95


Free World: America, Europe, and the Surprising Future of the West

by Timothy Garton Ash

Random House, 286 pp. $24.95

These books are reviewed here:


Europe vs. America

Tony Judt, The New York Review of Books, Volume 52, Number 2, February 10, 2005


Here’s the general idea (with my emphases) – Europe seeing America coming apart at the seams -


To a growing number of Europeans, however, it is America that is in trouble and the "American way of life" that cannot be sustained. The American pursuit of wealth, size, and abundance —as material surrogates for happiness —is aesthetically unpleasing and ecologically catastrophic. The American economy is built on sand (or, more precisely, other people's money). For many Americans the promise of a better future is a fading hope. Contemporary mass culture in the US is squalid and meretricious. No wonder so many Americans turn to the church for solace… These perceptions constitute the real Atlantic gap and they suggest that something has changed. In past decades it was conventionally assumed—whether with satisfaction or regret—that Europe and America were converging upon a single "Western" model of late capitalism, with the US as usual leading the way…  But something has gone wrong with this story.

America's cultural peculiarities (as seen from Europe) are well documented: the nation's marked religiosity, its selective prurience, its affection for guns and prisons (the EU has 87 prisoners per 100,000 people; America has 685), and its embrace of the death penalty.  As T.R. Reid puts it in The United States of Europe, "Yes, Americans put up huge billboards reading 'Love Thy Neighbor,' but they murder and rape their neighbors at rates that would shock any European nation."  But it is the curiosities of America's economy, and its social costs, that are now attracting attention.


Americans work much more than Europeans: according to the OECD a typical employed American put in 1,877 hours in 2000, compared to 1,562 for his or her French counterpart. One American in three works more than fifty hours a week. Americans take fewer paid holidays than Europeans. Whereas Swedes get more than thirty paid days off work per year and even the Brits get an average of twenty-three, Americans can hope for something between four and ten, depending on where they live. Unemployment in the US is lower than in many European countries (though since out-of-work Americans soon lose their rights to unemployment benefits and are taken off the registers, these statistics may be misleading). America, it seems, is better than Europe at creating jobs. So more American adults are at work and they work much more than Europeans. What do they get for their efforts?

Not much, unless they are well-off. The US is an excellent place to be rich. Back in 1980 the average American chief executive earned forty times the average manufacturing employee. For the top tier of American CEOs, the ratio is now 475:1 and would be vastly greater if assets, not income, were taken into account. By way of comparison, the ratio in Britain is 24:1, in France 15:1, in Sweden 13:1. A privileged minority has access to the best medical treatment in the world. But 45 million Americans have no health insurance at all (of the world's developed countries only the US and South Africa offer no universal medical coverage). According to the World Health Organization the United States is number one in health spending per capita—and thirty-seventh in the quality of its service.

As a consequence, Americans live shorter lives than West Europeans. Their children are more likely to die in infancy: the US ranks twenty-sixth among industrial nations in infant mortality, with a rate double that of Sweden, higher than Slovenia's, and only just ahead of Lithuania's—and this despite spending 15 percent of US gross domestic product on "health care" (much of it siphoned off in the administrative costs of for-profit private networks). Sweden, by contrast, devotes just 8 percent of its GDP to health. The picture in education is very similar. In the aggregate the United States spends much more on education than the nations of Western Europe; and it has by far the best research universities in the world. Yet a recent study suggests that for every dollar the US spends on education it gets worse results than any other industrial nation. American children consistently underperform their European peers in both literacy and numeracy. . .


Yeah, yeah – heard that all before.  But this week also brought is this:


2020 Vision

A CIA report predicts that American global dominance could end in 15 years.
Fred Kaplan - Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2005, at 2:48 PM PT – SLATE.COM


The opening?


Who will be the first politician brave enough to declare publicly that the United States is a declining power and that America's leaders must urgently discuss what to do about it? This prognosis of decline comes not (or not only) from leftist scribes rooting for imperialism's downfall, but from the National Intelligence Council—the "center of strategic thinking" inside the U.S. intelligence community.


The NIC's conclusions are starkly presented in a new 119-page document, "Mapping the Global Future: Report of the National Intelligence Council's 2020 Project."  It is unclassified and available on the CIA's Web site. The report has received modest press attention the past couple weeks, mainly for its prediction that, in the year 2020, "political Islam" will still be "a potent force."


What Kaplan is getting at here is that people are missing the key item in this report – the conclusion that a new “world order” is emerging and in fifteen years the United States will remain "an important shaper of the international order" - probably the single most powerful country - but its "relative power position" will have "eroded."  The idea is that not only radical Islam but China and India, along with Brazil, Indonesia and others, will make this decline happen even faster by working on "strategies designed to exclude or isolate the United States" in order to "force or cajole" us into playing by their rules.


In short, we will become more and more insignificant, and be more and more ignored.  We’re not going to be that important.


That’s cheery.


That National Intelligence Council report was covered in these pages here - January 16, 2005: The Only Causes Worth Fighting For Are Lost Causes  - and I did miss that implication.


Oh well.


But wait!  There’s more!  What we’re doing in the world these days is actually accelerating this decline.   We’re making ourselves irrelevant, almost on purpose.


America's current foreign policy is encouraging this trend, the NIC concluded. "U.S. preoccupation with the war on terrorism is largely irrelevant to the security concerns of most Asians," the report states. The authors don't dismiss the importance of the terror war—far from it. But they do write that a "key question" for the future of America's power and influence is whether U.S. policy-makers "can offer Asian states an appealing vision of regional security and order that will rival and perhaps exceed that offered by China." If not, "U.S. disengagement from what matters to U.S. Asian allies would increase the likelihood that they will climb on Beijing's bandwagon and allow China to create its own regional security that excludes the United States."


To the extent that these new powers seek others to emulate, they may look to the European Union, not the United States, as "a model of global and regional governance."


Damned Euro-Weenies!  Folks would rather be like them than killing bad guys in the Middle East like we do?  (It’s a “vision thing” of course.)  And the CIA is publishing this?


But wait!  There’s more!


The trends should already be apparent to anyone who reads a newspaper. Not a day goes by without another story about how we're mortgaging our future to the central banks of China and Japan. The U.S. budget deficit, approaching a half-trillion dollars, is financed by their purchase of Treasury notes. The U.S. trade deficit—much of it amassed by the purchase of Chinese-made goods—now exceeds $3 trillion. Meanwhile, China is displacing the United States all across Asia—in trade, investment, education, culture, and tourism. It's also cutting into the trade markets of Latin America. (China is now Chile's No. 1 export market and Brazil's No. 2 trade partner.) Asian engineering students who might once have gone to MIT or Cal Tech are now going to universities in Beijing.


Meanwhile, as the European Union becomes a coherent entity, the dollar's value against the euro has fallen by one-third in the past two years (one-eighth just since September). As the dollar's rate of return declines, currency investors—including those who have been financing our deficit—begin to diversify their holdings. In China, Japan, Russia, and the Middle East, central bankers have been unloading dollars in favor of euros. The Bush policies that have deepened our debt have endangered the dollar's status as the world's reserve currency.


Man!  Not good.


Let’s see.  Economic incompetence.  Check.  Foreign policy incompetence.  Check.  General irrelevance as a model for how to govern.  Check.


Seymour Hersh here -


Europe is not going to tolerate us much longer. The rage there is enormous. I'm talking about our old-fashioned allies - it's going to be an awful lot of dancing on our graves as the dollar goes bad and everybody stops buying our bonds, our credit - our - we're spending $2 billion a day to float the debt, and one of these days, the Japanese and the Russians, everybody is going to start buying oil in Euros instead of dollars. We're going to see enormous panic here.


Yep.  We get the idea.


But wait!  There’s more!


points to an item in the Financial Times by Michael Lind that says everyone is having meetings and planning things without us.  How RUDE!


In a second inaugural address tinged with evangelical zeal, George W. Bush declared: "Today, America speaks anew to the peoples of the world." The peoples of the world, however, do not seem to be listening. A new world order is indeed emerging - but its architecture is being drafted in Asia and Europe, at meetings to which Americans have not been invited.


… Ironically, the US, having won the cold war, is adopting the strategy that led the Soviet Union to lose it: hoping that raw military power will be sufficient to intimidate other great powers alienated by its belligerence. To compound the irony, these other great powers are drafting the blueprints for new international institutions and alliances.


Lind says that in area after area: economic progress, military independence, space exploration, democracy promotion, human rights, and international law, other nations of the world are getting on with their own agendas while we stand on the sidelines waving our résumé in one hand--a résumé which has never impressed the rest of the world as much as it impresses us--and a machine gun in the other, hoping to intimidate them into doing things our way.


Perhaps we should explain one more time why the death penalty and officially sanctioned torture (or torture-lite) and imprisonment without charges or trial are GOOD things.  And mock them if they don’t agree, or kill them.


Bush will have his chance to explain.  He visits Europe next month.


Here’s a comment, from an American columnist visiting Europe at the moment.


In Europe, all Bush has to do is listen

Thomas L. Friedman The New York Times, Friday, January 28, 2005


… Let me put this as bluntly as I can: There is nothing that the Europeans want to hear from Bush, there is nothing that they will listen to from Bush that will change their minds about him or the Iraq war or U.S. foreign policy. Bush is more widely and deeply disliked in Europe than any U.S. president in history. Some people here must have a good thing to say about him, but I haven't met them yet.

In such an environment, the only thing that Bush could do to change people's minds about him would be to travel across Europe and not say a single word - but just listen. If he did that, Bush would bowl the Europeans over. He would absolutely disarm and flummox people here - and improve his own image markedly. …


Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha….  Dream on.  You can just hear Bush saying moodily, pouting like a spoiled little boy, that those folks are supposed to listen to HIM.  It’s not FAIR!  He has the big stick.  Or big whatever.


But here’s Freidman’s kicker –


What would Bush hear? Some of it is classic Eurowhining, easily dismissible. But some of it is very heartfelt, even touching. I heard it while doing interviews at the Pony Club, a trendy bar/beauty parlor in East Berlin. And more and more I think it explains why many Europeans dislike Bush so intensely. It's this: Europeans love to make fun of naive American optimism, but deep down, they envy it and they want America to be that open, foreigner-embracing, carefree, goofily enthusiastic place that cynical old Europe can never be. Many young Europeans blame Bush for making America, since the Sept. 11 attacks, into a strange new land that exports fear more than hope, and has become dark and brooding - a place whose greeting to visitors has gone from "Give me your tired, your poor" to "Give me your fingerprints." They look at Bush as someone who stole something precious from them.

Tim Kreutzfeldt, the bar owner, said to me: "Bush took away our America. I mean we love America. We are very sad about America. We believe in America and American values, but not in Bush. And it makes us angry that he distorted our image of the country which is so important to us. It is not what America stands for - and this makes us angry and it should make every American angry, because America lost so much in its reputation worldwide." The Bush team, he added, is giving everyone in the world the impression that "somebody is coming to kill you."

Stefan Elfenbein, a food critic nursing a beer at our table, added: "I know many people who don't want to travel to America anymore. People are afraid to be hassled at the border. We all discuss it, when somebody goes to America [we now ask]: 'Are you sure?' We had hope that Kerry would win and would make a statement, 'America is back to what it was four years ago.' We hoped that he would be the symbol, the figure who would say, [America] is the country that welcomes everybody again.' [But] now we have to wait four more years, hopefully for somebody to give us back the country we knew and liked."


I doubt I will every visit the Pony Club in Berlin.  I know I won’t.  Back top Paris next September to chat with Ric and hook up with Joseph and Emma, and see other old friends, but my heritage is Czech and Slovak – and thus Germany will never be on my itinerary. 


But I agree with Tim Kreutzfeldt.  Bush and his crew took away my America too.



Copyright © 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
The inclusion of any text from others is quotation
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