Forget the rise of China, it’s the fall of America you should worry about
Originally Published by Alex Lo on South China Morning Post
The first week of 2021 was one that history will never forget. As we look to that future, I would not discount China's rise because I believe China will play a significant role in shaping what happens in the world during the twenty-first century, but the South China Morning Post columnist is absolutely correct that America's fall is the even bigger story:
- Andrew Singer
Since the end of World War II, few major historical events have taken place without the United States being involved in one way or another. They may not have always turned out to Washington’s liking, but its influence was unmistakable.
That is why many people, especially Americans, continue to think China’s inexorable rise may still be subject to Washington’s will. Great powers rarely know the limit of their power; once-great ones realise, usually too late, that they are no longer great or powerful. Modern history is full of such lessons.
Of the great powers that took part in the congress of Westphalia in 1648 – the settlement that ended the catastrophic Thirty Years’ War and which came to define the modern nation state – Sweden, Holland and Spain lost their status as “great”, and Poland ceased to exist as an independent entity, by the close of the 18th century.
France under Napoleon III, Britain under Winston Churchill and Soviet Russia under Mikhail Gorbachev didn’t know they had already lost their empire until it was too late. The fate of the United States will be no different from those in the face of the irresistible rise of China. This has less to do with China and everything to do with America’s internal decay.
Most great empires, Arnold Toynbee once argued, end by committing suicide rather than being murdered.
But with their exceptionalism and profound myopia, Americans think they are exempt from history’s merciless fate. They won’t be. There are four areas in which Americans have reigned supreme from the second half of the last century: the military, the capitalist financial system, medicine and disease control, and democratic institutions. In every one of them, signs of decay and decline abound.
In America’s longest war, its military sent al-Qaeda and Taliban forces packing in just a matter of weeks in late 2001. Today, after wasting trillions and countless lives, Washington is negotiating with the Taliban so it can withdraw its soldiers.
The results of those trillions lost in Afghanistan and Iraq can be seen across the US, in urban decay, homelessness, crumbling public infrastructure and transport systems, public schools with third-world standards and defunded public universities, colleges and laboratories.
Rioters incited by US President Donald Trump move in on the Capitol. Photo: Reuters
The US outspends the next seven countries with the world’s largest armies, combined. It will outgun China for years, perhaps decades, to come. But as Afghanistan shows, the economic law of diminishing returns has been especially harsh on the US military. One estimate finds that it took an average of 250,000 American bullets to kill a single Taliban fighter.
So long as China refuses to commit militarily, there is nothing the US can do about it except rattle sabres to the winds.
Until 2007-08, Americans thought financial crises were something that only happened to other countries, with their corrupt and inefficient economies.
Alan Greenspan, the famed chairman of the US Federal Reserve also called “the Maestro” by a biographer, Bob Woodward, famously praised the derivatives – subsequently called “financial weapons of mass destruction” – that helped bring down the US housing market and trigger the global financial crisis.
“What we have found over the years in the marketplace is that derivatives have been an extraordinarily useful vehicle to transfer risk from those who shouldn’t be taking it to those who are willing to and are capable of doing so,” Greenspan once told the US Senate. “We think it would be a mistake [to regulate derivatives].”
The mistake, rather, was not to regulate them. In 2008, before the US Congress, he made a mea culpa of sorts.
Former US Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan praised derivatives that helped bring down the US housing market and trigger the global financial crisis. Photo: Reuters
“Yes, I’ve found a flaw,” he said. “I don’t know how significant or permanent it is. But I’ve been very distressed by that fact.
“Those of us who have looked to the self-interest of lending institutions to protect shareholders’ equity, myself included, are in a state of shocked disbelief.”
Those familiar with Greenspan’s economic philosophy would know he probably wasn’t referring to the “enlightened self-interest” promoted by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations, but selfishness as a supreme human motivator rhapsodised by the Russian-American capitalist ideologue Ayn Rand, of whom he was a lifelong disciple.
Greenspan’s “I am a little bit responsible” statement has been called “a watershed turn in economic history and policy”. But its deeper cultural meaning is the general realisation that America’s financial capitalism wasn’t the cure-all it was advertised to be but the disease, and a pretty fatal one at that.
After 2008, it may be difficult to convince well-informed Chinese or Vietnamese that American capitalism is the way to go for their countries.
The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has been, for decades, rightly considered the world’s gold standard of public health and epidemic control. The Covid-19 pandemic is precisely the kind of public health crisis the CDC was originally set up to manage.
America’s much-vaunted checks and balances have done little to constrain US President Donald Trump over the four years of his term. Photo: AFP
Yet, as of Wednesday, US cases numbered 21,819,880 with 369,443 deaths, making it by far the worst-hit of all developed economies in the world.
Mainstream experts all agree it wasn’t that the CDC and other public health institutions lacked expertise, experience or resources. Rather, they have been severely hampered by the monumental mismanagement of elected officials, beginning with outgoing President Donald Trump.
And that, rather, brings us to the heart of US democracy today. As I wrote these words, I had been watching, on TV, a huge pro-Trump mob of thousands invading the American capital, smashing windows and breaking into the US Congress, including the legislative chamber.
Without irony, the chamber during Trump’s impeachment trial was called by Chief Justice John G. Roberts “the world’s greatest deliberative body”.
Most of these people genuinely believe that Trump won and the November election was stolen. After all, 74,222,958 Americans voted for him. The guy is popular.
Supporters of US President Donald Trump in the Capitol Rotunda after breaching Capitol security. Photo: EPA-EFE
The smashing and break-ins of a legislature have brought back a deep sense of déjà vu for me, as in the storming of the Hong Kong Legislative Council by anti-government protesters and rioters on July 1, 2019.
That was part of a mass protest and riot that lasted through the second half of 2019 in Hong Kong and which were praised as “a beautiful sight” to behold by Democrat Nancy Pelosi, Speaker in the House of Representatives, whose office was occupied by pro-Trump protesters. Perhaps she found beauty in all that too, especially in her office.
All that, in any other countries, would have been called a staged coup. This coup is likely to fail, not because of the much-vaunted checks and balances of the US Constitution, which did little to constrain Trump in the past four years, but rather the much hated, despised and feared unelected “deep state”, which is made up of well-trained and responsible civil servants, bureaucrats and officers who performed their duties rather than just doing what they were told by democratically elected but corrupt officials.
As some American commentators have observed, it was unwritten institutional norms, rather than the written Constitution, that has saved America from Trump.
Paranoid Americans should learn what most people around the world know. There is no “deep state” of the Tom Clancy variety, just civil service and bureaucracy.
All these problems, which are much more extensive and bigger than I can analyse in this column – in the military, the financial system, the medical and public health system, and the political system and probably elsewhere – display a pattern of systemic decline and decay.
If America fails, it won’t be because of China. But obsessing with China and turning it into an enemy is likely to hasten America’s decline and fall.