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Empire
Transcript: Decline of the American empire
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Last Modified: 30 Dec 2011 10:14

This is the transcript for the Empire episode The decline of the American empire (Thursday, December 29, 2011)

Narrator

Its power is felt in every corner of the globe. Its military spending equals the rest of the world but has Washington finally over-reached with its debt sky-rocketing, its infrastructure crumbling and its competitors vying for influence?

The world is undergoing a profound and complicated transformation.

Economist

The developing economies will surpass the developing economies. 

Narrator

Is all the talk of American decline premature?

Barack Obama

Let's show the world once again why the United States of America remains the greatest nation on earth.

Narrator

Or is the sun finally setting on the American century? 

Marwan Bishara

This is Empire

Hello and welcome to Empire. I am Marwan Bishara. The United States has the world’s biggest economy, strongest military and the most influential culture. It’s the only power with a global project defended and supported by more aircraft carriers, Fortune 500 companies and most successful media-tainment conglomerates than any other. But America’s post-cold war optimism, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, has given way to pessimism, forecasting a declining power and more crucially, the end of an American era. The rise of new divisional and global powers, coupled with Washington’s recent war fiascos and financial crisis have worsened the outlook for America’s future.

Countless books have gone beyond recent developments to illustrate a persistent decline with titles like Suicide of a Superpower, The Empire Has No Clothes, Taming American Power, Nemesis, The Last Days of the American Republic, Colossus, The Rise and Fall of The American Empire and Selling Out a Superpower.  But how serious are the Doomsday scenarios? Is this decline temporary or reversible and what does it mean to America and the rest of the world? Well joining me to answer these questions and more are Tom Engelhardt, editor of the American Empire Project and a popular website Tomdispatch, the author of the United States of Fear. Susan Glasser, editor-in-chief of Foreign Policy magazine, former editor at the Washington Post and co-author of Kremlin Rising Vladimir Putin’s Russia And The End of Revolution.  And Cynthia Enloe, professor of woman’s studies and international development at Clark University, the author of The Real State of America Atlas, Mapping the Myths and Truths of the United States and Bananas, Beaches and Bases, Making Feminist Sense of International Politics. Last, but not least, Stephen Walt, professor of International Affairs at Harvard University, the author of Taming American Power and co-author of the Israel Lobby. Our starting point is US strategic overstretch. 

Narrator

What exactly is the United States afraid of? This ship is part of what is called a carrier battle group, it consists of an aircraft carrier, cruisers, destroyers, scores of combat aircraft … and a multitude of long and short range missiles and other weapons. It is so large the entire thing requires roughly 10,000 military personnel to operate. The United States boasts a dozen carrier battle groups of this size. No other nation on earth has one. The question is why?

Professor Nicholas Burns – former US under-secretary of state  

We are absolutely keeping America safe. The world is so complex right now, there's so many threats and challenges to our national security. You can't meet them in Boston in Los Angeles, you have to go out to meet them to defend the country.

Narrator

But for many this idea of going out to meet these challenges is precisely the problem.

Professor Andrew Bacevich -  international relations, Boston University

If you look at the period since 1990, over 20 years now, it really is a period of enormous and continuing American military activism in all parts of the world for all kinds of purposes. I find that troubling.

Professor Nicholas Burns

If you were drawing back to the continental United States and saying we're no longer gonna be engaged in the world because it's too hard, or it’s too expensive, isolation is a recipe for failure in the 21st century.

Narrator

And yet another recipe for failure is economic calamity and that puts funding squarely in the spotlight. In the fiscal year 2012 the United States government has $1.34tr to play with. Currently, $553bn has been allocated to the defence budget. But as Washington has learnt the hard way, winning hearts and minds doesn't come cheap. In other words, is the money well spent?

Professor Andrew Bacevich

Heavens no, I mean absolutely not. I'm all for strong defence, I'm all for having a very capable, well resourced military that keeps America safe, that can prevent anything like 9/11. But the way we've gone about trying to prevent a recurrence of 9/11 is absurd.

Narrator

But what about challenges at home? The economic dimension cannot be ignored. The US military is a major domestic employer. The entire defence industry turns over billions upon billions of dollars every year and the link between the strength of the American economy and the strength of the American military cannot be ignored. And critics are quick to point out the perils of such a symbiotic relationship.

Professor Andrew Bacevich

There is in a sense, a partnership, probably goes too far to call it a conspiracy, 'cause it's wide open but there's a partnership between members of congress, the armed services and large scale defence contractors, all of whom benefit in different ways by maintaining very high levels of military spending.

Narrator

And that's why, during times of economic peril, politicians often resemble cheerleaders.

Joseh Biden – US vice president

You're the ones ensuring this alliance remains effective in meeting the challenges of the 21st century from countering North Korea's nuclear programme, to building up ties and trade and investment and generate jobs back home to promoting democracy and human rights. You do it all, you're the full package.

Narrator

And of course there's the matter of prestige, the projection of strength. Any drastic changes to American hard power will create a vacuum and it's impossible to predict, in today's world, how that will be filled or by whom.

Professor Nicholas Burns

We can't just retreat to fortress America you know and bring up the drawbridge and hope to defend our international security interests by bringing all the troops home.

Narrator

And thus the cycle is endlessly perpetuated. Wars need funding, funding creates jobs, jobs strengthen the economy. So perhaps the most important question of all, is whether geo-political instability is the excuse, rather than the justification. This is the essence of real politics.

Professor Andrew Bacevich

Not am Empire in the old fashioned sense, but I think that there was a clear desire and is a clear desire on the part of senior US officials to want to ensure that the regimes that are in place are relatively deferential to the United States, they will pursue policies that are consistent with our policies. Basically to put us in a position where we’re gonna be able to call the shots and that's a form of imperialism.

Narrator

Because with the global economy the way it is these days, imperialism is very good for business.

Marwan Bishara

Stephen you've written a lot about this whole overstretch, I mean overstretch could actually also be good for business, it's not only a burden, what do you think? 

Tom Engelhardt – editor, Tomdispatch  

I think we've had an enormous stimulus package abroad. We've been spending money like crazy, we put about 1.2 trillion a year, maybe that's conservative. I think it's proved to be a kind of squandering of resources and I think if you look at the United States and you look at, I mean you've got several things, you've got a kind of industrialisation, you had the financialization that led to 2007/2008 and you had this third thing which is our urge to kind of take the world, to create a pox Americana and I think it too, has been a factor that's squandered American treasure.

Marwan Bishara

But it's good for business, pox Americana.

Professor Stephen M. Walt – international affairs, Harvard University

I think that's a mistake. Whenever the defence budget comes under pressure you hear the argument that this is necessary to keep the American economy rolling. Most economists will tell you however, that Pentagon spending is actually not the best way to stimulate the American economy. But almost everyone would see that there are other ways to invest the same amount of money that would create a much bigger economic payoff here at home. Building infrastructure, whether it's roads and bridges or internet networks, things that would actually enhance the productivity of the American economy. So the excessive expenditure, it has actually been a drag on the United States and we see that now when we're trying to get a budget deal, right everyone understands that in order to get the American federal budget back on a sort of stable course, we’re gonna have to raise some taxes, gonna have to cut some entitlements and we're gonna have to cut some defence spending. None of these dramatically, but all of them enough to make it all work. And that hasn't happened for political reasons, but not because cutting defence would actually harm the American economy in a big way.

Marwan Bishara

But at the end of the day the defence budget as it it, 600 and some billion dollars, it's less than 5 per cent of the American GDP, it's not a huge percent of the American economy. 

Professor Susan Glasser – editor-in-chief, Foreign Policy

It's something around four per cent,  just under four per cent of GDP, so it's something that whether you support it or not, we can afford it and that's part of the reason why it's continue to grow, because the United States has been so extraordinarily rich and successful, we’ve been able to finance this astonishing expansion of the military and associated, you know sort of complex budget. If you look at the numbers, peoples' jaws always drop when they hear this, but the truth is that US national security spending, right now, represents awful close to 50 per cent of all of the world's military expenditures combined. And I think when people hear that, they are just astonished, the scale and scope of the militarisation of America's footprint in the world is something that Americans here at home actually are astonishingly unaware of. That said, I have to say, I have to comment on your sort of report that you had, there’s no bad guys in there, the only conversation you know that we’ve been framed to have is a conversation about American imperial over-stretch as if we were the Roman empire sort of conquering territories. And I think …

Marwan Bishara

You're actually far more vast than the Roman empire. Aren't you? I mean how many bases are there around the world?  

Professor Susan Glasser

It's a different model, right. 

Marwan Bishara

1,000? 

Tom Engelhardt

It's approximately 1,000 if you don’t count for instance the 400 odd that we built in Afghanistan or those 505 that we’ve just given up in Iraq etc.

Marwan Bishara

So if this is not an imperial outreach, I don't know what is.

Professor Cynthia Enloe – international development, Clark University

One of the problems of this kind of militarisation of security, that is convincing Americans that in fact the only way that they can feel secure is to have a fortress and a outreach, you know global fortress. And I think actually, there's a new discussion in the United States now and I think actually not far from this studio is one of the occupied Wall Street camps, and I think that's a discussion about well so what do you mean by security? Right, whose security? How solid is that security? How resilient is that security? And I think one of the things a lot of us are, well some of us have been long convinced of this, but others are really beginning to understand, that that kind of American popular culture, of militarised security, is really very shallow and it's not really secure.

Marwan Bishara

Let's take a look at the states with American bases in them. I mean certainly you’re more likely to accept an American oil deal or American business deal of some sort if there's an American base in your country, no?

Professor Stephen M. Walt

I think it depends very much on a case by case basis. I mean there are a number of countries around the world who I think are actually very dependent upon American protection and grateful for it.

Marwan Bishara

Grateful meaning? 

Professor Stephen M. Walt

Grateful that they appreciate it. 

Marwan Bishara

They do business with it. 

Professor Stephen M. Walt

Well not just 'cause they do business, South Korea likes having American protection there because they have a bad relationship with North Korea. Right, Japan likes having American protection because they are worried about security.  But I guess the point I'd make is this, it's often viewed as a false choice between complete isolationism and the United States taking over the world. The United States is not gonna disengage from the entire world, we're not going back to fortress America. The question is what are the places where the United States should use its power and how should the United States use its power in a constructive way? The problem with the last ten years or so is that we've increasingly used our power in some foolish ways that have been bad for the United States and not particularly good for the places we've been using it.

Marwan Bishara

So you don't mind very much if they use power to get business contracts?

Professor Stephen M. Walt

No.

Marwan Bishara

Unfortunately is when they’re useless.

Professor Susan Glasser

But I think that’s a pretty, I mean to say that the exercise of American power is invalid, you know forcing people to make business details at the barrel of a gun.

Marwan Bishara

Why forcing, enticing?

Professor Susan Glasser

Right I think that's a pretty nuanced view of the world. I don't think that Americans are in Afghanistan to make business deals and the truth is, you know who's in Afghanistan to make business deals, it's the Chinese.

Tom Engelhardt

I think it would be hard to argue that when the Bush administration went out into the world they weren't thinking about energy flows, they were thinking about breaking OPEC, they were thinking about doing a lot of things and they were thinking about basing us, a kind of a South Korean model, 30,000 troops maybe, in the heart of the oil lands of the planet forever. Now the thing is sometimes you go out with guns to get your contracts and it doesn't work out that way.

Professor Cynthia Enloe

I wanna bring the scale down a bit here and not talk about China and Japan and the US, but actually talk about people who live around US bases. There was such an effective anti-bases movement in the Philippines that they Philippines senate, much against their earlier inclinations, voted to end the basing agreement with the United States. It causes a lot of disruption of social life.

Marwan Bishara

It certainly was the justification for getting the American bases out of Saudi Arabia after the first Gulf War. 

Professor Stephen M. Walt

It's quite clear that part of the reason why al-Qaeda turned its attention to attacking the United States directly was their perception that infidels were now on sacred Islamic territory. It was not the only thing they were upset by, but that was clearly one of them. So our strategy of leaving five to 10,000 troops in Saudi Arabia as part of dual containment in the 1990s was one of the things that helped lead to that. Now among other things, that doesn't tell you the United States should come home entirely, but it does tell you that having large, on the ground, military presences in various parts of the world can have, what Chalmers Johnson used to call blow-back effects, on the United States itself, which is why we got to be rather careful about where we deploy forces and try to minimise the American military footprint as much as we can.

Marwan Bishara

So you’re in favour of deployment around the world, except you want it to be intelligent deployment?

Professor Stephen M. Walt

Absolutely.

Marwan Bishara

So you are for empire except that you want to be downsized? 

Professor Susan Glasser

Do you think that deployment and empire are synonyms? 

Marwan Bishara

Deployment around the world in 1,000 bases.

Professor Susan Glasser

Empire.

Marwan Bishara

Who else around the world does that?

Professor Susan Glasser

No are deployment and empire synonyms?

Marwan Bishara

I mean do the Chinese have bases around the world?  Do the Russians, do they have such bases with the Indians, the Brazilians, the Turks?  

Professor Stephen M. Walt

Certainly the Soviet Union had bases all over the world, not as many as we did.

Marwan Bishara

A smaller empire? 

Professor Stephen M. Walt

And we called it the Soviet Empire. 

Professor Cynthia Enloe

Yeah one should remember that every base is negotiated and I don't mean amongst equals, it's definitely not amongst equals and one of the things that is so irritating to South Koreans, many of whom are nervous about the North, but are still appalled at the inequality and injustice of the basing agreement and they're called …

Marwan Bishara

SOFAS.

Professor Cynthia Enloe

SOFAS, Status Of Forces Agreement. 

Marwan Bishara

That's Iraqis …

Professor Cynthia Enloe

Yes and they are, for the most part, they are classified, which means I got a call from people in an unidentified south Asian county, asking me if I knew the small print in the SOFA agreement between their government and the United States because it was not available to local citizens. So that what you have is you have every base is negotiated to reinforce the message that one your citizens don't matter, 'cause they're not gonna find out what we've just given away.  And two, that you are not really secure in your own citizen rights because of this basin agreement. So these SOFAs are not just burrs under the saddle, they really destroy a sense of civic culture, in every country they're in. 

Professor Susan Glasser

I think you did make a very important point about the fact that these are negotiated with governments, that there are reasons that these occur. It's not you know an invasion force suddenly swoops down, lands on your territory and says you know here's my Kalashnikov, you know I’d like to have a base on your territory.

Tom Engelhardt

Sometimes it happens like that, but you're right.

Professor Stephen M. Walt

It's also worth noting that the United States was unable to negotiate the kind of status of forces agreement that it wanted to get in Iraq and one of the reasons that the American ground force presence is now leaving, completely is …

Tom Engelhardt

It's called defeat.

Professor Stephen M. Walt

Well and by the way it reminds us of something else that's important. Some of these very one sided agreements in the past were negotiated between the United States, what were essentially military dictatorships, as countries become more democratic, as they have to pay more attention to what their populations feel, the balance of political power and negotiating those arrangements begins to change and I think that’s what we're seeing in Iraq. However imperfect the Iraqi government may be, they felt they could not negotiate a one-sided agreement, they actually wanted the United States out or either staying on Iraqi terms or out.

Professor Cynthia Enloe

Untenable.

Tom Engelhardt

There's a kind of a madness to the situation which we're discussing very rationally in a way, and that is this, I mean in the Cold War, a genuine major enemy, a giant nuclear arsenal, the Soviet Union, a giant army, an imperial power, that was that moment. Now, the Soviet Union disappears one day and the resulting period we end up with a national security state, a Pentagon budget, a military intelligence bureaucracy, a national security state that’s staggeringly bigger in a world in which, at most, there are a few thousand scattered terrorists who wanna do something to us. We're dealing with unsuccessfully with a couple of minority insurgencies in the greater Middle East. I mean its extraordinary to imagine that somehow we ended up with this gigantic, call it what you will, imperial …

Professor Cynthia Enloe

Behemoth.

Tom Engelhardt

Behemoth. 

Marwan Bishara

Who else in the world has a world project? No-one has a world project but the United States and who is there to protect that world project? Call it free trade, call it capitalism, call it neoliberalism, whatever name you would like to attach to it, but who's to defend it? It's the US and NATO.

Professor Cynthia Enloe

But our biggest trading partners are Canada and Europe and you know I mean they're not the countries…

Professor Susan Glasser

They're not forced at the barrel of a gun, most of trading relationships are you know…

Professor Cynthia Enloe

Or even by the wire of a base.

Marwan Bishara

Well didn’t just the Americans tell the Chinese pay attention we are a pacific power? 

Professor Stephen M. Walt

Right but that has, I think, almost nothing to do with American economic interests in the short or medium term. I think that is a concern over rising Chinese power, possibilities that China will attempt to, either push us out or establish its own sphere of influence, not immediately but down the road. But it's not because we are depending upon the US navy to get us markets in Vietnam, or get us markets in Singapore.

Marwan Bishara

Okay.

Professor Susan Glasser

It's opportunistic as well, right? I mean there's a sense that you know in the regional competition for power between China and India, China and Japan, that the US has an opportunity to forge closer relationships with some of those countries that are anxious in their own region about the rise of China.

Marwan Bishara

this is actually a problem and that should take us to our second half of the show. But before we go to a news break we will take a look at America's soft power and perhaps American prestigious universities are a good case in point. Let's watch.

Narrator

America's education system is broken. If children are a country's future, then the US appears to be squandering it. It has one of the most unequal education systems in the developed world.

And yet some American universities and colleges continue to shine. America boasts 17 of the world's top 20 universities and this is according to the Chinese rankings.   

It has seven of the top 10 most influential think tanks over all fields.

And 70 per cent of the world’s Nobel Prize winners are employed by American universities.   

And they're not just ivory towers. With close links to industry, elite universities in the US are the essential cogs in the economic engine. Facebook was born in Harvard. And Stanford was the midwife to Cisco, Hewlett Packard and Google. However, whilst it might be good at the top, many schools remain under funded and critics say that they turn out under skilled graduates.

Barack Obama - US president

We know beyond a shadow of a doubt that countries that out-educate us today, they will out-compete us tomorrow.

Narrator

And to maintain its advantage the US attracts the best professors and students to its top schools.

There are 700,000 foreign students studying the America way.  

Foreign Student

This kind of environment is better for my like development.

Narrator

And it's a symbiotic relationship. Overseas students not only bring $20bn worth of foreign reserves, but their ideas help fuel Uncle Sam’s most competitive high-tech industries.

52 per cent of Silicon Valley start-ups were founded by immigrants. And foreigners account for 25 per cent of American patent applications.

But it is definitely a two-way street. Foreigners educated in America help to spread the gospel of US capitalism when they return home.

Foreign Student

If we learn some knowledge here and we can bring it back to China, in that way we are make benefit to our country.

Narrator

And America is determined to maintain the upper hand when it comes to soft power. It spends twice as much as Europeans and four times as much as China on research and development. So chances are, that the next Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates will still be American for a little while longer.

Marwan Bishara

Welcome back. The collapse of the Soviet Union has the most threatened viability and durability of a super power lies in the strength of its economy, not its military. With its share of the world economy shrinking over the last half a century from half to a quarter of the total many claim that America's skyrocketing debt, dwindling productivity, exhausted middle class and decaying infrastructure do not bode well for a 21st century super power. And yet, there is much the world's foremost start-up nation can boast about. 

Narrator

America is the engine of the global economy. It boasts a GDP on nearly $15tr and it's home to the world’s reserve currency.

Scott Lucas

In America there is a chant that you always hear "USA, USA we're number one, we’re number one". 

Narrator

But many are starting to question that belief.

Scott Lucas – American Studies, Birmingham University  

When it doesn't quite pan out that way, when you have economic problems at home, when you're challenged internationally in a political crisis, you still want to believe we're number one. 

Narrator

And they're certainly being challenged right now.

Martin Wolf – chief economist, Financial Times

This is the first really big financial crisis, when it all goes into reverse then you get a crash. Because this was a super boom, the crash element is very, very, very bad.

Professor Scott Lucas

Certainly there was a shift in power relations because of the economic changes at the end of 2008, but the first thing to say is this isn't new. 

But just because we have a power shift, doesn't mean you have all of a sudden American decline and new superpowers. 

Professor Linda Yueh – economist, Oxford University  

The US is ten times richer than China, it’s still the leader in lots of things but it has to get used to the fact that lots of countries around the world could look to Beijing as well as to Washington. It has to get used to the fact it won’t be the only driver of global growth.

Narrator

But the American president is not quite ready to concede the point.

Barack Obama – US president

Let's meet the moment, let's get to work and let's show the world once again why the United States of America remains the greatest nation on earth.

Martin Wolf

The country itself has huge assets but you can't say that the domestic policy agenda looks positive. The really big question is can the US get its own house in order?

Narrator

Over the last four years American household income has declined by almost 10 per cent. One in ten adults is unemployed and one in six is living on food stamps.

The recent occupy protests are just the latest to question the American dream.  

Protestor

We rattled their cage and now they're cracking down.

We go into the Middle East, be like hey we're gonna spread democracy and here we are, our government's suppressing democracy, it's just like how much hypocritical can that get?

Narrator

But while America Inc. may have lost it’s AAA rating, American brands still dominate the globe. Coca Cola has a global revenue of $35bn per annum, Microsoft, $69bn and Apple a whopping $100bn.

Kate Bulkley – technology analyst

Rumours of the collapse of the US tech sector innovation is let’s say overblown.  I think that there’s a lot of innovation still in Silicon Valley, there’s a lot of innovation in America full stop.  You can’t count out the companies like Google, Microsoft, Facebook, you know they just keep coming.

But even this dominance is falling away. In 2007, the top five global corporations were American. Today there are only two and the world is catching up fast.

Kate Bulkley

I don’t think that that means that innovation is over in the United States. It just means that there is you know growth happening in a different way and at a different magnitude in some of these other markets, particularly in Asia.

Narrator

But whether it's the decline of the west or the rise of the west, the dollar is still seen as the safest bet, giving economists some reason for optimism.

Martin Wolf

At the moment the US dollar wins the ugliness parade. As long as the Americans do not completely mess up the domestic situation, I think the dollar survives as the global reserve currency because there simply isn't anything else.

So, it's a mixed balance sheet. Since the middle of the 20th century no other country has come close to rivaling America’s economy and yet it’s decline, however long it takes, now seems almost inevitable.

Professor Linda Yueh

If you thought the US economy was going to rebound quickly, like after recession, you'd be sorely disappointed.  

Professor Scott Lucas

For all the problems that the United States has had, whether we talk about economically or politically, there's always a point from which you can start again, rebuild, grow. Other countries don’t have that luxury. So yes, America, for all the talk of decline, is not going to implode.

Marwan Bishara

Susan, we've heard this before, right? American decline, decline of American economic power, you were in Moscow after the collapse so soon and is America facing anything similar? Is America really collapsing economically?

Professor Susan Glasser – editor-in-chief, Foreign Policy

Well you know that's an interesting comparison. Russia, after the collapse the Soviet Union was facing an existential crisis of the sort that is certainly not yet upon us, but it is certainly a conversation that Washington pundits are having, that you know TV talk shows are having. That you know there's a whole book shelf you could fill up, you know if you're so inclined this holiday season, there's about 20 books you could buy about the decline of America. How quickly is it happening? Has China actually already overtaken the US economically? Or what's the date when that's gonna happen?  This is a robust debate that's occurring, we have a future decline watch on our site and in part it's to make fun a little bit of the media's obsession with this.

Marwan Bishara

Seriously? 

Professor Susan Glasser

You know but in part it's also a serious conversation that we're having and you know I would say the sort of polite conventional wisdom in the centre here has really centred around the debate of is this a period of relative decline that the United States is embarking in, in which we basically keep the same international order but expand it to fill those of rising powers, particularly democratic powers such as Brazil and Turkey, which while we have occasionally friction with them, are after all very close American allies and do share a set of values. Or is this a kind of implosion? It's hard to see you know that there's a moment where we're gonna fall off the cliff, like in one of those cartoons.

Marwan Bishara

Is it a soft landing or is it falling over the cliff?

Tom Engelhardt – author, The United States of Fear  

Well the pay off, I mean it wouldn't have to be anything but a soft landing, I mean I think decline seems obvious to me at some level, but I think the answer is that we are still an immensely rich country, we have a lot of resources, there's no reason that we should go over a cliff. However, there's not reason but the path looks eerily cliff-like. I mean just politically in the United States I see no reason to believe any 2012 election results, no matter what they are, favouring what party, could lead to anything but more of a country, you know we used to talk about ourselves as a can do country. As a kind of a can do country through 2016. I just don't see, I mean Stephen was talking about rebuilding infrastructure, which is of course an absolute necessity, the Soviet Union went down partially because it's infrastructure tattered while it was in a war in Afghanistan and pouring money into it's military. But there’s no evidence that there's any way say between now and 2016 that the US is gonna put real money into its infrastructure, no matter what happens. So I say hard landing.

Marwan Bishara

Before we do yes we can, no we can’t, is that an American problem or is just the world rising way beyond America’s capabilities as well

Professor Stephen M. Walt – author, Taming American Power

Well I think that first of all this concern American decline has been perennial, right? You see it in the fifties, you see it in the sixties, you see it in the seventies and the eighties, Japan was gonna take over and that didn’t transpire. The United States' relative position has declined from World War II, when we had half the world's economy, but that was inevitable.   We've had roughly a quarter for 20 or 30 years so the decline is very …

Marwan Bishara

I tell you Stephen, China is not Japan.

Professor Stephen M. Walt

No, no I understand that but China will face many problems of its own in the years to come as well, an aging population, some significant internal adjustments, real problems with pollution and infrastructure of their own. So it's not gonna be easy for China and that gets to your main point is, I think if you wanna be worried it's not so much about decline in the United States, it's rather that virtually every part of the world now is facing real challenges. Europe is in, I think, a real crisis condition with the future of the Euro is very much in doubt and untangling that mess is gonna be very difficult, there's virtually no prospect of rapid economic growth in Europe any time soon, right? The Middle East has been convulsed by the Arab Spring, that's gonna I think continue to be an issue for many Middle Eastern countries for many years to come as well. China, as I just said, will face real problems of its own. Japan has been in an economic slump for 20 years now, really.

Marwan Bishara

So America is living the honeymoon then?

Professor Stephen M. Walt

So there's good news and bad news. If all you care about is America's relative position, I suppose that’s good news that other places are having problems. But if you care about American prosperity, if you care about the ability of Americans to trade and invest and do well themselves, then you do have to worry that we are in a period of history, which may last a decade or more, where many parts of the world are troubled and all of them essentially hold each other back. And the problem there is that the politics then, when you have Japan, Europe, United States, maybe some other parts in a prolonged slump, the politics start to turn very ugly and that I think is really worrisome over time.

Professor Cynthia Enloe – author, The Real State of America

I think really this setting up the world as if it were a hockey match, complete with the enforcers, is really not a very useful way to try and think about it, that is thinking about America decline. I mean one of the things that has really fed American popular culture is this kind of anxiety about not being number one. Whereas, if you talk to the Dutch, they're not worried about not being number one, I mean maybe they were after the 1600s but …

Marwan Bishara

Let along being liked or not by the rest of the world.

Professor Cynthia Enloe

Yeah right, but it really has corrupted American public culture, it means that we can't talk about things reasonably and one of the things that happening and we're about to have a major discussion about what do you think of public life?    What do you think of public investment? And that means government as well. But that has to happen across the whole country in order to not only just build bridges, but to re-establish a much more realistic sense of America in the world. 

Professor Susan Glasser

Well I think you've made a really important point about the status anxiety of being number one and it’s interesting because so far the conversation is oh Barack Obama, the triumphalist, we saw him speaking to the State of the Union address and saying hey we're still at number one. But actually, his republican challengers are pretty much united only in one thing right now, which is to beat up on Barack Obama as somehow being an apologist for the United States that they are very much having a discussion about whether Obama and the Democratic Party are sufficient believers in American greatness. Back in 2009, Barack Obama said well I believe in American exceptionalism, just like I'm sure the Brits believed in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believed in Greek exceptionalism. 

Marwan Bishara

That didn't go down well. 

Professor Susan Glasser

That didn't go down well, to say the least, but you know that, I think it's a very important and revealing conversation for your viewers around the world to understand that belief in this notion of America's special destiny, the idea that there is something powering our unique history and yeah it has in fact in a very unusual history. We had a very, very fast rise to that number one status. We have benefits of being on a continent surrounded by and protected by two oceans. We have this economic engine and the benefits of you know the sort of post-World War II international order being shaped around American economic institutions. So we have a lot of assets in a fast changing world.

Professor Stephen M. Walt

And part of the debate that really does need to happen is what are the best ways to measure or see American greatness? 

Professor Cynthia Enloe

Small g, not big g!

Professor Stephen M. Walt

Yes this show began by showing American aircraft carriers steaming around and that's a very easy way for Americans to think well we must be number one, look at this large military footprint we have. But the point is there is an entirely different way to look at America’s role in the world and American influence and that would be the influence that we have by creating a society here, in the United States that others want to emulate.  Not in every way.

Marwan Bishara

But Stephen let's talk about the society.

Professor Stephen M. Walt

Okay.

Marwan Bishara

It used to be the society about hard work, it used to be the society of the community, is it becoming more of a society of entitlement? Lower taxes, bigger for government, we wanna have it all, consume it all, invest little in infrastructure and so on. Is this the problem here now?

Professor Stephen M. Walt

That's I think a problem for a very small fragment of Americans. Americans actually, if you look compared to most industrialised countries, work longer hours, work more weekends, take fewer vacations, we're still a society where people work extraordinarily hard. Whether we are making other decisions, for example on who should pay taxes and what share of them to balance America's budgets? Or whether or not we have too much ...

Marwan Bishara

Because the budget is going up and the taxes are going down which creates deficit, I mean as everyone would know.

Professor Stephen M. Walt

Exactly right and whether or not we've allowed the wealthiest American’s to not just have too much money but also have too much political influence through that money, that’s a genuine debate. But it's not about Americans suddenly becoming lazy and just wanting to sit around the house and watch television.

Professor Cynthia Enloe

No, in fact one of the big problems for so many Americans is they're working longer hours and having less economic security.

Professor Susan Glasser

But the question of an opportunity society, 'cause we haven't really touched on this at all, but what is the role of a political system as imperfect as the one we have is, versus anywhere else in the world? And you know the question of soft power as it were, largely resides, you know historically has resided in the fact that people around the world, this is where they want to come to. That extraordinary influx of immigrants, the fact that at least in previous generations, Americans have shown they can rise from nothing to extraordinary wealth and influence.

Marwan Bishara

You think this is still the case?

Professor Susan Glasser

There's no question it’s still the case.

Tom Engelhardt

I would argue that the set of protests that we've seen in the last couple of years, I mean 2007/2008 hit the meltdown, there was a kind of a silence and then there have been two waves of protest so far, here as part of a kind of a global protest really, the first was the tea party, looked like a right wing, older, retired white people. And then the second one, which is young and someone more diverse, but I think both of them visibly from their different points of view are protestors in mourning over the loss of the world that I grew up in, they know they have a deep feeling that the world that they thought they were gonna get, that they were promised, that I grew up in, that you grew up in, that you grew up in, is not going to come back. 

Marwan Bishara

So what is that? Is that just some nostalgia for the past?

Professor Cynthia Enloe

They didn't think they were gonna get it as an entitlement.

Tom Engelhardt

Not as an entitlement no. 

Professor Cynthia Enloe

They thought if they worked as hard as everybody else they would have opportunity.

Marwan Bishara

But Cynthia is there as least, okay so let's look at the culture of lack of fairness. It seems a lot of people in the United States feel nowadays, that big bankers can get away with billions and small people, unemployed and so on and so forth can't get away with just a few.

Professor Cynthia Enloe

The top three countries in terms of inequality of income, amongst the developed world, that's the OECD right, the top three are Mexico, Turkey and the third is the United States. 

Marwan Bishara

So what does that tell you?

Professor Cynthia Enloe

That tells you that a lot of the people who are now protesting really think there's some basic unfairness going on here as well as lack of public investment.

Professor Stephen M. Walt

I think there are two phenomena here and they can both be correct. There is a widespread sense in the country that a small segment of people have managed, essentially write the rules or some of the rules, in their own favour and that’s the protest against essentially the financial industry. And moreover that this group of increasingly unregulated people caused enormous damage to American society and got away with it. I think that's basically correct. So there is this anger at a sense of unfairness. At the same time, it can also be the case that if the American economy is working reasonably well there are greater opportunities for everyone here.

Marwan Bishara

Do you think the 99 would be happy if just the economy's doing better?

Professor Stephen M. Walt

No they would still dislike the unfairness, but it is still a very dynamic economy and the thing that worries people is whether or not the government will manage to get the American economy moving again to the point that then all that dynamism can come out again.

Marwan Bishara

Which takes us back to your point there Susan, this part of, this aspect of the American system is not exactly attractive to the outside world when you can see people getting away, the way people did get away with major economic crimes if you will, the last two years. None of them's gonna be prosecuted or anything.

Professor Cynthia Enloe

Nor in Ireland, nor in Iceland.

Professor Susan Glasser

Well I mean, right there is a global crisis of capitalism which has been unfolding over the last several years and that's why you see literally protests and you know serious assaults to political leadership across the globe, in every continent and in every way, shape and form. What’s interesting to me about this conversation is to what extent has the United States lost its allure as a haven, a magnet for the kind of immigrants, the kind of people who have powered this extraordinarily diverse and really many faceted, not just economic but its part of the political system too. And you know do you see a lot of people saying well gee China is you know so successful in powering a making this incredible accomplishment right over the last decade of lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. It's an incredible accomplishment, nobody sees it as a city on a hill, nobody sees it as like you know give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses and let's go to China where they’re making jobs for people. You know it is about the political system, as flawed as it is too and the question that I have is as we come through this crisis, what is it gonna look like on the other side for people?

Tom Engelhardt

You know I think there's one factor we really haven't brought up here, when you talk about American decline, you probably should be talking about decline but everybody can say there’s nothing new under the sun but in fact we're at a historical moment where there is something new under the sun. The actual planet is under pressure at this point. Global warming is no small thing, by the end of this century, if things don't change, we could have an 11 degree rise in the globe's temperature.

Marwan Bishara

So you simply don't want to globalise the American model because consumers and the way it happens here, the way they burn energy, if the Chinese will do it?

Tom Engelhardt

I don't think it's like the US is going down and you're gonna get a Chinese empire rising. I think you've got a planet in crisis and we're just barely beginning to feel it. 

Marwan Bishara

The question is, is there an alternative to the American model? Is there an alternative for the American leadership?

Professor Cynthia Enloe

There's an alternative within the United States, I mean that's why there's a debate in the United States now, actually and there have always been alternatives within the United States. But the question is, and this will be electoral politics but also will be cultural politics, to really kind of give that, well legs if you will and I think to think about the alternative American model, which would be a fairer model, which would be a model that had a culture of public life, that would be a model that didn't shout USA number one, but rather you know looked at world problems and tried to take part in the solution of world problems. That’s a really alternative model.

Marwan Bishara

Stephen this is it, do we need to downsize the empire in all its forms and aspirations in order to save the republic?

Professor Stephen M. Walt

I will go out on a limb, I don't know if we'll get as far as Cynthia is hoping, perhaps, but I think that as a consequence of changes that are happening in the world, the rise of a number of other powers, as has been mentioned, as a result of the fiscal pressure the United States is under here at home, not a disaster but very serious, needs to be responded to. As a result of all of these things you're going to see a downsizing of the United States, we're gonna be out of Iraq, we're gonna be out of Afghanistan, we're not gonna do projects like that again any time soon. We're already downsized in Europe, we are shifting attention to Asia, so that's gonna stay there but I would argue that 20 years from now there’ll be a much more modest American presence. It will not disappear but it will be more modest and I believe, and this is where I'm crossing my fingers, I believe there will be a greater effort to try and rebuild the United States, you know nation building at home as many people said.

Marwan Bishara

Not in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Professor Stephen M. Walt

Right and the only asterisk I'll put on that is if Tom is right about climate change and its potential global effects, this discussion may seem like a very minor issue 20 or 30 or 40 years from now, even for the United States. 

Marwan Bishara

Tom, I'll give you the last word, do you think America's adventure or America's interventionist instinct could be put in check?

Tom Engelhardt

I think it is in check. I mean that is I think it's the nature of our world right now that you know I mean Afghanistan, they're still talking about you know bases after 2014, 25,000 troops to 2020, whatever it might be, I think it's gonna turn out to be something of a fantasy. I mean we won't sustain this, whatever we say, I mean agree.

Marwan Bishara

Base in Australia, the Russians are complaining you're intervening in their affairs, Iran exposed some kind of drone over their space. Enlargement in Africa…

Tom Engelhardt

Yes, yes, no, all of this is happening, there's still the urge to surge somewhere in there for some people, but I think realistically speaking we're just gonna come up against limits.

Professor Cynthia Enloe

And we'll be healthier for it.

Tom Engelhardt

Yeah, three cheers. 

Marwan Bishara

Well that's a positive note that we could end on.

Tom Engelhardt

One and a half cheers.

Marwan Bishara

Gentlemen, Susan, Cynthia, thank you for joining Empire.

Professor Stephen M. Walt

Thank you.

Professor Cynthia Enloe

Thank you.

Marwan Bishara

I will be back for the last thoughts.

Marwan Bishara

America's national emblem and the symbol of its strength, the bald eagle, might be fierce and majestic but it's the funny Mickey Mouse that rules with his red shorts, yellow shoes and white gloves. The Pentagon wastes hundreds of billions on expensive weapons and distant military bases every year but all too frequently, fails to win wars or achieve US strategic objectives. On the other hand, Walt Disney, like it or not, generates tens of billions of dollars annually and in the process has captured the attention and imagination of countless young people around the world though a distinctly American cultural narrative. In reality, America continues to gain more influence through the attraction of its soft power than through the destruction of its hard power. Many people have been killed because of the latter, but I have yet to hear about anyone dying under Mickey's watch. And that’s the way it goes, write to me with your suggestions to empire@aljazeera.net. Until next time. 

Source:
Al Jazeera
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