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Allan Powell: Is America in decline? Experts cannot agree

August 02, 2013|By ALLAN POWELL

Those familiar with foreign affairs commentary will readily recognize Fareed Zakaria. He is well respected for his steadfastly rational and intelligent interpretation of world events. He now displays his cosmopolitan grasp in his latest book, “The Post-American World (Release 2.0),” in which he gives his perspective of the ever-shifting geopolitical centers of power over the last 500 years. He gives special attention to the rise and dominance of western powers with emphasis on Great Britain and the United States.

It is his claim that there is now in the making a “rise of the rest” in which China, India and Brazil will emerge as the future centers of economic and political dominance in world affairs. Zakaria takes great pains to make it clear that this relative decline is also due to the rise in power and influence of these increasingly successful competitors. His book is replete with recent evidence to support his argument. Needless to say, his positions are stoutly contested by other students of history.

It is significant that Zakaria begins his challenging study with a quotation from renowned British historian Arnold Toynbee’s classic work, “A Study Of History.”

“Growth takes place whenever a challenge evokes a successful response that, in turn, evokes a further and different challenge. We have not found any intrinsic reason why this process should not repeat itself indefinitely, even though a majority of civilizations have failed, as a matter of historical fact.” If true, this tells us that all civilizations are capable of continuous viability with no deterministic causes for collapse.

Zakaria then supplies what he considers to be adequate factual support for his argument. He reviews the heavy burdens that are carried on the back of the United States after the monumental defeat of the axis powers. Our national debt is mammoth and we are mired in unwinnable military engagements that drain our resources while our infrastructure deteriorates. Then, too, the financial crisis of 2008 has weakened our ability to compete with those powers not seriously damaged by that crisis.

India’s growth rate was at the impressive rate of 9.7 percent in 2010 and China’s GDP never fell below 9 percent. For all of these reasons (and more), Zakaria concludes that we are in the early stages of a “Post-America World.” Sheer numbers (2.5 billion, the approximate population of China and India) gives some indication of the potential economic impact on the world market. Between 2006 and 2012, China and India will build 800 new coal-fired power plants. It is projected that from 2003 to 2020, the number of vehicles in China will rise from 26 million to 120 million.

We are prone to look at China and its leadership as still firmly in the grip of an outdated Marxist ideology. Zakaria reports that this is not the case. One Chinese leader declared, “It doesn’t matter if it is a black cat or a white cat, as long as it can catch mice, it is a good cat.” This flexibility to move beyond early communist theory to a less fettered market economy is a Chinese version of American pragmatism — the ability to make practical adjustments in theory and practice when it is a wise move.

The projected “rise of the rest,” which will dramatically shift the centers of power, will usher in an uncertain era with a huge potential for brutal competition for much-needed resources. Diplomacy and patient, rational negotiations will be needed to keep tensions from flaring out of control. There might be the temptation to govern by authoritarian regimes. Therefore, an insight worthy of thought is that, “a market based economy that achieves middle-income status tends, over the long run, toward a liberal democracy.” This is an important lesson in history if we hope to preserve a democratic society.

Quite by chance, before I had finished reading this fine book about a “Post-American World,” there was an equally fine rebuttal of this argument by a competent historian in the Wall Street Journal (July 2). Walter Mead, in “The Future Still Belongs To America,” asserts that, “In a century of accelerating change, the U.S. is better positioned to adapt than China, Europe or the Arab world.” The debate about the future status of America is healthy and desirable. We should be cautious — even suspicious — of simplistic or dogmatic opinions.

Allan Powell is a professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College.

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