THE AMERICAN HEGEMON

A common field of research in comparative civilizationism is the question of rise and fall of civilizations and the possibility of a cyclical development. In the 1980s Professor Paul Kennedy predicted that the United States would fall. This time it was overextension in foreign lands (“imperial overstretch”).

Harvard Professor Niall Ferguson has now taken up the thread. Some predictions claim that the GDP of China in 2027 will be larger than that of the United States. In a recent opinion piece in Los Angeles Times Ferguson (“America, the fragile empire”, February 28, 2010; a longer version of the article was published in the March/April issue of the journal Foreign Affairs) the English born professor admits that great powers are complex systems. They are in his view operating between order and disorder. The hegemons seem to be in balance but are in reality constantly adapting.

As mentioned in earlier contributions on this blog it is complicated to make civilizational predictions only by using historical data. This method does not take into account the so called “black swans”, sudden catastrophies.

A recent collapse of a great power was that of the Soviet Union. It seemed in the late 1970s that it was stronger than America. Its nuclear arsenal was the world’s largest and from Vietnam to Nicaragua the Third World was in favor of the Soviet system. Five years after Michael Gorbachev took power the Soviet empire fell apart.

Incorrectly Ferguson compares the United States to the Soviet empire. He even asks about the implications for America. Of course there is no comparison. USA is a well functioning free market democracy. Tyrannical systems like that of the Soviet Russia are bound to fail and collapse. So did Hitler’s Nazi empire and so will Communist China’s tyranny.

Also incorrectly Ferguson in his article claims that most falls of hegemons are associated with fiscal crises. There is because of the large US deficit of 11 percent of GDP a risk of fiscal crises. It should however be remembered that the US economy is otherwise healthy with a swiftly growing production and innovation. The deficit can be solved although it of course was a mistake to borrow from China. Ferguson admits that the fiscal figures alone cannot erode US power but could weaken the faith in the United States and its ability to withstand crises.

The crisis of 2008 is common occurance in the history of free markets. Like the depression in the 1930s it was a problem but the present market techniques are much more powerful than they were eight decades ago. Already in 2010 most of the problems are overcome.

As an Englishman Ferguson rightly fears battle in the mountains of the Hindu Kush. True, in the nineteenth century it was certainly a problem for imperial Britain. The present Iraq and Afghanistan wars are not imperial wars. They are counterinsurgencies to rid these countries of terrorists and guerrillas. Only a fraction of America’s military might has to be devoted to these two peripheral wars. Furthermore drone warfare in the twentyfirst century is changing counterinsurgency along with modern communications.

The final mistake made by Professor Ferguson is to believe that hegemons function in an equilibrium and then abruptly collapse. Like British born Professor Paul Kennedy another British born American professor is now on the wrong track in macro-history.

In 2009 the German scholar (Stanford University) and journalist Josef Joffe explained that predictions that bipolarity would be changed into multipolarity in the 1990s have been mistakes. Instead the great question after 2000 has been the unipolar United States. Three years after the Kennedy prediction Washington sent 600,000 men to fight the first Iraq war. No “overstretch” there.

In the 1990s “declinism” took a break. The Japanese threat ended in stagnation for the Asian island empire. The Soviet Union had collapsed and the United States moved into an extraordinary expansion of its power in the economic and military fields. It continued until 2008. The best country to compete in the new era of globalization is undoubtedly America.

Joel Kotkin of Forbes Magazine believes the United States is on the rise. The possibly greatest competitor, China, has a number of problems. Its population will be considerably older than that of America in 2050. It will not end well for the Chinese Politburo. The United States has a stronger position in demographic trends. The European Union is shrinking by 25 percent, Korea by 30 percent and Japan by as much as 44 percent.

Since the 1930s pundits have declared that America could not compete with Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union. Harvard’s John Kenneth Gailbraith in the 1980s believed that the Soviet model was so successful that the two systems would eventually “converge”. Nowadays the strongest competitors of state-socialism are Cuba, North Korea and Venezuela. Not very impressive.

Kotkin rightly asks: why are declinists on the rise in 2010? Certainly there are reasons for pessimism in the West: high US deficits and leakage to China and other developing countries. The world has experienced its phase of “Japan will take over the world”. Now it is fashionable to state that “China will take over the world”. There certainly is a risk that a strong and populous China will threaten the West in the future. It has a stronger potential than Japan but will have similar demographic problems in the future. More important China has massive internal problems. It is, unlike Japan, an unstable autocracy. Furthermore it will have a huge ill-educated peasant class still living in poverty. A more youthful, competitive and resourceful America will most likely maintain its hegemonic influence even if there is a shift towards Asia in the economic sphere.

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