Chomsky and the question of US Decline

In the new on-line English version of Al Akhbar (Lebanon), Noam Chomsky argues that the United States is in decline as a global force. He makes three points:

1. The high point of US power was just after WWII. (Contrast with Walt who argued 1990)

2. China and India will not rise: “in the foreseeable future there is no competitor for global hegemonic power.” (He does not focus on this point and neither will I in my post.)

3. “American decline is in no small measure self-inflicted.”

The US share of global wealth has certainly declined from 1945 but to use that as a measure of US power in global affairs is misleading. The Soviet Union, Germany, and the rest of industrial Europe all were battered during WWII so of course the US share was around 50%. As those countries recovered, even to pre-WWII levels, the US share of wealth had to fall. More recently, China’s phenomenal growth has changed the relative picture.

But out of context, I am not sure how much that tells us about US power. These charts (here)(and here) offer a more nuanced picture.

I also worry about the conflation of power and influence. The United States needs power to have influence, but I do not think the (relative) decline of US economic power automatically leads to the decline of US influence in equal proportion. Arguments often get fuzzy at this point with examples of places where the United States is not getting its way used as proof of a decline in US influence. But one can always point to places where the United States government did not get its way. Is it the quantity of setbacks that distinguishes the situation today? The importance of the issues involved? Or something else?

Chomsky’s other metric to judge US decline seems to be the loss of areas, whether that means the loss of allies or the emergence of hostile powers. Going back decades, he cites the loss of China and SE Asia. More recently he adds S. America. I accept there was a historical loss of China, but today China is a capitalist powerhouse. Is China’s abandonment of communism as an economic system and embrace of the capitalist model a US loss or sign of the dominance of the global economic system long pushed by Washington? Sure Chavez’s Venezuela is a challenge for the United States, but what about Castro, the Sandanistas, or many other Latin American regimes of previous decades?

But let’s say I grant that some countries are independent or no longer part of the US sphere of influence. What about other countries that have become US allies or supportive of US policy? The collapse of the Soviet Union brought many states into NATO, including Poland and a unified Germany. The US-Israeli relationship is much tighter than it was in 1950 or 1960.

Moreover, if US decline is partially/largely self-inflicted, Chomsky should make explicit the logical implication: US decline could be reversed. Chomsky notes two key factors underlying the self-inflicted wound: 1) excessively low taxation and 2) corporate/elite disregard of the public’s policy preferences (related to deregulation, concentrated wealth, unequal political power, and the need for campaign money). So if the US went back to 1988 levels – where, according to Chomsky, tax revenue was 18.2% of GDP, rather than the 14.4% of 2011 – wouldn’t it have extensive resources for domestic and thus global rejuvenation? What if citizens followed Robert Reich’s argument for re-taking control of the political system? Likely, probably not. Plausible, yes.

I am not here to trumpet US dominance; the United States has surely faced many foreign policy setbacks in recent years. But I would like to see a more systematic presentation of how we know US influence on the global scene is in decline. The fact that so many people make the claim is not much evidence that the claim is accurate.

Finally, Chomsky and others make a plausible causal leap that I nonetheless wonder about. He assumes the loss of areas (allies? and US influence?) has been caused by the shrinking of US power since WWII. How exactly are the two connected? Do other countries see US relative decline and act more boldly? Has the United States stopped trying to influence as much? (I don’t see that) Is it an automatic process of structural change beyond the intent or perhaps even awareness of leaders, regimes, or governments? I would like to hear more about the connective tissue of global economic and political change.


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