Years ago I remember reading Paul Kennedy’s classic, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Changes and Military Conflict (1987). I was most impressed by the statement: “But states apparently at the zenith of their political power are usually already in a condition of comparative economic decline and the United States is no exception. Power can be maintained only by a prudent balance between the creation of wealth and military expenditure, and great powers in decline almost always hasten their demise by shifting expenditure from the former to the latter.”
At the time this book was written, Kennedy was already concerned about America’s military overreach and that was long before the US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and the further expansion of US military bases around the world, including the 60 Africom bases in Africa.
Finally, Kennedy predicted the decline of the Soviet Union, the relative decline of the US, and the rise of China and Japan.
America is in decline and consequently her world leadership is being challenged. In addition to military overreach, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher imposed on the world the neoliberal orthodoxy designed to ensure that the rich became richer, with no consideration given to the consequential increase in economic inequality among the masses.
Under the neoliberal orthodoxy, free trade became the sine qua non of the world, and trade liberalisation was imposed on those countries least able to cope. It was said that the markets would correct themselves, and non-governmental intervention in the economy became the Bible for proponents of neoliberalism.
Without governmental intervention to help failing industries (car manufactures, steel, coal, textile, etc), middle America lost everything, including jobs, retirement savings, and healthcare. In the meantime, America became browner and browner, with African-American and Hispanic populations growing. The prediction in 1980 that whites would become minorities in American devastated especially uneducated whites, who had long been the privileged class. With their declining status, white supremacy continued to rear its ugly head.
When Donald Trump entered the race for the presidency, most Americans, even those seemingly most marginalised by the neoliberal orthodoxy, did not take him seriously. His Republican counterparts laughed at the thought of a Trump presidency. A majority of Americans certainly thought that Trump’s vitriolic language, his misogyny, narcissism, support for white supremacists, disrespect for the disabled, lack of diplomacy, discipline and general ignorance were offensive to one and all. We were sorely wrong. There is a huge population in middle America attracted to President Trump, especially to his “America First” and isolationist rhetoric. Since Trump is not a reader, according to his biographer, he would not be aware that his “America First” and isolationist rhetoric symbolises the most significant acknowledgment of America’s decline to date. Only a powerful nation in decline would deem it necessary to turn inward.
With Trump at the helm of power, along with his alter ego Steve Bannon (White House senior counsellor and chief strategist), global powers have begun to sense they are in serious trouble. A declining nation can accept its decline either with great magnanimity, or become the bully of the world.
Trump and his cohorts have chosen the latter. Since January 20, the world has watched the preposterous actions of Trump, Bannon and cohorts. The attempt to ban Muslim refugees from seven countries has been the most unconscionable action the president has attempted so far, even though Time (February 12) notes that “US citizens dying from a terrorist attack by a refugee on American soil are infinitesimal – roughly 1 in 3.6 billion, or 48 times less than the chance of being killed by an asteroid”. Trump was outraged that the US Appellate Court made a unanimous decision rejecting the travel ban.
He seems unaware that the constitution’s checks and balances system is designed to check the powers of the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government. In an unprecedented move by a US president, the Trump administration is taking the travel ban issue to the Supreme Court.
He continues to bully Mexicans by mandating a wall be built to keep more from entering the US. He is committed to the further destruction of the planet by cancelling America’s commitment to the Paris Climate Agreement.
Trump wants to un-globalise the globalised world by undoing all the trade treaties America has with the world and insisting that Americans buy only American goods once he returns America to her greatness by restoring the factory jobs lost some decades ago. Restoring these jobs is a fantasy.
In 22 days, President Trump has insulted an unprecedented number of world leaders. By threatening to impose huge tariffs on Chinese goods entering the US, perhaps he has not been informed that the Chinese help keep the US economy from collapsing by buying US government bonds daily.
Eventually Trump will realise that the Nato alliance will survive without American financial support.
The world does have to be concerned about him creating or intensifying conflicts in the world. This includes in the Middle East, where under his watch the two-state solution could see its demise and another war break out with his support of the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank along with his commitment to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem.
In January, eager to establish his anti-terrorist and warmonger credentials, Trump approved a raid on Yemen that killed numerous Al-Qaeda members along with a Navy Seal and 30 civilians.
The world has to be concerned as well about Trump’s relationship with Putin. He could become an even more dangerous force under the Trump administration.
Trump and Bannon are likely to find allies in leaders like themselves.
Trump has been referred to by some as the most dangerous man in the world. As America continues to experience its further decline under his administration, the world will be on edge to see just how outrageous his actions and polices become.
It is important to understand that the most frightened people are a large percentage of Americans, as evident in the massive protests against his rise to power.
Our lives will no doubt change and ethnic minorities are especially vulnerable as white supremacists have been given the green light to come out of the closet.
As an African-American, I know our population is especially frightened. I cannot remember when the entire staff in the White House advising the president was all white. We certainly have some dark days ahead.
This article first appeared on: http://www.iol.co.za/news/opinion/putting-america-first-may-leave-it-last-7831393
Professor Lee is currently a Visiting Professor at the Institute for Global Dialogue and UNISA. Her views are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of the IGD.