More on the future of US hegemony

Further to my post on this topic on 31 March, there is an interesting article in the Australian Financial Review this weekend by Julie Macken, entitled So much for American cultural imperialism. Unfortunately, you have to be a subscriber to the Fin to access the full electronic edition, but here are a couple of extracts …

… The immediate cost will be measured in the number of people lost, on both sides. A likely but less obvious cost one with ramifications for the global order in coming decades is that the world’s only superpower may find it has destroyed its cultural capital as well as its enemy.

The 20th century was the American century. From 1917 through to the end of World War II, America grew in strength. That strength had three pillars; economic, military and cultural. But in the words of Samuel Huntington , author of the seminal work ‘The Clash Of Civilisations’, “culture trumps politics, and economics too”.

Well known US economist, Professor James Galbraith and US commentator Dr Daniel Warner both make the point that America earned its reputation for moral authority as a consequence of its vision, generosity and leadership in the re-construction that followed both the World Wars. They also argue that subsequent administrations have been trading on that reputation ever since.

The global dominance of the US would have been inconceivable without its capacity to export its ideals/ideas and cultural byproducts .

Indeed, when the Cold War was declared over after the Berlin Wall had been torn down, many commentators attributed it to the force of attraction of America’s “soft power”. Blue jeans and democracy were, it seemed, an unbeatable combination.

It was this cultural, and many would argue moral, authority that enabled Woodrow Wilson to gain overwhelming endorsement of his 14-point plan, issued in 1918 . The same authority underpinned the Marshall Plan after WWII.

And as the populations of the first world morphed from citizens into consumers, it was the cultural power of the US that helped the likes of Levi’s and Coca-Cola to make the transition from national to global brands.

Later in the article, Macken also reports on a survey undertaken late last year on global attitudes toward US ideas and customs:

… The Pew Global Attitudes Project was undertaken in December 2002, and while it pre-dates the war by three months, the centre’s director, Andrew Kohut , thinks the findings have direct application to the war. In late February Kohut told the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing: “The unpopularity of a potential war with Iraq can only further fuel hostilities, almost no matter how well such a war goes.”

The survey found that “people do not like the spread of ‘Americanism’. In general, the spread of US ideas and customs is disliked by majorities in almost every country included in this worldwide survey. In the Middle East/Conflict Area, overwhelming majorities in every country except Uzbekistan have a negative impression of the spread of American ideas and customs. Just 2 per cent of Pakistanis and 6 per cent of Egyptians see this trend as a good thing.”

Again, does this matter? “It’s a tragedy for us [the US], and for the rest of the world,” says Galbraith. “War is essentially a political exercise. If one country shows that it pays to resist, all the others will be that much harder. The US will have to administer a hostile, resentful county and that will become a very costly exercise.”

For Daniel Warner, deputy director of the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva , cultural power is only one of a trio of elements necessary to the growth of a superpower.

“All empires go bankrupt through imperial overreach,” he says. “The US looks like it is going to fall because it has too many soldiers in too many countries, its deficit is getting bigger, and this war will cost them too much. The question of soft power or moral authority is only one aspect of the equation; you must maintain all three levels, economic, cultural and military.”

Even with a different administration in Washington, Warner believes the US is fixed on a downward path.

“This is the March of Folly and there is an inevitability to this overspend … The US military budget is $US380 billion ($632 billion), the CIA and FBI (budget) is $US480 billion, the budget cuts to the states mean they face bankruptcy, and with these new tax cuts there is even less money coming in. Collapse is now unavoidable.”