The Spectacle Blog

Chen Guancheng and the Myth of American Decline

By on 5.4.12 | 1:14PM

There has been an ongoing discussion, these past few years, among those scholarly opinion-makers in politics, the media and the professoriate that America is in a state of inevitable and irreversible decline.

Let's call them the "declinists."

They readily accept the deterioration of U.S. power after the Second World War was hastened by a period of self-delusion that coincided, precisely, with the "remarkable triumphalism of the post-Gulf War '90s," to echo the words of the declinist-in-chief, Noam Chomsky. China -- they say -- will become the world's largest economy over the next decade, and surging giant India boasts a middle class population that's larger than the entire United States. Doomsday forecasts and sound-bite metrics fuel an industry that's reached prophetic intensity. Once a cottage industry, this schtick now heats Thomas Freidman's palatial 11,400 square-foot home -- bought and paid for by best-sellers sub-titled "How America Fell Behind in the World it Invented."

For these folks, the daydream of American exceptionalism has been revealed as fallacy. Countries such as Russia and China threaten to obstruct our supremacy in matters of foreign affairs. Our leadership on the global stage is no longer wanted. Our flat-lining economy is hectored by a broken political system, itself ground to dust by the interminable gridlock of hyper-partisanship.

I know the academic argument backwards and forwards. The end of America's time in the sun is supposedly presaged by historic failures of each economic behemoth before us. Whether Genoan, Dutch or British, the end of the hegemonic cycle generally coincides with overextension and financial crisis.

But I disagree that this is the end of our turn at the top.

Take a look around… or just scan the front page of your local paper. Where does one look for leadership? Europe? The continent has scuttled itself. The EU is maimed --perhaps terminally -- by a single currency Eurozone that will demand the next decade to repair. Of course, that's to assume the restoration of solvency is even possible.

Scholarly declinists often point to China as the ascendant state, and potential heir to superintendency of the global order.

However, China's growth will prove capricious. This is a fact that even the Chinese accept. Premier Wen Jiabao has admitted that his nation's development is "unstable, unbalanced, uncoordinated and unsustainable."

But these past few weeks have revealed that something's rotten in the People's Republic. Mind you, this "something" lurks below the superficiality of red-hot economic indicators and a thrilling Olympiad.

Chen Guancheng's activism awakened public crisis unheard of since tanks drove down Tiananmen Square. His family suffered 20 months of house arrest at the command of local officials, after he exposed their regional despotism and forced abortions. With a little luck, he'll soon be studying law in the United States. But while his case has received the most attention, there are other difficulties currently facing China's Communist regime.

Several weeks ago, rumors of a coup troubled the institutionalized transition of the Politburo's General Secretary. The power squabble between Shanghai's "Princeling" faction and their rivals in the Communist Youth League simmered over in a rare glimpse of party fracture. Now the wife of disgraced party chief, Bo Xilai, is being held in connection with the murder of a British national. But the ramifications of this case are far deeper than a simple homicide. In fact, they threaten to expose bright-line schisms within the party, first revealed by the leadership dispute.

Suffice to say, China's problems run deep -- deep enough to often escape our scrutiny, but also deep enough to threaten the Communist Party's systemic integrity.

As such, I'd say it's premature to portend their ascendancy at America's expense.

In his excellent column regarding "5 Myths of America's Decline" for the Washington Post, political risk guru Ian Bremmer suggests that the United States isn't done yet -- for some of the reasons I've detailed, and others he explores in greater length.

I'll leave you with his rebuttal to those declinists who assume consensus spells capitulation:

We are entering what I call the G-Zero: a period when global leadership goes by the wayside. It's a less productive, more crisis-prone world, but it's less painful for the United States than for everybody else. If America can engage the world with a narrower, self-interested focus, it will reap rewards. It will have the luxury of applying cost-benefit analysis before intervening abroad. It's a downsized role, but don't mistake this for decline.

Sounds like a plan to me.

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