Furious agreeement

Back when I was a high school debater, my team once had to take the negative position on the topic ‘Australian democracy is dying’. With the Vietnam war at its worst, conscription of 18-year olds (old enough to die, but in those days too young to vote) a big issue, and a conservative government that had been in office since before my classmates and I were born, it didn’t seem likely that we were going to carry the audience with Panglossian rhetoric. So, we decided to argue instead that Australian democracy couldn’t be dying because it was already dead. The resulting debate was somewhat farcical, as we rushed to agree with every piece of gloomy evidence raised by the affirmative side, and pile on with our own. We won easily, but I gave up debating not too long after that.

I’m reminded of this episode by a piece by Robert Kagan, criticising the idea that American power is declining. In effect, Kagan argues that, while things might seem bad for American power just now, they’ve actually been terrible for decades. Unchallenged economic dominance had already been lost by 1960, when the US share of the world economy (around half in the immediate aftermath of WWII) had fallen to 24 per cent. The international image of the US was trashed by Vietnam and other disasters of the 1960s. Military failures are nothing new. So, those who, decade after decade, proclaim that America is in decline have simply forgotten how bad things were in the past.

The idea that the US effectively dominated the world for decades after WWII is an illusion. As Kagan says:

between 1945 and 1965 the United States actually suffered one calamity after another. The “loss” of China to communism; the North Korean invasion of South Korea; the Soviet testing of a hydrogen bomb; the stirrings of postcolonial nationalism in Indochina — each proved a strategic setback of the first order. And each was beyond America’s power to control or even to manage successfully.

Kagan is spot on here, and the implications are obvious. Ever since MacArthur crossed the 38th parallel in 1950, US governments have shown a chronic tendency to over-reach themselves, and to squander blood, treasure and international respect as a result. The Vietnam disaster reined in this tendency for a while. But then neoconservatives invented the term ‘Vietnam syndrome’ to describe the perfectly sensible lessons most people learned from the US defeat. In the end, it took the Iraq fiasco to provide a remedial lesson for the slower learners.

There’s no need to postulate a decline in American power and influence to explain why an aggressive and unilateralist policy is a foolish one. As Kagan says, there was never a time when the US, or any other country ‘could dominate, dictate and always have its way’. Every state that has tried to do this has failed. I share Kagan’s hope that President Obama will not regard a sensible recognition of the limits of power and of the need for international co-operation as a confession of national decline.

31 thoughts on “Furious agreeement

  1. “Most of them aren’t being released, they’re being transferred to federal prisoners on the US mainland.”

    Nothing is wrong with the rule of law and I don’t think you can dismiss the USA legal system as completely disfunctional.

  2. ‘Most of them aren’t being released, they’re being transferred to federal prisoners on the US mainland.’

    You mean this was really just an accommodation perception issue? The ever reliable, quicky, cheap fix is to do what they do with public schools on the nose. Change the name to Paradise Park or some such and give em a spunky new logo.

  3. Gitmo was chosen as a locatition so that the US Administration could openly flaunt the fact that it could hold prisoners in ‘accomodatition’ that was untouched by the US Constitution or international law, and torture them with total impunity. that’s what’s changing (hopefully)

  4. I think the US’s power is declinin if moral decay is any indication. I think Obama is right. There is or has been an indiffierence to basic tenets of right and wrong so long as at least one market is better off – even if it is the arms market. I also think the U.S.’s own free market neo liberal ideologies are helping them to commit suicide. Lets see if they follow free market capitalism in the middle of a depression when they need jobs at home – how egalitarian will US citizens then be about global growth?. Unemployment is always the factor likely to turn economic policy in a completely different direction. In some way the US strikes me as having more production to lose from free trade, than to gain.

    On a discussion on the pros and cons of globalisation with a bunch of students I was brought to a halt by one who interjected “so why bother studying GDP when it really doesnt matter?”

    Good point I thought.


  5. Ever the schoolboy sceptic myself I love the debating story.

    Is it true that America was already dead by the end of the 20th century? Mistakes of Empire are often punished but they depend upon the existence of the mistaken Empire. If not America’s then whose was the 20th Century?

    After two presidential terms of the 21st it’s clear enough they’ve been well on their way to disaster this time but, let’s hope, a parachute may have just opened.

  6. “You mean this was really just an accommodation perception issue? ”

    no, the issue was bush’s illegal detention of people off-shore where he claimed the US legal system didn’t apply.

    Seeing as he lost repeated Court challenges and the Supreme court ruled that the US legal system DID apply, continuing to keep the prisoners offshore was a pointless and needlessly expensive stunt.

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