It has become a cliché to say that the U.S. is in decline. It is certainly true, but need not be irreversible, and the country has been there before. It was in decline when the Watergate debacle destroyed a successful presidency and the long and costly enterprise in Vietnam ended terribly on the helipad on the roof of the U.S. embassy in Saigon. But 15 years later, the country was at a unique pinnacle as the world’s only superpower. Not even the Roman Empire enjoyed such eminence, though its rivals, Persia and China, were (unlike their current status) too distant to be seriously bothersome.
What is unusual now is that all the Great Powers are in decline, except China — and that country’s rise is at least a third composed of a public-relations flim-flam job, of the kind that always recruits the credulous in the West, as Hitler, Stalin, and Japan Inc. did. Western Europe has failed as a coherent force. The Lisbon Constitution is a shambles, and the new leaders of federal Europe are such nebbishes, chosen for their inoffensive unassertiveness, that not 5 percent of Europeans could recall their names.
Europe has been harder hit than the U.S. by the economic crisis, and is mired in spurious rhetoric, much of it in French, limning an illusory social-market variant to “cowboy capitalism.” This is like the Holy See’s ancient but sporadic search for a third way between socialism and capitalism. It is a vain pursuit of an economic system diluted by the imposition of self-indulgent European cultural fatigue, masquerading as gentility.
Russia is a fraud. Its population is in steep decline and chronically afflicted by alcoholism. The governmental system is authoritarian and corrupt, allied with protégés who have been given monopolistic concessions and who repay their rulers with obscene kickbacks. Except for a few areas that have survived from the USSR’s expertise in some defense industries, Russia’s manufacturing is continuing to wither, and its economy depends almost entirely on the exportation of natural resources, especially oil. It is not an efficient producer of anything, and commodity prices are always vulnerable.
Japan, which only 20 years ago was making more confident noises than China is today about surpassing the United States economically, is now sluggish and geriatric. It has a new government even more bumptious and inept than Washington’s. And its vaunted genius at sophisticated manufacturing has been undermined by the widespread product-quality problems at Toyota, so soon after it became the world’s largest automobile manufacturer — displacing General Motors, which, after the pause that refreshes in Chapter 11 to shed unsightly debt, may be starting to recover. Japan is torn between reinvigorating the alliance with the U.S. and detaching from it to appease China.
It now seems clearer than ever that China is manipulating the North Korean nuclear threat to rattle Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Indonesia, while retaining, in a barbarous Beltway phrase, plausible deniability. The U.S. U-turn on missile defense and the production of F-22 Raptors has increased Japan’s temptation. But if it departs the U.S. alliance to nuzzle with China, it will be through as a Great Power.