The Roman Empire’s fall did not happen overnight: its citizens were unaware of a long-term decline, ascribing problems on the borders to the normal incursions from barbarian tribes. But over time, these attacks sapped the strength of the mighty empire, until the Romans moved their capitol to Byzantium, far from the fierce tribes that assailed their Western boundaries. Finally, they swarmed victoriously into Rome. More recently, the British Empire went into gradual meltdown following the First World War in which it lost the flower of its youth in murderous land battles in France. It also expended much treasure in that futile and costly war. Its status as a global power was destroyed by the Second World War that emptied its treasury and weakened its hold over its far-flung colonies. While the First World War was the first indication of America’s rise as a world power, the next global conflict cemented this position. It was widely recognised that the 20th century was America’s time in the sun. And now? Is the Trump era a harbinger of an empire in decline?
On the face of it, America is easily the most powerful nation on earth, with the biggest economy and mightiest military force ever seen. Its infrastructure is creaking, and increasingly its citizens are being pushed into poverty. The question arises as to how long America can retain its position. Its decline has been long forecast but, thus far, these predictions have been off the mark. The reason is that power is not absolute, but relative to other states. Thus, the Soviet Union’s collapse over a quarter century ago enabled the US to rule the world unchallenged, except by non-state actors. In a piercing analysis of the nature and durability of power, Paul Kennedy examines the reasons behind the decline of superpowers. In his bestselling book, The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, first published in 1987, Kennedy discusses the rise and fall of great powers between 1500 and 2000 in the most recent edition. His basic premise is that a state’s strength can be measured only relative to other states. Second, ascendancy over the long term correlates strongly to available resources and economic resilience.
Finally, military overstretch and corresponding relative decline is the fate of powers whose ambitions and security needs are greater than their resources. All this seems obvious, but when taken together, these ideas provide powerful tools for analysing how and why a great power declines. If we apply them to America, it becomes clear that there is what Kennedy calls an overhang under which a state can continue to project power for a while even when its resources are constrained. Trump has promised to raise military spending, even when the US is outspending all its adversaries put together. How long can this be sustained while it carries a $20tr debt? One factor Kennedy does not address is the role of leadership. A thoughtful leader will look at his resources and gauge the political will of his people before deciding on spending more money on his military, specially when there’s no immediate threat. This is what Obama attempted, but was forced by circumstances to commit more military assets to Iraq and Syria than he would have liked to.
Meanwhile, Trump is bent on creating enemies, losing friends and expanding the military. At the same time, he wants to increase expenditure on the crumbling infrastructure. Clearly, he will have to cut back on some items, and this will probably be on money spent on the poor. Whether all this leads to America’s decline remains to be seen. China and Russia, the only possible challengers to America, remain regional powers compared to the world’s only superpower. But as Russia has shown in Syria, it is capable of challenging American hegemony in regions it deems crucial to its own security. In relative terms, however, American power remains supreme. Its technological edge is unmatched, and its level of training far in advance of most countries. And yet, its expenditure on the military now exceeds its resources, and we have yet to see how long this imbalance can be sustained.
By arrangement with Dawn...