Radical historian Noam Chomsky has been serializing a long article in the Guardian on what he sees as the decline of US influence and power, particularly in foreign affairs.
As an un-naturalized Briton who's lived in the US for nearly thirty years, I think I have a fairly unique perspective on this kind of thinking. After all, I grew up amidst the decline and fall of the British Empire. Indeed, during my seven years military service, and in the decade or so of my teens, it was within the wreckage of a hundred small colonies that our small wars were fought: Aden, Northern Ireland, the Falklands, Belize.
Since then, the US has been forced to intervene in a dozen of what were once British colonies or clients: Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, and Pakistan being merely the most expensive examples.
Am I now witnessing firsthand a similar Kipling-esque "recessional" for the American Empire?
I don't think so. Certainly not in my lifetime.
Although there are newer empires arising, and new alliances, America still predominates and will for decades to come. This is still the only country with reliable ability to project power, economic, political and military, around the globe. The Chinese might be able to, for instance, win development contracts in Mozambique (primarily by bribing officials and cutting corners), or Indian corporations might lease or buy land for farming in Ethiopia (again -- successful primarily through corrupt practices, as a recent BBC film shows), but these are as much signs of weakness as they are of strength. The US, in comparison, is agriculturally self-sufficient.
The Chinese are still just learning to use their one aircraft carrier, bought from the Russians before it was scrapped. For comparison, the US has eleven, with two under construction, and they all run like clockwork. It will take the Chinese a decade, or two, to even begin to approach this level of technological supremacy in naval aviation. Who knows what new developments will have ensued by the time they begin to master these complex systems. I could imagine a small American drone in a year or ten years time, perhaps even under development now, that could render that carrier as obsolete as naval aviation once rendered the battleship.
The Europeans, one contender to share the power vacuum, are not only sadly under-prepared for a global role, but -- through following the false flag of austerity through the recent crisis -- are now unlikely to recover economically for at least five more years. And the US economy, thanks to the weakest Keynesian efforts that Congress was willing to support, is recovering without those development contracts.
Even within the current ferment of US politics, as pathetic and ridiculous and even shameful as some of the recent events have been in Congress or the Republican primary, I just don't see the hard evidence that the US is not still constantly remaking itself internally and externally in a way that post-war Britain never could. The reason I live in America and not Britain is primarily because the class barriers in the British system prevented me from moving on with my life and remaking myself. Millions of new Americans every year do much the same, bringing ideas and intelligence and the immigrant's work ethic from all over the globe. With so much new blood, and so many new ideas, I can't imagine an America that stands as still as Britain did in the 1970s.
Chomsky is suffering from wishful thinking. He wants US power and influence to decline so badly that he's willing to overlook compelling data and concrete evidence to the contrary. His distrust of capitalism and American conservatism is too great. Locked in an out-dated sixties paradigm of anti-US radicalism, he can't see the forest for the trees.
US influence and power will still be with us long after the shoddy buildings the Chinese are putting up in African cities have begun to fall apart. And by making alliances with democracies in Europe, Africa, South America, South Asia and Australasia, US idealism might easily influence the world's progress for decades after that, especially if, as seems likely, the dialectic of US politics moves away from economic neo-liberalism, and towards an active role for government in the economy, pace the recent GM recovery.
The question is, what will we do with all this influence and power? Especially in the face of climate change? Will the US be a force that helps unite humanity to face this threat, that lives up to its aspirations and ideals? Or will the US succumb to the politics of pure-self interest?
In which case, I don't think there's much hope for humanity.