U.S. Decline: Three Strikes and You’re Out?

Photograph Source: Daniel Lobo – CC BY 2.0

Although the United States major league baseball season is suspended, the basics of three strikes and you’re out can still be used to describe politics. Three events in the last twenty years raise serious questions about American domination in the post 1945 world. The current pandemic and the insufficient bumbling, if not criminal, response of the Trump administration can be seen as the final strike in U.S. decline.

At the end of Paul Kennedy’s sweeping historical analysis, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, he includes a short chapter on the United States. After describing the downfall of the empires of Spain, France, the Netherlands and Germany, Kennedy includes the U.S. as potentially succumbing to imperial overreach. The book was published in 1987. Two years later the Soviet Union collapsed; the United States became the dominant unipolar, global hegemon.

Kennedy’s pessimistic prediction soon faded off the radar screen. Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man (1992) became the rage. Fukuyama went beyond Henry Luce’s 1941 pronouncement that the 20th century would be the American Century. According to Fukuyama, democracy and capitalism were more than just triumphant in the Cold War; they were the inevitable way all societies would be organized in the future. They were timeless.

It is true that for over fifty years after World War II the U.S. played a singular role militarily, economically politically and culturally. It was the leader of a powerful Western coalition with global outreach. The Soviet Union was a military adversary during the Cold War, but its implosion in 1989 showed Soviet/Communism’s internal deficiencies.

Is it time to revisit Kennedy in 2020? Two decades into the 21st century, is it time to look at what happened after Luce’s American century? (Fukuyama has sufficiently amended his 1992 predictions so that they don’t warrant further comment.)

Three events can be used to show how the fall of the United States is taking place: The attacks of September 11, 2001; the financial crisis of 2008 and the coronavirus pandemic. Each reveal how the American post World War II domination has faded.

The attacks of September 11 showed the military vulnerability of the United States. (Some would date this to the Vietnam War, but we are focusing on the 21st century.) Despite the largest armed forces in history – far dwarfing any other country in the world – the United States was not impregnable. Worse, two symbols of America’s strength – the Twin Towers and the Pentagon – were assaulted. A small, inexpensive destruction of U.S. symbolic power highlighted how the generals had prepared for the last war. No mighty aircraft carriers or submarines could prevent the attacks. In addition, the inability of the U.S. military to “win” the longest war in American history in Afghanistan showed the weakness of the United States’ power projection in today’s world. Strike One.

The financial crisis of 2008 reflected the house of cards that underlie much of the American economy. Subprime housing loan defaults in the U.S. led to an international banking crisis. A global depression followed, unlike any seen since the Great Depression of 1929. Unemployment soared. Only unprecedented government intervention by the Bush and Obama administrations saved certain banks and the stock market. The shakiness of the market was revealed, with lessons learned still to be determined. At least, the crisis exposed how much the U.S. economy was no longer tied to the basics of making something and the vulnerability of post-industrial paper stock markets. Wall Street was as open to attack as the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. Strike two.

And now the pandemic overwhelms the United States. Pictures of the chaos in New York hospitals only reinforces the weakness of the U.S. public health system as well as exposing racial inequality. A disgraceful show of indifference by the Trump administration reinforces the cruelty of capitalism. Anyone following New York Governor Cuomo’s pleas for equipment and medical personnel can no longer have illusions about the unipolar hegemon. The U.S. is now number 1 in deaths from COVID-19. While calls for a new health Marshall Plan go unheeded, China and Cuba offer support around the world.

Strike three? Is the United States out? Has the pandemic been the final straw in America’s decline?

Optimists will say that the U.S. is extremely resilient. They point to how the country rebounded from the Great Depression and the financial crisis of 2008. Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power writes that “the country [the United States] remains the world’s largest economic, military and cultural power and nations still look to us in times of crisis.”

Maybe so. But in baseball there is no arguing with the umpire’s ball and strike decisions. He is the final arbiter. And this umpire, from behind the plate in Switzerland where the health care system is functioning and people feel secure that the government is doing a respectable job, is calling strike three. The military, financial and health systems all whiffed. You’re out!

Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.