Is the United States declining, and if so, how is it manifesting itself? What are the causes of the decline? Further, what does that mean for America and, indeed, the world? Zbigniew Brzezinski’s latest book – Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power – is a contribution to this debate. Given his influence as an academic, analyst, and presidential advisor, Brzezinski’s new work will certainly be read in foreign policy circles, both in the U.S. and abroad.
The American geopolitician entertains no doubts as to whether America is a superpower in decline. Brzezinski, arguably, lists six major causes cum manifestations of America’s waning strength:
- She is crippled by a crushing national debt – totaling $ 15.7 trillion in May 2012 – which exceeds the nation’s GDP;
- America’s financial system is flawed;
- Widening social inequality constitutes another weakness, which has been undermining confidence in the “American Dream” both within and outside the United States;
- The infrastructure is in a state of increasing decay;
- Moreover, many Americans are embarrassingly ignorant of the fundamentals of history, politics, economics, geography – and many other subjects indispensable for responsible and conscious citizens in an increasingly global world; and, last but not least,
- The U.S. political system is polarized and paralyzed, rendering incredibly difficult, if not outright impossible, a national bipartisan consensus on the most pressing domestic and international issues.
Naturally, weakness at home also translates into weakness abroad. Thus, the waning of American power in particular is a major factor behind the “receding” of the West in general. While the EU has expanded in the wake of the Soviet Union’s implosion, there is no firm, pan-European commitment to continuing the trans-Atlantic alliance with the U.S. The European arena is characterized by contradictory national interests within the EU. Some of the Union’s main core members – such as Germany, France, and Italy – are much more interested in an intimate partnership with Vladimir Putin’s Russia rather than Barack Obama’s America. Moreover, the Europeans have become increasingly introverted and complacent, prioritizing “social security” over “national security.”
Meanwhile, new rivals have arisen to challenge the trans-Atlantic order, since its apogee in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Empire. Post-Soviet Russia has been pursuing an aggressive neoimperial strategy under Putin. China – economically pragmatic, but nevertheless politically communist – has emerged as a great power with a rapidly-growing economy now only second to America’s. Populous India is a rising star as well. In addition, an upsurge of anti-Western popular mobilization is spreading throughout Islamic countries.
In effect, Brzezinski views America’s decline in terms of a zero-sum game, where other countries gain power as America loses its preeminence leading to a dispersal of America’s power among many other nations. This new distribution of global power is thus to America’s increasing disadvantage. Yet, simultaneously, no other power – not even mighty China – possesses both the will and the resources to serve as the world’s hegemon in America’s stead.
Our nation’s continued decline, according to Brzezinski, spells greater instability throughout the world. That is the optimistic scenario, however, for the crumbling of Pax Americana may easily lead to global chaos and a Hobbesian conflict of all against all. The author also lists the states which are particularly geopolitically endangered, as these states are dependent on America’s security umbrella and would become adversely impacted should America experience a precipitous decline. These states include: Georgia, Taiwan, South Korea, Belarus, Ukraine, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Israel and the Greater Middle East. Brzezinski does not state so explicitly, but it is telling that four out of eight (i.e. half) of these nations are endangered due to Moscow’s aggressive policies. Two are threatened by Red China’s increasing assertiveness. The stability, and perhaps even existence, of the final three is endangered by militant Islam (Afghanistan is in shambles both because of a Soviet invasion and a Taliban resurgence). In any event, Eurasia will constitute the key to any twenty-first century world order, the author points out.
The above is not inevitable, however. The first step to preventing this black scenario from materializing is to stem America’s decline through domestic reforms, for “our strength abroad will depend increasingly on our ability to confront problems at home.” On the international stage, Brzezinski advises that we should strive to “revitalize” the West while seeking to “accommodate” the powers of the East, China in particular.
Brzezinski’s advice regarding “revitalizing” the West sounds desirable – until one delves into the details. For the geopolitician urges that the U.S. support further EU integration (i.e. the march toward a federal European superstate) reinforced by the eventual but full-fledged inclusion of both Turkey and even Russia in the structures of this “revitalized West.” But is a more “unified” Europe necessarily in America’s interest? Even the globalist Henry Kissinger disagrees. Further, can Turkey and Russia – two large states with cultures quite distinct from, and sometimes even hostile towards the “West” (understood as the synthesis of Judeo-Christian ethics, the Roman legal tradition, and the classical Greek conception of truth) – be realistically assimilated into Occidental structures to the point of revitalizing them? Further, how to reconcile the West’s commitment to human rights with the fact that both Russia and Turkey refuse to grapple with the genocides committed by the Soviets and Kemalists? Brzezinski certainly understands the serious problems of integrating Russia into the West, but seems to believe that Russia’s liberal middle class will eventually become more assertive, leading the country toward democracy. However, quite a few Western commentators appeared similarly optimistic at the introduction of the Soviet Union’s New Economic Policy (NEP) in the 1920s and later during the Yeltsin era in the 1990s.
Brzezinski’s prescriptions for eastern and southern Asia are modest and ambitious at once. The U.S., he recommends, should serve as a “balancer and conciliator.” Like Great Britain vis-à-vis Europe during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, America should safeguard a balance of power in Asia. In this context, as the author notes, communist China in 2012 performs the role of an increasingly ambitious Imperial Germany in 1912. In other words, Washington should seek to accommodate Beijing’s increasing global status, while simultaneously remaining true to our security commitments to such traditional allies in the region as Seoul and Tokyo. He wisely suggests that the U.S. should avoid involvement in military engagements in Asia. Otherwise, if we pursue further the British analogy, his policy toward China is disturbingly reminiscent of appeasement. He is willing to accept an eventual incorporation of non-communist China (Taiwan) into communist China and opposes the idea of a U.S. – Indian alliance aimed to contain Beijing. Brzezinski fears that the latter will convey the “impression that America sees China as its enemy even before China itself had decided to be America’s enemy.” Incidentally, he also argues against an alliance with India for, he asserts, it would benefit Russia without receiving anything in return from Moscow. Lastly, the author views the current Chinese communist leadership as pragmatic and preferable to, on the one hand, democrats who “overindulge […] social pressures for more participation,” and, on the other hand, more militaristic and jingoistic elements tied to the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) in particular.
The author’s Asian strategy omits several important points. To begin with, Britain’s attempts to “balance” the European continent ultimately failed to stem two world wars sparked by an aggressive Germany seeking its “place in the sun.” Further, Red China already considers us not only an enemy, but its main enemy, if Beijing’s military doctrine is any gauge of the post-Maoist regime’s attitudes. It is important to remember China’s zealous espionage activities in the U.S. Also, communist regimes – the masters of dialectics – have been experts at employing the “good communist, bad communist” ruse to manipulate the West. After all, the “pragmatist” faction ruling China has not disbanded the Laogai, i.e. the Chinese Gulag. Finally, he has not challenged the conventional wisdom and reconsidered whether the status quo in our relations with communist China – which has led to the outsourcing of our manufacturing and the exporting of our technology – is indeed beneficial. Instead, Brzezinski reassures his readers that while China desires America’s eventual decline, it considers a rapid U.S. collapse undesirable from the perspective of its own interests.
On the domestic front, Brzezinski prudently calls for reforms, albeit his recommendations are once again encumbered by a liberal internationalist bias. For instance, he pushes for even higher taxes and more regulations. In addition, Brzezinski opposes securing our southwestern border with Mexico and stemming illegal immigration, lest Mexico takes offense, thereby jeopardizing our “Good Neighbor” policy with that country. He also misses the spiritual factor, omitting completely the role of the counter-cultural revolution of the 1960s and 70s in paving the way for America’s decline.
It is nevertheless important to heed Brzezinski’s diagnosis, if not all of his cures. Our national pride should not blind us to the realization that America is currently exhibiting many of the classic signs of national decline. In fact, patriotism should motivate us to oppose complacent hubris, which can only exacerbate our predicament. Change is indeed necessary – but not simply any kind of change.
Paweł Styrna has an MA in modern European history from the University of Illinois, and is currently working on an MA in international affairs at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, DC, where he is a research assistant to the Kościuszko Chair of Polish Studies. Mr. Styrna is also a Eurasia analyst for the Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research and a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.