There were few facts and plenty of fictions last night as Intelligence Squared debated whether the era of American dominance is over. Oliver Kamm, journalist and author, proposed the motion. He strode about the stage Cameron-style, with the sound bites to match. “America was on the wane because Americans had lost the appetite to lead.” US dominance rested on guaranteeing “public goods: international trade, currency reserves and collective security.” His vision of American decline owed nothing to the “tendentious deterministic theories of the milieu of anti-American Oxbridge educated Europhiles, such as Michael Moore and Harold Pinter”, (neither of who went to Oxbridge). Rather, Kamm’s vision was “rooted in indisputable facts”. The recession’s price is that America can no longer guarantee public goods. Low yielding dollar assets will encourage Asian savers to invest elsewhere, robbing America of its financial lifeblood. Kamm highlighted Kuwait’s withdrawal from the dollar currency peg as indicative of the upheavals America cannot sustain. Insular self-interest will replace intervention. “America will remain number one, but will need to protect the interests of number one. The ‘buy American’ clause manifests that change”.
Kamm was forceful and Sir Christopher Meyer, sporting trademark scarlet socks, responded by admitting he was considering defection. However, he disputed Kamm’s indisputable facts. America was not always dominant and power should be measured against that exerted by others. China, Russia and the EU were “economic basket cases” brought to their knees by, you guessed it, a “global financial crisis started in the American sub-prime market”. An unwelcome presence suddenly filled the chamber. ‘Broon’ inspired rhetorical overload ensued until Meyer challenged Kamm’s central thesis. The only nation capable of rescuing the world economy was the nation responsible, and its people wanted to lead. The world would recover when American consumers regained confidence. Rather than waning, America would be enhanced. Despite Sir Christopher’s protestations that his analysis was rooted in fact, he gave precious few. With a soothsayer’s sense of theatre, Mayer prophesised, “You ain’t seen nothing yet”.
The Indian author Pankaj Mishra countered that far from being “economic basket cases”, China and India were growing. Mishra doubted if the West’s free market ideology had ever influenced political and economic thought in the developing world. China and India had produced a resilient “alternative state directed capitalism” to the American “illusion” that “lay ruined”. An intriguing cultural perspective underpinned Mishra’s argument: American domination might not exist as a construct beyond Europe. However, as Oliver Kamm noted, Mishra undid the good work by quoting the ruminations of Chairman Mao on “the decadent forces of the American paper tiger”.
Professor Sir Lawrence Freedmen observed that the panel contained no Americans. He doubted if the bright future of the European Union was being debated in Boston. Therein lay the extent of American hegemony. US domination was contained, either by communism, Islam, international law or geography; but it was real in that America was “top dog” and would continue to be so because there was no alternative ideology. “State run capitalism is neither fascism nor communism; it is economic regulation associated with limitations upon personal freedom”. China is not a threat because no nation desires such strictures.
For the philosopher John Gray, American decline was globalisation’s inevitable consequence, just as the USSR’s collapse was an adjunct of Star Wars. Liberal intellectuals in the 70s were wrong to assume that the Soviet Union was a permanent fixture – Gray singled out the late Harold Pinter, whose evangelical anti-Americanism was taking a battering this evening. Contemporary thinkers who denied that globalisation ensured that other interests must win through at the expense of America were wrong too. “We are witnessing a transitional moment”.
Gray was engaging but could not compete with the opposition’s party piece: Felipe Fernandez-Armesto. Half-Spanish half-English, Felipe is an American academic with a voice redolent of Loyd Grossman’s, only louder. “This debate is about values more fundamental than the banalities and trivialities of economics”. Echoing Blair, Felipe argued that pre-eminence required first rate education. This was America’s forte. US undergraduates receive two and half times more funding than their European counterparts; investment producing “civic mindedness and solidarity, characteristics that founded and will perpetuate American greatness”. Those values, Felipe argued, making the most politically incorrect conceit imaginable, “will inspire visiting students to rebuild the blank slate of their countries in the image of America”, as if it were God. The panel gawped in horror; the audience roared. Despite the absence of fact and the preposterous accent, Fernandez-Armesto’s charisma and optimism proved decisive.
Pre-debate, 223 were for, 334 against and 162 undecided; after, 103 were for, 526 against and 37 remained undecided. It was the largest turnaround in IQ2’s history.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated February 14, 2009