James Forsyth

Another American Century

Another American Century
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Walter Russell Mead, whose book Special Providence is one of the best works on American foreign policy, has a fascinating essay in The New Republic arguing that the current financial crisis will actually strengthen and sustain American power. Mead writes:

“Cataloguing the early losses from the financial crisis, it's hard not to conclude that the central capitalist nations will weather the storm far better than those not so central. Emerging markets have been hit harder by the financial crisis than developed ones as investors around the world seek the safe haven provided by U.S. Treasury bills, and commodity-producing economies have suffered extraordinary shocks as commodity prices crashed from their record, boom-time highs. Countries like Russia, Venezuela, and Iran, which hoped to use oil revenue to mount a serious political challenge to American power and the existing world order, face serious new constraints. Vladimir Putin, Hugo Chavez, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad must now spend less time planning big international moves and think a little bit harder about domestic stability. Far from being the last nail in America's coffin, the financial crisis may actually resuscitate U.S. power relative to its rivals.

Every crisis is different, but there seem to be reasons why, over time, financial crises on balance reinforce rather than undermine the world position of the leading capitalist countries. Since capitalism first emerged in early modern Europe, the ability to exploit the advantages of rapid economic development has been a key factor in international competition. Countries that can encourage--or at least allow and sustain--the change, dislocation, upheaval, and pain that capitalism often involves, while providing their tumultuous market societies with appropriate regulatory and legal frameworks, grow swiftly. They produce cutting-edge technologies that translate into military and economic power. They are able to invest in education, making their workforces ever more productive. They typically develop liberal political institutions and cultural norms that value, or at least tolerate, dissent and that allow people of different political and religious viewpoints to collaborate on a vast social project of modernization--and to maintain political stability in the face of accelerating social and economic change. The vast productive capacity of leading capitalist powers gives them the ability to project influence around the world and, to some degree, to remake the world to suit their own interests and preferences.”

Mead is an optimist. But I think that he’s right that despite 9/11, Iraq and this current crisis, the 21st century looks more like being another American century now than it did at its start. China, so often touted as the power that will supplant the US, looks in a decidedly shaky state, while Europe at the moment would have difficult running a bath let alone the 21st Century. The Chinese Communist party’s legitimacy depends on producing rapid economic growth, something that will not be possible over the next few years. China’s decision to go for export-dominated growth now seems decidedly foolish.

P.S. Mead’s thoughts on what might happen in China are well worth reflecting on:

“In the worst-case scenario, the turmoil in the international economy will plunge China into a major economic downturn. The Chinese financial system will implode as loans to both state and private enterprises go bad. Millions or even tens of millions of Chinese will be unemployed in a country without an effective social safety net. The collapse of asset bubbles in the stock and property markets will wipe out the savings of a generation of the Chinese middle class. The political consequences could include dangerous unrest--and a bitter climate of anti-foreign feeling that blames others for China's woes. (Think of Weimar Germany, when both Nazi and communist politicians blamed the West for Germany's economic travails.) Worse, instability could lead to a vicious cycle, as nervous investors moved their money out of the country, further slowing growth and, in turn, fomenting ever-greater bitterness. Thanks to a generation of rapid economic growth, China has so far been able to manage the stresses and conflicts of modernization and change; nobody knows what will happen if the growth stops.”

Written byJames Forsyth

James Forsyth is Political Editor of the Spectator. He is also a columnist in The Sun.

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