decline of the american empire

  1. 228 Posts.
    China Expands. Europe Rises. And the United States . . .

    Published: December 26, 2004

    T'S a risky business to predict the decline of the American empire. Ask Paul Kennedy, the Yale historian, who issued such a forecast in his 1987 book, "The Rise and Fall of Great Powers," only to witness an almost immediate American resurgence.

    Yet the signposts, at the end of this year, are ominous. As an economic power, the United States no longer sets the rules, much less rule the game. As a military power, it vastly outguns the rest of the world, but has a harder time translating armed might into influence.

    On March 1, the European Union announced that it was raising import tariffs on a long list of American products, and would go on raising them each month until Congress repealed a subsidy for American exporters that had been ruled illegal by the World Trade Organization. Congressmen railed against this intrusion but finally gave in. Americans realized that, in the global economy they largely created and for 60 years dominated, they could no longer do whatever they wanted.

    Last month, China's president, Hu Jintao, embarked on a 12-day tour of Latin America, and wound up making commitments to invest $30 billion in the region. China is now Brazil's second largest trading partner and Chile's largest export market. In trade, technology, investment, education and culture, China has been displacing the United States all across Asia, and is now starting to do the same in America's backyard.

    There is nothing necessarily alarming about an expansive China or an emergent Europe, except perhaps that they coincide with a growing American dependence on both.

    The United States government spent $650 billion more this year than it raised in revenue, and financed the deficit largely by borrowing from foreign central banks, mainly those of Japan and China. They have been willing creditors because American consumers send much of the money right back by purchasing foreign-made products. It's a neat balancing act, to a point. But the American accumulated debt to foreign investors has now swelled to $3.3 trillion - 28 percent of gross domestic product, nearly double the share of four years ago.

    In the 1990's, the United States admonished Mexico and Argentina to get their economic houses in order. This month, the Chinese premier gave Washington a strikingly similar lecture.

    These imbalances are not inherently disastrous. The Chinese get something out of the deal, a ready consumer market for their overheated production lines. If they stop lending to the United States, it would cause a deep recession here, but then Americans could not buy as many of their goods, and the recession would ricochet right back to Asia.

    It's a variation on the old joke: If you owe the bank $1 billion, the bank owns you; if you owe the bank $1 trillion, you own the bank.

    But what if another trillion-dollar customer walked into the bank? The bankers might be more willing to foreclose on the debtor, knowing that they could pick up business from the new tycoon.

    The European Union, in many respects, is looking more and more like this new tycoon. Its currency, the euro, has risen in value by 35 percent against the dollar in the last three years.

    Again, that is not necessarily bad. In theory, a falling dollar makes American exports cheaper, attracting demand that then boosts the dollar; a rising euro crimps European exports, which then lowers the euro; equilibrium is restored. In reality, this process unfolds slowly and shakily: in October, for instance, American exports rose, but American imports soared, too.

    A more serious consequence of the dollar's fall is that the euro has become more rewarding for foreign investors, and they are reacting accordingly. In 2001, Middle Eastern oil-producing countries kept 75 percent of their currency reserves in dollars; now the figure is 61 percent, with much of the rest in euros. Chinese and Russian central bankers are also shifting reserves. This trend, at some point, could set off a spiral: the dollar declines, causing further sell-offs, leading to a further decline, and so on.

arrow-down-2 Created with Sketch. arrow-down-2 Created with Sketch.