In 1930, two journalists called Walter Sellar and Robert Yeatman wrote a viciously funny spoof history of England under the title 1066 and All That. I hope some of you know it. With a weakened British Empire having been bailed out by the Americans in World War I, the book ends by proclaiming that “America was thus clearly top nation, and History came to a.”
I think I know what they mean, and the USA has indeed been “top nation” for the past century, even if history has failed to come to a full stop. Most of us are used to making sense of the world by anchoring ourselves to the idea that the US is all-powerful. To a greater or lesser extent, we have a love-hate relationship with Uncle Sam. He is often brash, too quick to resort to violence, given to throwing money around in bad taste, and with some doubtful habits – historic racism and disdain for the environment being but two examples. But on the whole, the US has over a century been a comforting anchor. In two world wars, the US cavalry have ridden to Europe’s rescue. Current European prosperity was made possible by the Marshall Plan based on the brute strength of the US economy. All over the world, the “huddled masses” have been given hope by the beacon of welcoming freedom symbolised by the Statue of Liberty.
So it is with a tinge of sadness and a shiver of uncertainty that I suggest to you that the USA is no longer “top nation”. The components of superpower status are economic and military. And if that status is to be merited and sustainable it must also have moral authority.
What nudges me to say that at this point the US is forfeiting its superpower status is its economic vulnerability. Recently, the US government lost its “triple A” credit rating. This was an iconic moment. The US dollar is the world’s reserve currency and it is underwritten by the US Federal Reserve Bank. Its absolute reliability is now in question, and the need to overhaul global financial structures to take account of this is becoming urgent. The US may not be in the same mess as Zimbabwe, or even Greece, but hard-headed money men are questioning whether it can manage its debt.
The current ballooning of US government debt is not Obama’s fault. It is now $14 trillion. Fourteen followed by 12 zeroes. Thirty-seven dollars for every millimetre between here and the moon. US debt doubled under George W Bush, mainly because of a massive acceleration of military expenditure conducted by an administration that refused to countenance any increase in tax to pay for this. Cameron’s government here is with some justice accused of being a “government by millionaires, for millionaires”, but that label was never truer than it was for Bush’s administration. Obama’s in-tray from hell stems from trying to afford new expenditure such as a rudimentary health insurance scheme for all Americans while trying and failing to rein in the military. Now he finds himself politically unable to raise taxes in order to meet either his own ambitions or the debts bequeathed by Bush.
Meanwhile, America’s economy is failing to perform. Increasing numbers of the poor are being excluded – the failure of the US market economy to provide the less well off with housing lies at the root of the financial crash and consequent global recession. US industry is no longer competitive globally, and there is a negative balance of trade that is currently reaching $50 billion a month. If the Chinese or the Japanese – or even the Brazilians – chose to call in their debts from the US now, they could bring down the whole US economy into ruins. Much of the world, and oil producers in particular, are thinking out how to find or create an alternative to the dollar as the global standard currency for international trade.
President Eisenhower was no left-wing rebel. But in 1960, before the Vietnam War was ever thought of, he warned that Americans should beware of the “military-industrial complex” which was coming to drive the economy. The country was coming to be dependent on its military industries, and a case can be made that the US economy actually depends on high military budgets, with a nice little war every few years to keep the fires stoked.
If American “top nation” economic status is wobbling, what about military power? The US is still the world’s pre-eminent military power, and accounts for something like half the military budget of the entire planet. The problem is that over the past 40 years or so this military power has given rise to an American political culture of militarism, exactly the point that Eisenhower was alarmed about.
Every time a US President commits troops, American political debate seems to freeze as the need to “support out boys” outstrips consideration of their purpose. The US may still be a military superpower, but the legitimacy of its superpower status is undermined.
That gives us the clue to the ending of America’s status as “top nation” that matters most. Moral authority has gone, and the emperor has fewer and fewer clothes. I am surely not alone in having hoped that Obama would be able to turn the situation around. This decent and intelligent man has wide experience of the world outside the US. His rhetoric, his ability to put his country’s ideals into words, is wonderful, and his speech to the London Parliament a few months ago was nothing less than political poetry. But he is bogged down. Guantanamo persists. Afghanistan is still in agony. The US still imprisons indecent numbers, especially of its dispossessed, and executes many of them. And Middle America bays for lower taxes and policies such as withdrawal from the UN. Obama is not coping with that in-tray from hell.
Recent British governments – Thatcher, Major, Blair, Brown, Cameron – have all talked about “Atlanticism”. Our prosperity and security are said to be best assured by clinging to the US. Whether we wish to delude ourselves that this is an alliance of equals or admit that we can only be America’s poodle is another matter. But the days of Atlanticism are surely over. The US may for the time being still have military superiority, but its failing economy will not maintain that for long. What is more important is that Uncle Sam has lost his self-confidence and whatever moral authority he undoubtedly once had. Increasingly he may lose his nerve altogether.
So we must change our mental maps of the world. Power and influence are growing in other places, and some say we are moving into a BRIC-built world. Brazil, Russia, India, China. None of these are countries that are ever likely to ride to our rescue as the Americans have. None of them are likely to command our confidence and provide us with light in the darkness. In the case of China and Russia in particular, there is much that is worryingly dark about them.
Britain is a middle-sized country that struggles to realise that it is in Europe. Scotland would be a small European nation. The pragmatic solution to coping with our vulnerability is to think European. You don’t have to have a “United States of Europe” to get this continent’s democracies to sing from the same hymn-sheet of mutual care. Meanwhile we should use our global traditions to keep our minds and our purses open to the rest of the world.
And does the gradual setting of the American sun mean anything specific for Shetland? Possibly not, until it becomes more obvious that the global oil industry is becoming less tied to the dollar and dependent on the US economy. But the symbolic importance of a fading America I leave to you. Many of us have friends and relatives there. We carry a general European sense of respect and gratitude for America’s historic role over the past century. Some of us may feel just a little smug that the country of John Wayne isn’t always the good guy any more. But we all need to adjust our world view. Reality is getting more complicated.