IN THE SHADOWS OF THE AMERICAN CENTURY: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power
by Alfred McCoy
Hardcover: 368 pages
Reviewed by Jeffry Babb
It would be precipitate to declare the end of the United States empire, if ever there was such a thing.
The U.S. empire is neither a maritime empire, like Britain’s, nor a continental empire, like the Soviet Union’s. Both Britain and the Soviet Union proved to be fallible. Britain, given a choice after World War II between empire and welfare, chose welfare. The Soviet Union disintegrated because, as the cold warriors always said, it was an empire based on fear.
The captive nations, given their chance, chose freedom. The American imperium, more than ever, depends on intangibles like intelligence and “soft power”. Intelligence has always been a dirty business.
America, unlike almost every other empire builder in history, did not seek territory. Having pacified the Philippines in the early 20th century at great cost, the U.S. granted the Filipinos their liberty. The U.S. retains some Pacific islands, including Guam, mainly to allow its armed forces to project power in the Asian region.
The Caribbean island of Puerto Rico can’t decide whether it wants to be part of the U.S. or not. American Samoa has grown fat, literally, on handouts from Washington. Hawaii, the U.S. forward base in the Pacific, became a U.S. state, though a movement exists to restore the Hawaiian monarchy.
The U.S. masterminded the post-World War II international institutional architecture. Key institutions were the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD), also called the World Bank, the United Nations (UN) and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). Most of those institutions are still functioning. Australia played a role in forming the UN, through the contribution of Dr H.V. (Bert) Evatt, the ALP minister who advocated a meaningful role for small and medium sized members in the UN.
In the 1950s, when much of the world had yet to recover from World War II, America accounted for half the world’s industrial output. North America was largely autarkic, that is, it was a self-contained economy. The role of Canada, however, through its auto manufacturing agreement with Washington, is often overlooked.
It was not until the Asian industrialising economies, first Taiwan, then Hong Kong and Japan, and later the People’s Republic of China (PRC) began exporting to the U.S. in volume that the U.S. began to run trade deficits and became a net debtor to the rest of the world.
The result of President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society welfare binge and the Vietnam War was the closing of the “gold window”. America ceased to be the world’s banker. President Richard Nixon declared that the United States would no longer exchange dollars for gold because it was being bled dry with devalued dollars.
The U.S., though far from powerless, can no longer dictate global economic policy. McCoy contends that the U.S. is sucking up data from around the world on a prodigious scale, unmatched in world history, to maintain its global hegemony. But there is nothing new in intelligence gathering.
America is fighting in five domains: land, sea, air, space and cyberspace. The U.S. has relied on its technological superiority and engineering excellence to stay ahead of its challengers. McCoy speculates that the PRC is challenging the U.S. lead in space and in cyberspace.
The South China Sea is rapidly becoming a Chinese lake but the U.S. is likely to continue transiting the area to assert the right of free passage. The PRC will add to its weaponry deployed in the South China Sea incrementally. One day, we may ask, “when did we lose the South China Sea?” and we may not be able to pinpoint it, but it will have happened.
The Philippines terminated the lease on the Subic Bay naval base and the Clark air base. It is said that a “foreign power” bribed the Philippines Senate to terminate the leases. Had the U.S. retained these bases, once the hub of U.S. military power in Southeast Asia, the situation in the South China Sea may have been different.
Japan is concerned that the PRC may use similar tactics to those it used in the South China Sea to gain control of the Senkaku Islands, which are of strategic importance to Japan and Taiwan.
McCoy says that to gain global dominance, a great power must control the “world island”: that is, the Eurasian landmass plus northern Africa. It seems obvious that the PRC’s “One Belt, One Road” project aims to tie this “global island” into the PRC’s economy, complemented by judicious use of military force, with the cooperation of Russia.
Neither the PRC nor Russia is a traditional naval power. From the Australian point of view, we must facilitate the continued involvement of the U.S. Navy in the Asian region. How far the U.S. will go to project power is unknown, but the loss of an aircraft carrier with a crew of 6,000 would be a transformative event.
It cannot be assumed that if, or when, the PRC’s economy surpasses that of the U.S. that this would be automatically translated into influence. U.S. soft power, from movies to baseball and basketball, all very popular in Asia, cannot be matched by the PRC. And, critically, the shale oil boom means that the U.S. is now self-sufficient in energy.
The U.S. is an informal empire, based on an ideology of liberty, free trade and free enterprise. It is not a maritime empire, like Britain’s, though in some ways it is similar. Britain controlled Argentina by financing its railways, running its banking system and controlling its trade. Argentina was British colony in all but name. The lesson being that you do not need to rule a country to dominate it.
This is a worthwhile book. The American empire is based on commercial leadership and soft power, although its unparalleled ability to project military power globally should not be overlooked. From the Australian point of view, we should facilitate America’s involvement in the world. If the alternative to an American empire is a Chinese empire, we will all be far worse off.