BERLIN - Most of the time, it is only in retrospect that we recognize the exact moment that a super power loses that status. For the former colonial powers that were France and Great Britain, the moment came with the Suez crisis – when Egypt’s military dictator Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal and cut Europe off from oil in the Persian Gulf. In response France and Great Britain attempted some geopolitical maneuvering by teaming up with the Israelis to get the canal out of Egyptian hands and traffic flowing again.
Nasser had actually been militarily defeated when a call to order came from Washington, which had its own complex agenda to defend in the region. The Americans did some arm-twisting by threatening the sale of its pound sterling reserves – a move that would have ruined the British economy. Faced with this eventuality, Paris and London meekly stepped back – and took their last bow as superpowers on the world stage.
Today, events can be neatly separated into “before” and “after” the Suez crisis, although at the time the consequences were not immediately obvious. Something similar is happening with regard to the U.S. right now.
About 10 years ago, when the United States attacked Iraq, many chose to see that as a symbol of its definitive supremacy. The talk was of a "uni-polar moment" in world history, with no one in a position to counterbalance American power.
A few years later and the world is a very different place. America looks to many like a country in decline, and the day appears to draw ever closer when the U.S. passes the baton they took from the British onto Beijing.
In reality, the perception of "imperial America" in 2003 was just as overdone as the wailing about a U.S. decline is today. The U.S. continues to be the most powerful country on Earth by far, capable like no other of projecting its military might to all corners of the planet. So far, China has shown neither the military ability nor that necessary wherewithal in its economic policy needed to replace the United States.
So America continues to be the defining global power, and to it falls the task of ensuring the framework for free global trade. And since only America is in a position to act as an anchor for a globalized world, who its leaders are, and their ideas, are of consummate importance.
As historian Niall Ferguson has noted, a very basic decision will be made on November 6, the day of the presidential elections: should the U.S., as it has under the leadership of Barack Obama, continue to “Europeanize” itself at a time when there is much to question about the European model? Or does the country need the approach espoused by Mitt Romney -- radical measures including stiff cut-backs, and a return to the old American virtues of personal responsibility, dynamism, individualism?
With regard to spending, the U.S. is presently on the same slippery slope that has brought several countries in the euro zone to the brink of bankruptcy. In 1962, only 14% of the U.S. budget went to entitlement programs as compared to 47% today – and by 2030, that figure will be 61%. New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote recently that "entitlement spending is crowding out spending on investments in our children and on infrastructure. This spending is threatening national bankruptcy."
What Brooks is describing is the path Europe has long been on, where recent generations have swallowed up the future of the next generations in countries like Spain, Italy and Greece.
Managing the decline
Europeans were much taken with Barack Obama when he came on the scene in 2008. Although he has very few personal ties to the old continent, the politician from Chicago gives off an air of urbane coolness that has a European feel to it. However, four years later the question must be asked if a U.S. president who appears to view himself as a manager of a country in decline is really good for Europe.
What would we get out of America becoming like us – un-dynamic economic skeptics devoid of ambition on the foreign policy front? Over recent decades, security in Europe has depended on the fact that the United States is unlike Europe. Our affluence was only ensured because the Americans held a very expensive umbrella over us – an umbrella they paid for.
With the money we saved on the military we were able to build up welfare states such as the world had never before seen. And although Europe has spent laughably little money on securing that affluence, the system has pretty much reached the end of its tether. We have an interest in seeing to it that the United States doesn’t make the same mistake -- because if it does it’s going to speed up the decline of the entire West considerably.
Until a couple of weeks ago, it looked as if both Obama and Romney were going to bypass the country’s true problem – the massive budget deficits – in their election campaigns. That’s changed now that Mitt Romney has brought Paul Ryan on board as vice-presidential candidate. He is one of the few representatives in the U.S. Congress who really want to change the American deficit situation and make America strong for the future.
So now the competition of ideas concerning the future is well and truly open. Barack Obama must also present a compelling vision of how the country can win back its dynamism. The future of Europe depends on the U.S. – a U.S. that gets some of its old independence from the state back, and again becomes less European. Because only an America that is economically and fiscally healthy will be in a position to shoulder the costly job of ensuring global peace and prosperity.