When nations decline, does it happen from the bottom or the top? Scholars of national declines, such as Paul Kennedy* usually point to long term demographic and economic factors. For example, the decline of the Spanish Empire was due to the hollowing out of the Castilian economy, due to the demands of wars-their manpower was decimated and their currency debased by inflation. Students of British decline point to the failure to develop a healthy, educated workforce, and the financial structures necessary to advance manufacturing to the levels developing in the emerging powers of the USA and Germany. Factors which were due to deep cultural biases (Spain: Catholicism; Britain: Free Market fundamentalism) and which took decades to play out.
Students of the other school point out that the people at the top of any country make decisions, which have consequences. Phillip II and his advisers decided to initiate the daft series of religious wars which lasted eighty years and bled the Empire dry. Britain in the 1930s still had the remains of a powerful empire. But its foreign policy blunders lost it so much prestige that its enemies (Germany, Italy, Japan) were emboldened to start the war which led to the final collapse of the British Empire in the payments crisis of 1941, and the disasters in the Far East in 1942.
In this light, the Presidency of Donald Trump has been catastrophic. We won’t reprise his appalling series of economic and domestic blunders. Our readers have newspapers and TV. But we will observe that in any crisis, people tend to follow the adults in the room. We cannot stop thinking about the following observation from Martin Kettle in the Guardian.*
… look no further than what happened at the World Health Organization assembly in Geneva this week. On the one hand, Trump spent the week slagging off the WHO, threatening to withdraw all US funding, promoting quack medical remedies and attacking China. On the other, Xi addressed the assembly, donated $2bn to the WHO for the coronavirus battle, called for a vaccine to be made available to all, and successfully watered down the planned post-pandemic international investigation into Covid-19. Having done that, Xi slapped a punitive 80% tariff on Australian barley to punish Canberra for pressing for a fuller, more independent Covid-19 probe. Stand by, if it takes place, for a similar Xi approach at the postponed Cop26 climate conference.
Friends of democracy will tremble that their system can throw up such a troubled leader. Its enemies will rejoice to see China acting rather like the US was doing in the 1940s: the sensible honest broker offering reason all round. And then ruthlessly pursuing its own interests as all powers on the rise do. And Trump’s behaviour is not a one-off. From the BBC*we learn that he has got into a ridiculous twitter war with a hostile TV Host (from his own party) alleging foul play in a sad death which happened nearly twenty years ago. The President of the United States in a Twitter war? The Defender of the Constitution, the boss of the CIA using social media to follow personal grudges, like someone from a trailer park on the outskirts of Flint, Michigan? With a TV host, yet?
Historians of the future will point to many steps on the road in America’s decline from its pinnacle of power and riches. The Invasion of Iraq in 2003; the financial collapse of 2007-8;the super-pac Supreme Court Ruling 0f 2010. But anyone writing a historical novel on what it felt like to live through the decisive moments will set their characters in the months from January to June 2020,when Trump dropped the baton. And Xi picked it up.
Paul Kennedy The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers Random House 1987
Corelli Barnett The Audit of War 1986
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