Commentary Magazine


Topic: global power

No Alternative to American Leadership

The prize for least convincing op-ed article of the day–admittedly a close contest, given all the contenders one can choose from–goes to Kwasi Kwarteng’s New York Times article, “Echoes of the End of the Raj.” Kwarteng, a British Conservative parliamentarian of African ancestry who has written a book about the British Empire, claims (have you heard this before?) the U.S. is in rapid decline and can no longer afford the price of global power, or as he calls it, empire. Those interested in a more comprehensive deconstruction of this unconvincing argument should turn to Bob Kagan’s fine new book. I want to focus here on only one of Kwarteng’s egregious statements.

“America’s position today reminds me of Britain’s situation in 1945,” he writes. Really? He may be the only one who sees the parallels. As it happens, my forthcoming book, “Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present,” which will come out in January 2013 from W.W. Norton & Co.’s Liveright imprint, contains a short section describing what Britain looked like in 1945 and the years immediately afterward. Here is part of what I write:

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The prize for least convincing op-ed article of the day–admittedly a close contest, given all the contenders one can choose from–goes to Kwasi Kwarteng’s New York Times article, “Echoes of the End of the Raj.” Kwarteng, a British Conservative parliamentarian of African ancestry who has written a book about the British Empire, claims (have you heard this before?) the U.S. is in rapid decline and can no longer afford the price of global power, or as he calls it, empire. Those interested in a more comprehensive deconstruction of this unconvincing argument should turn to Bob Kagan’s fine new book. I want to focus here on only one of Kwarteng’s egregious statements.

“America’s position today reminds me of Britain’s situation in 1945,” he writes. Really? He may be the only one who sees the parallels. As it happens, my forthcoming book, “Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present,” which will come out in January 2013 from W.W. Norton & Co.’s Liveright imprint, contains a short section describing what Britain looked like in 1945 and the years immediately afterward. Here is part of what I write:

Some 750,000 houses had been destroyed or damaged, public debt was at record levels, the pound devalued, unemployment rising. Britain had to rely on a loan from the United States as a lifeline, even as the new Labor government was launching a dramatic expansion of costly government programs in health-care, schooling, unemployment insurance, and old-age pensions.

Rationing remained in effect covering everything from meat, eggs, and butter to clothes, soap, and gasoline. As one housewife noted: “Queues were everywhere, for wedge-heeled shoes, pork-pies, fish, bead & cakes, tomatoes–& emergency ration-cards at the food office.” Even in the House of Commons dining room, the only meat on offer was whale or seal steak. The situation deteriorated even more in the harsh winter of 1947-1948. Coal, gas, and electricity were all in short supply. Everyone seemed to be shivering and complaining, as college student Kingsley Amis put it, “CHRIST ITS [sic] BLEEDING COLD.”

I describe conditions in post-war Britain to make clear why Britain could not afford to hang onto its empire. But does any of this sound like contemporary America? Are we rationing food and clothing? Are we dealing with widespread devastation? Are we unable to afford heat for our homes? Hardly. In fact, America is enjoying unprecedented prosperity–we are many times better off than we were 30 years ago, much less than Britain was 67 years ago, at the immediate conclusion of the most destructive war in history–one that bled Britain dry. We have not been bled dry by our military exertions. The defense budget amounts to less than 5 percent of our GDP–hardly an unsupportable burden, as I have argued many times before.

We do face problems of excessive government spending, exacerbated by President Obama’s Clement Atlee-like propensity for expanding the size of government. But, unlike Britain in 1945, we do not face a fundamental economic crisis. Our economy remains a leader among industrialized, or more accurately post-industrialized nations, with world-beating companies such as Wal-Mart, Apple, and General Electric–not to mention vast demographic advantages and mineral resources such as shale oil–that Britain simply did not have in 1945.

There is no reason we cannot continue to exercise global leadership–and every reason why we must continue to do so. Post-1945 Britain could cede the mantle gracefully to the U.S., confident that we would champion the same liberal values. To whom can the U.S. possibly pass power today? China? Russia? Iran? The question answers itself: there is no alternative to American leadership.

 

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