"Make poverty history!" A catchy slogan, and an
admirable aim, it was adopted by world leaders at the United Nations
summit in New York on the eve of the New Millennium. A decade later, it
is America which has made history -- even ifin the
opposite direction. The latest U.S. Census Bureau statistics show that,
in 2009, one in seven Americans was living below the poverty line, the
highest figure in half a century. Last month's 95,000-plus home
foreclosures broke all records.
These were only two of the recent glaring signs of the sagging might
of the globe's "sole superpower," now heavily indebted to Beijing. Other
recent indicators include its failure to corral China into revaluing
its currency, the yuan, against the dollar, and to compel Russia, China,
India, or even Pakistan to follow its lead in suppressing the oil and
natural gas trade with Iran. With Washington failing to impose its
monetary or energy policies on the rest of the world, we have entered a
new era in history.
America's Struggling Economy
It's crystal clear that jobs and the economy have emerged as the key
preoccupations of American voters as they approach the November 2nd
midterm Congressional elections.
The economic "recovery" is proving anemic. An already weak gross
domestic product (GDP) growth figure, 2.4% for the second quarter of
2010, was recently revised downward to 1.6%, and the Organization for
Economic Cooperation and Development, consisting of the globe's 30
richest countries, has predicted a paltry 1.2% U.S. expansion in the
fourth quarter of the year.
Soon after retiring as vice-chairman of the Federal Reserve, where he
served for 40 years, Donald Kohn summed up the dire situation in this
way: "The U.S. economy is in a slow slog out of a very deep hole."
Consider one measure of the depth of that hole: between December 2007
-- the official start of the Great Recession -- and December 2009, the
American economy made eight million workers redundant. Even if the job
market were to improve to the level of the boom years of the 1990s, it
would still take until March 2014 simply to halve the present 9.6%
unemployment rate and return it to a pre-recession 4.7%. Little wonder
that James Bullard, president of the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank,
warned of the American economy creeping closer to the black-hole years
of deflation experienced by Japan in the 1990s.
By now, the Obama administration's $862 billion stimulus plan has
largely worked its way through the system without having had much impact
on job creation. And keep in mind that the high official unemployment
rate is significantly less than the real figure. It doesn't take into
account part-time workers who would prefer full-time jobs, or those who
have stopped seeking employment after countless failed attempts. In the
end, the administration's policy makers seem to have failed to grasp
that a recession caused by a banking crisis is always much worse than a
China Roars Ahead
Just as the Obama administration revised those anemic GDP growth
rates downward, China's economy was passing Japan's to become the second
largest on the planet. While the Chinese GDP is steaming ahead at an
annual expansion rate of 10%, Japan's is crawling at 0.4%.
China's leaders responded to the 2008-2009 recession in the West that
led to a fall in their country's exports by quickly changing their
priorities. They moved decisively to boost domestic demand and
infrastructure investment by sinking money into improving public
While Western governments tried to overcome the investment slump at
the core of the Great Recession indirectly through deficit spending,
China raised its public expenditures through its state-controlled banks.
They provided easy credit for the purchase of consumer durables like
cars and new homes. In addition, the government invested funds in
improving public services like health care, which had deteriorated in
the wake of the economic liberalization of the previous three decades.
these measures boosted the GDP growth rate to 9% in 2009, just when the
American economy was shrinking by 2.6%. Such a performance impressed
the leaders of many developing countries, who concluded that China's
state-directed model of economic expansion was far more suitable for
their citizens than the West's private-enterprise-driven one.
On the ideological plane, the spectacular failure of the Western
banking system on which the private sector rests revived socialist
ardor, long on the wane, among China's policymakers. In response, they
decided to bolster state-controlled companies, proving wrong Western
analysts who bet that public-sector undertakings would lose out to their
The upsurge in government spending and generous bank lending policies
led to increased investments by state-owned companies. Whether engaged
in extracting coal and oil, producing steel, or ferrying passengers and
cargo, such companies found themselves amply funded to upgrade their
industrial and service bases, a process that created more jobs. In
addition, they began to enter new fields like real estate.
Overall, the Great Recession in the West, triggered primarily by Wall
Street's excesses, provided an opportunity for Beijing to stress that,
in socialist China, private capital had only a secondary role to play.
"The socialist system's advantages enable us to make decisions
efficiently, organize effectively, and concentrate resources to
accomplish large undertakings," said Prime Minster Wen Jiabao in his
address to the annual session of the National People's Congress in
The Sacred Yuan and Gunboat Diplomacy
In March and early April, there was much sound and fury at the White
House about China's currency, the yuan, being undervalued, and so giving
Chinese exporters an unfair advantage over their American rivals. This
assessment was faithfully echoed by a compliant media. Pundits
anticipated a U.S. Treasury report due in mid-April condemning China's
manipulation of its currency, a preamble to raising tariffs on Chinese
imports. Nothing of the sort happened.
Instead, the Treasury delayed its report for three months. When
released, it said that, while the yuan remained undervalued, China had
made a "significant" move in June by ending its policy of pegging its
currency tightly to the dollar. Hard facts belie that statement,
highlightingthe former sole superpower's impotency in
its dealings with fast-rising Beijing. Between early April and
mid-September, the yuan appreciated by a "significant" 1%.
More worrying to White House policymakers is the way Beijing is
translating its economic muscle into military and diplomatic power. The
controversy surrounding the sinking of the South Korean patrol ship Cheonan
in March is a case in point. Following a report in May by a team of
American, British, and Swedish experts that a North Korean torpedo had
destroyed the vessel, the U.S. and South Korea announced joint naval
exercises in the Yellow Sea off the west coast of the Korean Peninsula.
China protested. It argued that, since the planned military drill was
very close to its territorial waters, it threatened its security. Later
that month at a South Korea-Japan-China summit, Chinese Premier Wen
refrained from naming North Korea as the culprit and instead emphasized
the need to reduce tensions on the Korean peninsula.
Washington ignored Beijing's advice. It went ahead with its joint
naval maneuvers in early July. Six weeks later, it announced another
such drill in the Yellow Sea for early September. Incensed, Beijing
responded by conducting its own three-day-long naval exercises in the
same maritime space. Breaking with normal protocol, it gave them wide
publicity. Unexpectedly, nature intervened. A tropical storm
approaching the Yellow Sea compelled the Pentagon to postpone its joint
By then, Beijing had locked horns with Washington, challenging the
latter's claim that the Yellow Sea is an international waterway, open to
all shipping, including warships. This is an unmistakable sign that the
Chinese Navy is preparing to extend its reach beyond its coastal
waters. Indeed, plans are clearly now afoot to extend operations into
the parts of the Pacific previously dominated by the U.S. Navy.
China's naval high command now openly talks of dispatching warships
to the waters between the Malacca Strait and the Persian Gulf,
principally to safeguard the sea lanes used to carry oil to the People's
Republic of China.
Washington's Iran Policy Challenged
As China's third biggest supplier of petroleum (after Saudi Arabia
and Angola), Iran figures prominently on Beijing's radar screen. So
far, Chinese energy corporations, all state-owned, have invested $40
billion in the Islamic Republic's hydrocarbon sector. They are also
poised to participate in the building of seven oil refineries in Iran.
When, earlier this year, European Union (EU) companies stopped supplying
gasoline to Iran, which imports 40% of its needs, Chinese oil
corporations stepped in. That was how in 2009, with a $21.2 billion
dollar two-way commerce, China surpassed the EU as Iran's number one
trading partner. It is estimated that China-Iran trade will rise by 50%
Like Russia, China backed a fourth set of United Nations economic
sanctions on Iran in June only after Washington agreed that the Security
Council resolution would not include provisions that might hurt the
Iranian people. Therefore, the resulting resolution did not outlaw
either investment or participation in the Iranian oil and gas industry.
Much to Moscow's chagrin, on July 1st, President Obama signed the
Comprehensive Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act of 2010
(CISADA) into law. It banned the export of petroleum products to Iran
and severely restricted investment in its hydrocarbon industry. It also
contained a provision that authorized the White House to penalize any
entity in the world violating the act by restricting its commercial
dealings with U.S. banks or the government.
Two weeks later, Russian oil minister Sergey Shmatko struck back. He
announced that his country would be "developing and widening" already
existing cooperation with the Islamic Republic's oil sector. "We are
neighbors," he emphasized. Russian oil companies were, he added, free to
sell gasoline to Iran and ship it across the Caspian Sea, which the two
countries share. The Kremlin also warned that if Washington chose to
penalize Russian companies for their actions in Iran, it would
retaliate. The Russian ambassador to the U.N., Vitaly Cherkin, stated
categorically that Russia had closed the door to any further tightening
of the sanctions against Iran.
As promised publicly and repeatedly, in August the Russians finally
commissioned the civilian nuclear power plant near Bushehr, which they
had contracted to build in 1994. It meets all the conditions of the
International Atomic Energy Agency. Russia will provide it with nuclear
rods and remove its spent fuel which could be used to produce weapons.
Little wonder, then, that Russia and China appear on the list of the
22 nations that do "significant business" with Iran, according to the
White House. What surprised many American analysts was the appearance of
India on that list, which reflected their failure to grasp a salient
fact: "energy security trumps all" is increasingly the driving principle
behind the foreign policies of a variety of rising nations.
Soon after the enactment of CISADA, India's Foreign Secretary
Nirupama Rao stated that her government was worried "unilateral
sanctions recently imposed by individual countries [could] have a direct
and adverse impact on Indian companies and, more importantly, on our
energy security." Her statement won widespread praise in the Indian
press, resentful of foreign interference in the hallowed sanctum of
energy security. Delhi responded to CISADA by reviving the idea of
building a 680-mile marine gas pipeline from Iran to India at a cost of
More remarkably, Washington's policy has even been sabotaged by
political entities which are parasitically dependent on its goodwill or
In a black-market trade of monumental proportions, more than 1,000
tanker trucks filled with petroleum products cross from oil-rich Iraqi
Kurdistan into Iran every day. On the Kurdish side, the profits from
this illicit energy trade go to the governing Kurdish political parties
which have been tightly tied to Washington since the end of the First
Gulf War in 1991.
An even more blatant example of defiance of Washington in the name of
energy was provided by Pakistan which would be unable to stand on its
feet without the economic crutches provided by America. In January,
Washington pressured Islamabad to abandon a 690-mile Iran-Pakistan gas
pipeline project that has been on the planning boards for the past few
years. Islamabad refused. In March, its representatives signed an
agreement with the Iranians. And a month later, Iran announced that it
had completed construction of the 630 miles of the pipeline on its soil,
and that Iranian gas would start flowing into Pakistan in 2014.
An Irreversible Trend
In whole regions of the world, U.S. power is in flux, but on the
whole in retreat. The United States remains a powerful nation with a
military to match. It still has undeniable heft on the global stage,
but its power slippage is no less real for that -- and, by any measure,
irreversible. Whatever the twenty-first century may prove to be, it will
not be the American century.
Those familiar with stock exchanges know that the share price of a
dwindling company does not go over a cliff in a free fall. It declines,
attracts new buyers, recovers much of its lost ground, only to fall
further the next time around. Such is the case with U.S. "stock" in the
world. The peak American moment as the sole superpower is now well past
-- and there's no overall recovery in sight, only a marginal chance of
success in areas such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where the
United States remains the only major power whose clout counts.
For almost a decade, Washington poured huge amounts of money, blood,
military power, and diplomatic capital into self-inflicted wars in
Afghanistan and Iraq. Meanwhile, the U.S. lost ground in South America
and all of Africa, even Egypt. Its long-running wars also highlighted
the limitations of the power of conventional weaponry and the military
doctrine of applying overwhelming force against the enemy.
As the high command at the Pentagon trains a whole new generation of
soldiers and officers in counterinsurgency warfare, which requires the
arduous, time-consuming tasks of mastering alien cultures and foreign
languages, "the enemy," well versed in the use of the Internet,
will forge new tactics. Given the growing economic strength of China,
Brazil, and India, among other rising powers, U.S. influence will
continue to wane. The American power outage is, by any measure,