Driving American decline

Issue: 127

G Francis Hodge

Gabriel Kolko, World in Crisis: The End of the American Century (Pluto, 2009), £12.99

In his introduction to World in Crisis Gabriel Kolko writes provocatively that “American capitalism is tending towards committing suicide—and is taking other nations with it.” Kolko argues that the century of US global dominance is drawing to a close, driven by factors deeply embedded in the structure of US capitalism. This decline of US power is bringing with it a world of increasing instability, increasing unpredictability and increasing risk of war. World in Crisis is an attempt to analyse the different factors involved in this decline and how these different factors interconnect. This short book is a collection of essays and recent articles remarkable in its breadth, each chapter devoted to a different facet of the decline of American power.

There is much to like in this little book, and it provides an excellent primer for anyone who wishes to start looking more deeply into the contradictions of US capitalism. Kolko stresses the primacy of economics as the decisive determinant of US capabilities. Within that framework, he argues that contemporary state structures have become incapable of genuinely regulating the world, and that the careerism of individuals who lead the US and its allies is a major factor in the sclerosis of its global dominance. Further, the author stresses the absence of an organised opposition to declining US capitalism as a key factor in the ability of that system to endure.

Kolko opens with an examination of the global financial crisis and argues that the contradictions of the US economy are key to understanding the decline of American power. Most of what he writes in this regard will come as no surprise to readers of this journal. He stresses the intimate and ongoing connection between US foreign policy and the health of the American economy. He argues that the US economy is in deep trouble, more integrated than ever before into the world economy, less productive than any of its major competitors, and increasingly beholden to foreign holders of US bonds. Further, he argues that the world economy has now become so complex, and national governments so wedded to neoliberalism and deregulation, that governments are no longer capable of intervening to steer the economy effectively. Kolko does not claim that economic problems explain the totality of the US decline, but he grounds his examination of other contributing factors in a frank acknowledgement that the weakening of American economic capability ultimately constrains US military and political capabilities.

The book is at its most engaging when discussing the limits to American military technology and the possible outcome of a US war with Iran. Kolko argues that developments in weapons technology have profoundly undermined the utility of war as an instrument of political policy. The advent of accurate missiles and rockets cheap enough to be affordable (by the thousands) to non-state groups such as Hezbollah has somewhat levelled the playing field of military competition. Kolko argues that the Israeli war in Lebanon in 2006 and the US-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have demonstrated decisive limits to US military technology. All the fire-power in the world is benefiting the US and its allies little and Kolko joins many other writers across the political spectrum in arguing persuasively that these conflicts provide a “window on the future” of warfare.

What this could mean for an attack on Iran is critical. Kolko points out that in August 2002, the US Department of Defense spent $250 million on a simulated war with Iran and decisively lost the exercise. Most of the US fleet was sunk, including its mighty aircraft carriers, mostly by
low-tech speedboats armed with rockets and explosives. The real Iranian state has not simply armed speed boats at its disposal, but has used its oil wealth to build or buy sophisticated weapons and has the skilled personnel to utilise them. Kolko argues that war with Iran would thus be far bloodier and more costly than the US-led war on Iraq, and is a war they cannot hope to win.

This otherwise excellent book suffers somewhat from the author’s predeliction for hyperbole, which leads to some overblown formulations. When Kolko writes in his discussion of financial crisis that “the entire international mechanism based on nation states is now irrelevant—the IMF included” it should perhaps give the prudent reader pause. Given that the International Monetary Fund and the European Union have recently been centrally involved in a massive bailout of the Greek state in a bid to save the euro, it could be argued that these institutions are hardly irrelevant. Deregulation and new financial instruments may have gone a long way towards weakening the ability of nation states and international organisations to intervene in financial crises, but they have not rendered those states and organisations obsolete. In fairness, Kolko acknowledges that the world economy is changing so quickly that writing on it is fraught with the risk of irrelevance, but his tendency to hyperbole is not limited to his discussion of the economy. Rather, it permeates the book.

That said, however, World in Crisis remains a fine introduction to the breadth and depth of factors behind the decline of American power at the beginning of the 21st century.