By Chandra Muzaffar


Like many other intellectuals in the United States and the West, Professor Joseph Nye is overly concerned with the position of the US as the world?s leading power. He does not want China to overtake his country.

While acknowledging ?that America will be less dominant than it once was?, Nye is nonetheless convinced that it will remain number 1. It is a conclusion that ignores some of the most crucial aspects of the decline of the US as an imperial power.

As with other imperial powers in the past, it is the US?s military adventures which are the primary cause of its decline— a point which Nye sidesteps in his ?America in Decline? Think Again.? (NST October 17). It is estimated that the Afghan and Iraq wars have cost the US 4 trillion dollars and escalated its national debt to 14 trillion, making the world?s only military superpower the biggest debtor nation in history. What is more significant, the US and its allies have to all intents and purposes lost both wars, proving yet again (after the Vietnam debacle of the early seventies) that the most sophisticated military arsenal on earth cannot vanquish ordinary people determined to defend their land and their integrity.

Nye has also downplayed the severity of the economic crisis that has paralysed the US. Corporate, Casino Capitalism which concentrates wealth in the hands of 1% while marginalising 99% of the population, in the words of the Occupy Wall Street movement, is so deeply entrenched that it has killed any hope of fundamental reform. It is largely because of the powerful vested interests of the 1% that the political system is not able to respond to the aspirations of the 99%. Military adventurism, on the one hand, and the economic and political crises, on the other, have been compounded in recent decades by a weakening of the social fabric as a consequence of the disintegration of the family.

While these and other factors have contributed to the decline of the US, it is true that the nation remains strong because of its entrepreneurial dynamism due in part to the huge influx of immigrants, and its scientific output. But even here one has to be a little cautious. As its economy declines, the US will become less attractive to the potential migrant just as it will find it more difficult to finance its cutting-edge scientific research. Besides, other countries are also increasing their scientific output. According to the Royal Society, Britain?s national science academy, China could possibly overtake the US in scientific output by 2013!

China?s ascendancy, needless to say, has accelerated US?s decline, underscored by the latter?s massive trade deficit vis-?-vis the former. Other economies, notably South Korea, India,  Turkey and Brazil are also becoming important regional and international players. Russia is re-asserting its political influence in its neighbourhood while the US has lost considerable power in its vicinity as nation after nation in Latin America re-affirms its independence in the face of Corporate, Casino Capitalism.

With the decline of the US what is emerging is a world with different loci of economic, political and military power, in which the US would be one of a handful of actors. It is unlikely that there will be a single dominant global power in the future. Within such a scenario it is conceivable that regional and international institutions will play a more significant role and international law which  hitherto has been hampered by US hegemony will become more meaningful.


It is against this backdrop that one should appraise China?s role. China is in no position to become a global hegemon. In spite of its phenomenal economic growth, its per capita income is still behind at least a hundred other countries. On the basis of a dollar a day, 150 million Chinese out of a population of 1.3 billion, live below the poverty line.

Besides, right through its long history China has never attempted to colonise other nations or peoples. Its singular preoccupation has been with securing its own borders. This is why even when it possessed the strongest fleet on earth in the first half of the fifteenth century, it did not pillage or plunder other lands. It explains why Chinese territory today is what it was since the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC to 24 AD).

Even in the current phase of its drive for oil and other resources necessary for its economic development, China seeks access, not control. Hence it has no military bases on foreign soil— unlike the US which has perhaps a thousand bases girding the globe. Indeed, China?s rise as a major economic power in the last three decades has been largely peaceful, again in contrast to the war and violence that accompanied the emergence of every Western colonial power from Portugal and Spain to Britain and the US.

Of course, all this does not guarantee that China will not seek political dominance or economic control in the future. As its needs multiply and its strength grows, its role may also change. It is best therefore to adopt a realistic attitude towards China.

To be realistic is not to be hysterical— hysterical about whether China will one day become a hegemonic power threatening the rest of the world. What all of us should really be concerned about is how the US will handle its own decline. Will it become more belligerent as it loses its grip?   Will it make desperate moves to perpetuate its dominance? For an imperial power in decline can sometimes be more dangerous than when it is at its pinnacle.

It is preparing the US citizen and the world for the decline of the US and the West in general — which is an epochal moment in world history—that should be the focus of the US intellectual.

Dr. Chandra Muzaffar is President of the International Movement for a Just

World (JUST) and Professor of Global Studies, Universiti Sains Malaysia. Malaysia.

19 October 2011.

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