In the May/June edition of the American journal Foreign Affairs the editor of Newsweek International, Fareed Zakaria, sets the US today alongside the British Empire in 1897 and dissects the fall of the latter in order to show that it is not inevitable that the US goes the same way. He chooses as the apogee of the Empire a pageantry moment – June 22, 1897 – when 400 million people were given the day off in order to celebrate with Queen Victoria the 60th anniversary of her ascension to the British throne. But even by 1897 the Empire was in economic decline. Its hey day had really been almost half a century earlier when it was producing 30 per cent of global GDP, when it accounted for one-fifth of the world’s trade and two fifths of its manufacturing trade. The Empire covered about a quarter of the earth’s land surface and included a quarter of its population, though only 2 per cent lived in Britain itself. But Britain shed its empire and its economic power dwindled. The mantle was taken over by the US which has accounted for roughly a quarter of the world output for over a century (32 percent in 1913, 22 per cent in 1980, 26 percent in 2007).

So, the two countries were similarly economic giants. But the similarity did not stop there, for Britain became a political pariah as a result of the Boer War so that by 1902 it could be described as “friendless”. If America is still surrounded by friends (and perhaps many of those friends are the sycophantic “good time” friends that disappear if the money begins to run out) the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have made more enemies than friends, sullying its image abroad and has left a moral void into which there are only too many other opportunistic states wanting to step.

So much for the similarities. Zakaria writes that the wonder is not that the British Empire declined, but that it held on to its political power for so long after its economic decline. He credits a redoubtable diplomacy and a wise policy of ceding power to the friendly American younger relative with the long tail or the the long goodbye which Britain continued to enjoy, arguably continues to enjoy, as it still punches above its weight as one of the permanent members of the UN Security Council. Even Churchill’s place at the table at the Yalta Conference was a reflection of the man’s personal ambition and skill, not the real due of the country he represented.

America still leads the world with an economy ranked the world’s most competitive and is proofing itself against future decline by leading the world in futuristic technologies such as Nanotechnology and Biotechnology, in designing and distributing products rather than manufacturing them. Further, despite a perception that the American nation is poorly educated, the truth is that it leads the world in university level education with either seven or eight of the world’s top ten universities, and continues to train more engineers than either China or India does. At the level of higher education, the quality delivered is extremely poor in these two countries, which is why so many of their students find their way abroad. It is not just a numbers game, however. The critical tradition of thinking encouraged in American universities leaves the Asian world behind. Students are engaged, instead of being spoon-fed.

America is not yet at risk from the East. It continues to outspend every other country several times over on defence, is a strong economy, and has an educated workforce. It has less superiority over Europe than it imagines – if the US has the top spot for its competitive economy, nine of the other ten are European countries. Trouble is, apparently, we don’t deal with our immigrants well enough: “European societies do not seem able to take in assimilate people from strange and unfamiliar cultures, especially from rural and backward regions of the world of Islam” whereas “The United States … is creating the first universal nation, made up of all colors, races, and creeds, living and working together in considerable harmony” evidenced by the candidates for the Presidential election. Europe’s failure to make up for the reluctance of its native population to adequately reproduce by accommodating immigrants stokes up a time bomb of citizens who increasingly spend more than they save and are expensive drains on pension funds and health services. Although native-born white Americans have the same low fertility rates as Europeans, foreign students are soon to represent the majority of Ph.Ds awarded. If they can be kept in the US, their dynamism will ensure the continued economic success of the US. Ultimately, Zakaria writes, “this is what sets the country apart from the experience of Britain”.

Jumping on a popular bandwagon, Zakaria warns of the end of the unipolar US-dominated world. In this post-American world, America may still economically hold sway, but it is politically bankrupt. Its downfall, if it comes at all, will be the reverse of that of the British Empire: political not economic. But its salvation will be the same. If it wants to enjoy the same long goodbye, it needs to gracefully cede some of its own power, and accept a world with a diversity of voices and viewpoints, or its risks its own destruction as a result of the rise of the rest.

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