Michael Fabricant is MP for Lichfield.
It’s fashionable right now to write off Pax Americana and the influence of the West. Comparisons have been drawn with the decline of Britain in those dark years following World War Two. These point to impotence abroad and division at home.
The commentariat is wrong. Some members of it are wishful thinking. America remains deceptively strong, and the foundations of its global dominance unshaken.
Of course, it would be absurd to deny the seriousness of the current moment. Joe Biden’s botched withdrawal from Afghanistan represents America’s most humiliating moment on the world stage since the 1979-81 Iran Hostage Crisis.
However, what we are living through right now is not the twilight of American hegemony, but simply the nadir of a regular cycle of American self-doubt and renewal.
Our cousins across the Atlantic have been here before. During the 1970s, America faced a similar period of malaise and weakness. The decade that saw the Fall of Saigon is ubiquitous with political instability, rising crime, a sluggish economy and intergenerational strife. Then as now, pessimistic predictions abounded about the health of the nation and its place in the wider world. Enter Ronald Reagan, George H.W Bush and resounding victory in the Cold War.
Even if there is no Reagan-esque figure waiting in the wings to take over from the Jimmy Carter-like President Biden, reports of America’s death are premature. Proponents of American decline have yet to provide an answer to the following conundrum: who can match, let alone surpass the United States?
In the 1970s, it was supposed to be Japan, now the commentariat prophesy that it’s China’s turn. (Russia doesn’t get a look in. Its economy is weak with a GDP only just over a half of that of the UK.) But while the Chinese economy is an undoubted juggernaut, its GDP is just two-thirds of that of the United States, and it has juddered to a crawl.
And while our undignified retreat from Afghanistan has posed questions over the West’s determination to fight future wars and defend Taiwan against Chinese aggression, China’s military spend at over $200 billion is dwarfed by the US, which stands at around $715 billion.
That is reflected in the available hardware of war. While the US currently has 20 aircraft carriers currently in service, with a further three in reserve and three under construction, China has only three, with another three on the way. This disparity is reflected in other areas too, from fighter jets to nuclear weapons. The only arena where China has a definitive edge is in terms of total military personnel, but infantry-based battles will not win wars.
With this yawning gap in military capability which already exists between the two countries, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that China cannot realistically hope to catch up in the foreseeable future.
Demographically, China faces a ticking time bomb of stagnant birth rates and an aging population, with the median age in China projected to far surpass the US in the coming decades. Like Russia, it is bordered by large states that are friendly to the US, and China’s actions in Hong Kong and against the Uighurs have only served to push developing powers such as India and Vietnam further into the arms of Uncle Sam.
And this is without even mentioning the West’s cultural dominance, which is stronger than ever. If China is second to the US in economic and military might, in cultural terms it would probably struggle to crack the top ten. The entrenchment of English as the world’s lingua franca further guarantees American cultural hegemony.
Hundreds of thousands of Chinese students flock to the US and Britain every year to study at our world class universities, with very little movement going the other way.
And while many see the current social conflicts in the US as evidence of weakness, it’s actually a strength, a sign of a society that is constantly striving to better itself one way or another. It is this introspection which wards off complacency. After all, America is an empire of immigrants, constantly renewing and rejuvenating the nation, in stark contrast to the rigidity of China
There is no “Chinese Dream”, no lofty ideals for its people to aspire to, merely communist dogma and imposed cultural homogeneity. What many see in the West as order and self-assurance is simply a charade; a result of China’s closed society. We can only see what the Chinese Communist Party want us to see.
While the horrific scenes of desperation at Kabul airport shames the US, they are also a reminder of something else: for all America’s warts and problems, people still risk their lives to try their hand at the American Dream.
That – more than anything else – is why American dominance will continue long into the future. And, inevitably, why this debate will crop up again.