American decline could worsen with focus on Iran and China

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PARIS -- The framework in which most Americans, including the foreign policy specialists, see the world has totally changed in a decade. In February 2002, the United States and Afghanistan's Northern Alliance had just won their Blitzkrieg unseating the Taliban government of Afghanistan, and a new client government was being set in place. The Economist was to say of it a year later that optimists believed Afghanistan to be "more stable than at any time in the past 24 years." Another war, against Iraq, was confidently being prepared to avenge the Trade Towers and Pentagon attacks (to which, it was to turn out, Iraq had no connection), and to create a "New Middle East."

Americans in 2002 believed themselves on top of the world, capable of anything. They took progress for granted. A leading neo-conservative of the time said, "we have something called the Agency for International Development, in the hope that someday Somalia might look like Norway." That's what the New Middle East was all about.

One decade, more than a trillion American dollars and uncounted thousands of lives later, the Afghan War continues, and the Iraq War, nominally over, but with 6,000 American officials and their bodyguards left in the country, is not really over at all. A third American war against a Muslim society, Iran, is seriously likely.

The same time Washington conducts and enlarges this military involvement in the non-Western world, the American public, and again, many of its foreign policy experts and political leaders, have decided that the United States is in decline, its social coherence, its sense of unity and purpose lost, divided as never before by economic class and a newly felt and newly expressed hatred between the one percent monopolizing its wealth and the excluded 99 percent. The American and Western economies are badly weakened by a global recession and potential depression, wrought by Wall Street.

This is no illusion, nor is the widespread conviction that the American government and its electoral system suffer a crisis of function, accountability, competence and venomous political conflict.

Today a leading figure in the policy community, Zbigniew Brzezinski, writes in his new book that America "is in serious decline for domestic and/or external reasons" and that its loss of international authority risks stalling international efforts to deal with "issues of central importance to social well-being and ultimately to human survival."

The framework in which Americans now see international society is usually one of Chinese ascendance to take America's place.

This is a mistake based on China's economic development and financial power, widely misunderstood (see below), and on the intimidating size of China's population, 1.3 billion people. This ignores the fact that large numbers of people do not readily translate into economic prosperity and influence (as India is also finding out), nor into military power, as the Pentagon seems to think -- inaugurating bases and new American deployments in East Asia, so that if a new war breaks out there, the United States can automatically be at the center of it (which some might think a less than good idea).

While China has a very large gross domestic product, it has a very low GDP per capita (ranking 91 on an International Monetary Fund listing of 184 countries; it is lower than six African countries and has only a tenth of American GDP/capita.). In living standards (purchasing power comparisons), China is lower yet in world rankings, just above Albania.

It also is necessary to ask what China's ambitions are. It has never in the past shown much interest in international domination, other than in its own immediate area, considering itself the natural center of civilization, superior to everyone else. Its current global program of investments is never political -- attempting to exercise political or strategic influence -- but economic, concerned with sourcing resources needed for China's development. Its economic assistance to countries in Africa or elsewhere in Asia is usually payment to secure access to foreign mineral resources and energy.

A recent letter from a friend who lives in Beijing included the following observation: "A senior lawyer in Beijing told me a few months ago that much of his firm's business is winding up German-Chinese joint ventures, in order for the German partner to leave. The Germans are finding themselves competing in other countries against Chinese technology that's been copied from German companies, reengineered to lower costs." He adds that he feels "[China] is in the beginning phases again of an historical rejection of foreign influences ... [that will make it] impossible for China to develop the broad culture of innovation that exists in the West." My friend is an engineer himself.

Americans might do better to give up their China obsession and go back to their traditional vision of a European threat. If the Europeans can get their indebtedness problem solved (imported from the United States; thank you, Wall Street), Americans will find that the European Union states collectively have a larger GDP, a higher GDP/capita (depending on variable currency exchange values), and on average better standards of living and education than the United States, and even have some capable engineers and managers, as Boeing has found out. They also are tired of fighting foreign wars just to advance American projects and policies.

(Visit William Pfaff's Web site for more on his latest book, "The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America's Foreign Policy" (Walker & Co., $25), at http://www.williampfaff.com.)

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Andy Green, the opinion editor, has taken the "know a little bit about everything" approach in his time at The Sun. He was the city/state editor before coming to the editorial board, and prior to that he covered the State House and Baltimore County government.

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