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Dialogue with Professor David S. Mason, Author of The End of the American Century
Guest: David S. Mason Host: Sheng-Wei Wang
November 1, 2009




The End of the American Century
Author: David S. Mason
Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
ISBN-13: 978-0-7425-5701-7

 

Introduction: We are very happy to invite David S. Mason, professor of political science at Butler University in Indianapolis to discuss his 2009 book The End of the American Century. This new book was described by reviewers as “compelling and persuasive” and “the first to explore all of the interrelated aspects of America’s decline.” Professor Mason has published dozens of articles and six books on international politics, U.S. foreign policy, European politics and history, revolutions, public opinion, and concepts of social justice. This is the second time that the China-U.S. Friendship Exchange, Inc. hosts an exclusive web-dialogue with a renowned expert on where America stands now. We wish that you will find this candid and in-depth discussion stimulating and trust that it will shed light on the new post-Bush world order. 

 

Wang: In your new book The End of the American Century, you start by describing how, at the age of thirteen, you were asked to deliver a reading of the preamble to the Declaration of Independence on the Fourth of July in your hometown only twenty minutes from the Washington Monument. You then pleaded near its end: “Now, more than ever, the world needs a more humble America,” and “Americans will have to live with less and adjust to a reduced role in the world. But a decline in U.S. materialism, consumption, and power could open up new opportunities for global cooperation and for a more peaceful and sustainable world.”  

 

Our readers would like to know:

 

Q1-1: What were your mood and feelings during the course of analyzing and writing your half-a-century life experience of the rise and decline of the American superpower?

 

Mason: I have to admit it was a bit depressing cataloging the many ways in which the U.S. has declined in recent years.  I take pride in being American, and in the country’s heritage, values, and spirit.  But I came to realize that a remedy to our many problems could only come after recognition of those problems.  America’s difficulties with other countries, and with global issues like climate change, are largely due to an American sense of superiority and a blindness to our own shortcomings, the way others see us, and the impact we have on the rest of the world.  So this book was meant as a kind of wakeup call to American citizens.

 

Q1-2: You pointed out that “the problems the country is facing are systemic and deep seated and will not disappear even with radical shifts in direction or policy. The Bush administration has put the final nail in the coffin of the American Century but is not responsible for the underlying problems that have been building for several generations.” Have you ever thought about writing this book at a much earlier time to wake up the country? As a political scientist, when did you start to feel pessimistic about the sustainability and legitimacy of the American Century?

 

Mason: Even before the turn of the century, I was growing concerned about a general decline in the U.S., both domestic and international.  Our schools were failing, poverty and inequality were increasing, the health care system was a mess, and politics was increasingly dominated by money and special interests.  At the same time, individualism and consumerism were increasingly pervading American life, and making it more difficult to address issues that affected the country as a whole, and the globe.  The collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe fostered a completely unwarranted sense of “triumphalism” in the United States.  The election of George W. Bush, and then September 11, simply accelerated all these trends.

 

I actually conceived the topic of this book about a decade ago, and probably should have written it then!  It took some intellectual germination, though, and to realize that all of America’s problems were interconnected and part of a single pattern.  When I first taught a course on “The End of the American Century?” (with a question mark), I could not find any books—or even articles—that systematically addressed both the domestic and international aspects of American decline, and showed the relationships between them.  My book does that.

 

Q1-3: Most Americans may still remember Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind. She was devastated by her realization of true love and the consequence of her past selfishness, but was sure that she could think of a solution and still believed Rhett Butler would return to her if she tried to reconcile. The book ends with Scarlett’s proclamation: “After all, tomorrow is another day!”

 

You dedicate this book to your granddaughter Katie and her generation, “with hopes that their America will be a land of the human sunrises.” The End of the America Century is conciliatory and you soberly express the kind of American conscience that dwarfs aggressors and warmongers in this country. Can you tell us: Are most Americans preparing for reconciliation with their past wrongdoings detailed in your book and are they ready for a different tomorrow as was Scarlett O’Hara?

 

Mason:  In many ways, Scarlett is a very American and very modern character, especially in her independence, brashness, fortitude and optimism.  But she never did come to terms with her selfishness.  And I think many Americans today still do not recognize how our attitude and behavior are often perceived by others to be aggressive, selfish, and uncooperative.

 

But there are also a long-standing and deep strain of both charity and justice in the American experience, and I see this both in my children and their friends, and in my students.  I am hopeful that these aspects of our national character will become stronger as this new generation, and the next, come of age.

 

Another hopeful change in the United States is demographic.  The U.S. has changed a lot, for the better, since the segregationist era of Gone with the Wind.  And it is changing even faster now.  Whites make up about two-third of the population now, but will constitute less than half by the time Katie is my age.  A more diverse America should make for a more tolerant country, both at home and in our dealings with other countries.

 

Q1-4: What would you say to those who believe that “This is still a most ‘American’ world because we have purposefully shaped globalization’s rise to be modeled on the American experience of states uniting, economies integrating, networks growing, mass media content flowing freely, and religions competing peacefully with one another for adherents” (http://www.chinausfriendship.com/article1.asp?mn=160)? For example, the World Bank (WB) President must be a U.S. citizen and America has veto power at the WB and a firm grip on its policy.

 

Mason: Indeed, America’s historical experience of political and economic integration, of the rule of law, and of globalization, is relevant for a more interdependent global community.  But there are many aspects of the American “model” that are not so helpful to the current global reality.  American individualism, for example, which did help forge the country, can be taken too far, and leads to an erosion of community.  It also clashes with other cultures that place the community ahead of the individual.  America’s economic system, less constrained by government than most in the world, is a reflection of that individualism; but also makes it unworkable or unappealing in other parts of the world. 

 

The dominant role of the U.S. in the World Bank, the U.N. and other international institutions is a legacy of the era—at the beginning of the American Century—when the U.S. was the richest and most powerful country in the world.  Now, there are other contenders (including China) and, besides, the metrics of wealth and power have changed.  The world needs cooperation more than raw power; and it can no longer prosper on the back of U.S. consumerism.  The world is different now than 1945, and international institutions need to be changed to reflect those differences.

 

Q1-5: You are a university professor in political science. Can you tell us how your students view America’s future before and after reading your book?  What is the impact of your book on young American students who major in political science, in particular?

 

Mason: My students, like most American young people, I think, tend to be cheerful, optimistic, and patriotic, so most of them are pretty taken aback by the data in my book, which shows the U.S. in steady decline domestically, and faring poorly in comparison to other industrialized democracies.  Many of them find the book to be depressing.  But for those that are able to get beyond that, I think the book helps them achieve a more realistic view of the world, the way it is changing, and the global role of the U.S.  Americans are not generally very good at understanding the U.S. in a global and comparative perspective, or at seeing the U.S. through the eyes of others.  For those willing to listen, my book helps them do that.

 

Wang: The End of the American Century has been translated into Chinese and you were invited to Shanghai in May this year to give a lecture on the book that was attended by 1300 people. It is obvious that the theme of your book resonates in China.

 

Q2-1: What are the questions asked by your Chinese audiences or readers that could significantly impact the U.S.- China relations in the 21st century? How different are their world views from those of their mainstream American counterparts? In this respect, we may recall that the U.S. has proposed the G2 (U.S. and China), but the Chinese government who is more concerned with its domestic issues at this moment has no interest to act like a world police.

 

Mason: In my lecture in Shanghai, I focused mostly on economic issues, and the financial collapse that the U.S. was undergoing.  Understandably, most of the questions I got from people in the audience were about economic issues, and the potential impact of the U.S. economic crisis on China.  The U.S. and China are so inextricably linked, especially economically, so the fates of the two countries are intertwined.  But as I pointed out in my book, and in my Shanghai presentation, this past economic interdependence can not be sustained, because the U.S. government and U.S. consumers were building up huge amounts of debt to sustain our standard of living, in large part with goods purchased from China.  The U.S. market will inevitably shrink, which means that China will have to find other sources for its output.  I believe, as Paul Krugman and others have also argued, that for China’s continued growth, these changes necessitate an expansion of the domestic Chinese market.

 

As to G2, this was never an idea proposed by Obama (or any other U.S. government official, as far as I know), but rather a term used by journalists and other analysts.  President Obama did say that the U.S.-China relationship was emerging as one of the most important in the world.  But he certainly did not intend for this to be a joint world police force; nor does he want the U.S. to play such a role on its own.

 

Q2-2: Are you optimistic on the outcome of the Climate Conference in Copenhagen late this year? Will developed countries be willing to transfer technologies to emerging economies to cope with this threatening global issue? Will a better U.S.-China relationship help America to sail through her difficult transition peacefully from a superpower in a unilateral world to a natural strong power in a multilateral world?

 

Mason: As you know from my book, I consider climate change one of the biggest, most important and most dangerous issues facing the globe today.  And I worry that so little has been done about the problem so far.  The previous U.S. administration was particularly disastrous on this issue.  The Obama team, in contrast, understands the problem and recognizes its importance, and that will be a big help for global efforts to work on it.  But it will not be easy, because reducing carbon emissions will require enormous costs and big sacrifices from all of the polluting countries, including especially the United States and China.  Bilateral cooperation on this issue is essential.

 

Wang:  You point out that America is confronted with a “triple deficit” (gross federal debt in 2009 expanding to $10.6 trillion constituting 72 % of GDP and will increase by another 9 trillion for the next 10 years (2010 to 2019); trade deficit around 5% of GDP, which is a serious threat to the national economy; household debt becoming 100% of GDP in 2007), as well as with two wars (in Iraq and Afghanistan) and an open-ended war against terrorism. America has an ongoing crisis of rising unemployment (9.8%) and a shrinking economy. You described the situation of this country as an imperial overstretch and economic decline. You said that the consequences are America’s end of affluence and equality, a torn social fabric, a decline in education, science, technology, engineering and competitiveness, an ailing American democracy, and the abandonment of international order.

 

These developments, together with the rise of one-party China and other emerging economies, and the 9/11 terrorist attack, clearly marked the beginning of the end of the American Century. These proves that Francis Fukuyama’s influential 1989 essay titled “The End of History?” was wrong in predicting the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government. His work also contrasted the earlier prediction of Paul Kennedy who in his book The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, suggested that the United States would “a long time into the future” eventually decline to its “national share of the world’s wealth and power….perhaps 16 to 18 percent of the world’s wealth and power,” rather than the 30 to 40% held by the United States from the beginning to the end of the American Century.

 

Q3-1: Did you think then that Fukuyama was wrong? 

 

Mason: Even when Fukuyama’s article and book came out, I thought he was wrong in predicting the universalization of Western liberal democracy.  Fukuyama’s pieces reflected the widespread American “triumphalism” that accompanied the collapse of communism in Europe and the Soviet Union.  The seeds of American decline were evident even then, in my view, and grew quickly as the U.S. tried to maintain and extend its global dominance in the aftermath of the Cold War.  And both the Cold War and the triumphalism afterwards ignored or masked the much more complex nature of the world.  Given the diversity of cultures and civilizations, and their varied histories, there is no way that a single ideal or model—even a pretty good one like liberal democracy—is going to flourish everywhere in the world.

 

Q3-2: You wrote The End of the American Century during the last year of the Bush administration when America was at its low point internationally and domestically. In your forthcoming paperbound edition of the English edition, you will write a new epilogue on the Obama administration. Do you see that Obama has reversed the U.S. decline in any apparent and constructive way?

 

Mason: There is no doubt that President Obama has made a big difference in the way other countries view the United States, and in the manner in which the U.S. deals with the rest of the world.  All along—and this is evident even in his books published well before his election—he has rejected unilateralist approaches to international relations, and has stressed the importance of listening to others, treating other countries with respect, and peaceful resolution of international issues.

 

On the domestic front, Obama has quickly moved to address some of the biggest issues that I raised in my book, including health care, education, the environment and infrastructure.  These are all noble efforts, but they are just a beginning, after a decades-long decline.  Furthermore, remedying these problems now will be expensive, and will exacerbate the federal debt issues, which were already huge.  And because these issues are so fundamental and so expensive, they will be very difficult politically.

 

It is a beginning, but the U.S. has a long way to go.  And given the rise of other powers and the impact of globalization, the U.S. will not be able to restore the preeminent role it enjoyed in the last century.

 

Wang: The U.S. spending on national defense goes well beyond the budget of the Department of Defense alone. The FY 2009 Pentagon’s “base budget” of $515.4 billion approximately keeps the four branches of the military in active service, while additional expenditures, budgetary gimmicks, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan ($70 billion, the cost in FY 2009 is expected to be at least twice that amount in reality), and other operations related to the president’s Global War on Terror, bring the total military spending around $900 billion, about 6.5% of GDP. Recently U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates sharply criticized the U.S. news agency Associated Press for distributing a photograph of a mortally wounded marine in Afghanistan (www.scmp.com, 9/07/2009) despite the fact that American military spending continues to make Americans less safe, less prosperous, and less free (see Christopher A. Preble: The Power Problem: How American Military Dominance Makes Us Less Safe, Less Prosperous, and Less Free). Obama took office with the promise of change, but he has not changed Bush’s military policy on Afghanistan. A poll conducted by the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) on September 2, 2009, showed that 41% of Americans wanted Obama to withdraw troops from Afghanistan whereas only 25% supported deploying more U.S. troops there. 

 

Our readers would like to know:

 

Q4-1: What is America’s long-term goal in Afghanistan? Will the war never end, if Osama bin Laden is not found? What if he has already died? Now the battleground has crossed the border into Pakistan. Since Pakistan has maintained a long-term and close relationship with China, Beijing says it intends to keep peace and stability along its southwest corridor. To what extent do you think this war may be used as a pretext in a broad geopolitical picture for the purpose of containing China’s westward reach to the oil-rich Middle East region?

 

Mason: The administration has said that the goal in Afghanistan is to stabilize the country and prevent it being used as a haven by Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups that threaten the United States.  But both Secretary of Defense Gates and President Obama have suggested recently that U.S. goals there are not sufficiently focused, and the President has promised a review of the U.S. mission there.  I doubt that the country is seen as a bulwark against China, at least by the Obama administration.

 

Afghanistan has been called the “graveyard of empires” because of the difficulties that other major powers have faced there—including Britain in the 19th century, and the Soviet Union in the late 20th century.  It is difficult to see how the U.S. can make much of a difference in that country, even with an increased commitment of troops.  Indeed, the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan may actually be strengthening the hand of forces hostile to the United States (as it did in Iraq).  Furthermore, Afghanistan continues to be costly for the U.S., both in resources and lives lost.

 

Q4-2: The American military might dwarfs any country in the world. The U.S. weaponry exports in 2008 amounted to $37.8 billion, which was 68.4% of the global market share, increasing by 12.4 billion or 49% over the previous year amid declining global economic activity; Italy and Russia ranked second and third. Should the U.S. Congress propose a domestic Peace Constitution, to restrain the president from declaring war or using excessive military force? Or, should the international community agree to purchase the U.S. treasury bonds conditioned upon America cutting its military budget by the same amount borrowed to gradually deplete the U.S. military capability of threatening the world peace?

 

Mason: I agree that U.S. defense spending, and the U.S. trade in arms, is excessive and potentially destabilizing.  But the bigger threat to world peace comes from the ways in which political leaders decide to use those weapons.  In the U.S. we already have a Constitution that requires Congress to approve a declaration of war, and there are other legislative tools that Congress can use—especially through control of the budget—to constrain the executive’s use of military force. 

 

The problem in the U.S. is that Congress, like the public, has often been bamboozled and railroaded into supporting unwise or unjust wars, as was the case in both Vietnam and Iraq.  In my view, both Congress and the mass media failed in adequately scrutinizing President Bush’s misleading statements justifying the invasion of Iraq.  In part, this was due to the state of shock that most Americans still felt from the September 11 tragedy. 

 

Any decisions about the role of the military, or the military budget, have to come from inside the United States, though, through the regular democratic process.  Any efforts by other countries, or by the international community, to compel such changes in the U.S. would be a mistake and be counterproductive.  Such efforts would be perceived by many Americans as a threat, and would likely lead to a heightened sense of fear, defensiveness, and military preparation.

 

Wang: You wrote at the end of your book that “The end of the American Century will not be easy for Americans and will disrupt the rest of the world too.”  The world has legitimate reasons to be fearful about this disruptive period since the U.S. rejected the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaties, was the only country to vote “no” vs. 160 “yes” votes in 2006’s United Nations (UN) space weapon ban, and has more than 700 military bases in 130 countries, to say the least.

 

During the Great Depression, the U.S. economic plight was not alleviated until President Franklin D. Roosevelt decided to join the Second World War, which immediately boosted U.S. production, created jobs and revived the economy.

 

So in terms of “disrupt the rest of the world”, can you rule out completely the possibility that the U.S., in order to save or delay the American decline, would go to the extreme by starting a war with China over the Taiwan issue or by lending support to countries that have territorial disputes over land or sea with China? Since we are in the nuclear age, this war would be a great disaster for both nations, whereas other powers will prosper by taking the opportunity of their massive destructions.

 

With your sensitivity and understanding of American politics and politicians, do you think this is likely to happen?

 

Mason: No.  First of all, I think your World War II analogy is incorrect.  While it may be true that that war helped the U.S. recover from the Depression, it was certainly not the case that President Roosevelt used the war in order to jumpstart the economy.  That was not the reason the U.S. entered World War II.  Economic recovery may have been a consequence of U.S. entry into the war; it was not the cause of it.

 

Similarly, I think there are no sane people in this country that would justify starting a war, with China or anyone else, in order to get the economy back on track.  And any such ideas would be anathema, I am sure, to President Obama or anybody else in his administration.   This president, more than any other in my lifetime, is committed to diplomatic and multilateral solutions to international conflict, rather than military ones.

 

Wang: On September 7, 2009, the Conference on Trade and Development, a UN think tank, published a report that advocated the creation of a new global reserve currency to reduce the dollar’s weight in international trade so as to protect the national interests of the emerging markets amid the global financial turbulence. This advocacy matches the same suggestions by Brazil, Russia, India and China (BRIC) earlier this year for weakening the status of the U.S. dollar as the world’s main reserve currency. The following days, the dollar dropped to its lowest level in a year and the gold price broke $1000 an ounce.

 

Q6-1: What is your prediction for the future of the American dollar? Do you think the present world monetary system needs reform?

 

Mason: The U.S. dollar served well as an international currency during the American Century, when the U.S. economy was the driving force for the global economy.  As U.S. economic predominance declines, and globalization accelerates, it would seem that the dollar would—and probably should—become less influential.  This is already happening, with the euro, for example, challenging the dollar as a preferred currency for trade and international reserves.  As the world becomes more diverse and interdependent, it would make sense for there to be a new global reserve currency, and I expect that to be an increasingly popular topic of discussion at international economic and financial forums.

 

Q6-2: You have said correctly that in this globalized world, countries become more and more inter-dependent, as many issues need a collective effort and must be solved in the framework of multilateralism. Unilateralism and militarism are outdated, non-effective and doomed to fail. Would you agree that emerging economies should have more voting rights in the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the WB and other international organizations where America has the veto power in order to reflect the new and real order of the world today so that the world can function more properly and smoothly? And in the meantime, the UN should be strengthened and should truly act like a world government. But with the U.S. resistance so far, how can these ideals be implemented? Will Americans be willing to become good Samaritans again? And how can we make it happen?

 

Mason: I do think that international organizations should be revised to reflect the global realities of the 21st century, which are quite different from those of the 1940s, when most of those institutions were created.  The growth in population, wealth and trade of the emerging economies merits a greater role for them in these institutions.

 

It will always be difficult getting established powers, including the U.S., to relinquish some power and control, though.  This will be particularly difficult for the U.S. in the current environment of a heightened sense of insecurity, both economic and international.  I believe that such changes will come only when Americans come to understand that their health and safety are linked to that of others.  This is true both in terms of domestic issues—like the health care debates—and international ones, like global trade, epidemic disease, climate change, etc.  The United States, as strong as it is, can not address or solve these global problems alone; their solutions require cooperation, compromise, and a sense of shared responsibility within a community.  We can not achieve safety, prosperity and happiness without helping others to the same.  This understanding for Americans will come, above all, from wise leadership and improved education.  In my mind, we have such leadership now in Barack Obama.  One of his most formidable tasks is educating the American public, and fixing the broken educational system.

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Professor David S. Mason teaches U.S. politics, society and foreign policy, international politics, and comparative politics (especially European) at Butler University in Indianapolis. His previous research and publications have focused on Russian and European politics and history, social justice attitudes, and public opinion. For a partial list of his publications (with access to many of them), see, http://works.bepress.
com/david_mason/;
Email address:
dmason@butler.edu;
Tel No: (317) 940-9682.


Born in Taiwan, Sheng-Wei Wang is a well renowned scholar, author and activist. She has a Ph.D. in theoretical chemical physics from the University of Southern California. In 2006 she founded the China-U.S. Friendship Exchange Inc., which seeks to promote understanding and cooperation between China and the United States. Her recently published book: China's Ascendancy: Opportunity or Threat? is on China's growing influence around the world and its relationship with the U.S. She is based in Hong Kong.
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