Fouad Ajami: The Resilience of American Power

It is not yet time to pen "The Decline and Fall of the American Empire."


So this great imperial democracy of ours has been financing its deficits, and its consumer society, with the savings of the sovereign wealth funds of China, Singapore, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia. Great powers throughout history, we know, were creditor nations, whereas ours is the quintessential indebted society. We could hear the gloating of America's critics and enemies as soon as the subprime loan crisis descended upon us. From Malaysia to Venezuela, and from Europeans we had badgered about their brand of a capitalism more regulated than ours, there were unsparing critics who savored this moment. For them, we had gotten our comeuppance. Our Masters of the Universe, with their financial "derivatives" and new "instruments," were only pretenders.

There can be no doubt that we were due for our moment of reckoning. But Edward Gibbon wannabes should proceed with caution. It is not yet time to pen The Decline and Fall of the American Empire. Rome was long dead and buried when Gibbon, working in London, published his first volume of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in 1776. The destiny of the American empire is still unfolding. The bailout package, a staggering $700 billion, is only 5 percent of our national output; the country could afford it. While some may seek to write the obituaries of the American imperial republic, a survey of universities placing in the top 500 globally, conducted by Shanghai University, gave the United States a huge lead in such institutions: 159 versus 31 in Japan, 30 in China (the data include Hong Kong and Taiwan), and 2 in India.

For all the talk about the rise of China and India, these societies, long mired in poverty and squalor and handicapped by dominant traditions of inequality and caste, are in no position to inherit the American place in the order of nations. They lack the openness of the United States, its sense of obligation to other lands, its willingness to defend the global order.

After the partisanship in our country subsides, Americans know that the alternative to the American order in the world is not the hegemony of China or Russia or India but rather outright anarchy. The Chinese, shrewd about the ways of the world, acknowledge this. They are content to work and prosper, and move large numbers of their people out of poverty, under American primacy and tutelage. The Chinese hold well over a trillion dollars in American treasury securities. They are not about to bring the house down. The Chinese know Asia's bloody history. American hegemony has been benign, and the alternatives to it are infinitely worse. Likewise in the volatile Persian Gulf: The commerce of that vital region and the traffic of its oil depend upon the American Navy. No one in that tinderbox wants a Pax Iranica, and the Indians and the Europeans are not contenders to assume what has been America's role.

Backlash. Critics of American primacy in the world often bemoan America's ways abroad. A "torture narrative" dwells on the transgressions committed at Abu Ghraib by some of our soldiers; books filled with outrage tell about the war fought in the shadows against al Qaeda and its affiliates. Pollsters return from Karachi and Cairo with numbers that demonstrate our alienation from public opinion in these places. A writer or two has stepped forth to tell us that America's borders have closed in the face of would-be immigrants and students seeking higher education in our midst.

But I read those indictments as an adopted son of this country, and I view this narrative with a jaundiced eye. Our borders are still open—ask the Somalis now living in Nebraska and Maine and Minnesota. We may not fight every "war of liberation" in every corner of the Earth, but from the Balkans to Afghanistan and Iraq, history bears witness not to America's heavy hand but to its willingness to mount wars of rescue. America's embassies are besieged by those who dream of a new life on American soil. It is the fate of great, universal powers to be both loved and derided.