Rep. Barney F. Bourbon
Niall Ferguson is touring Australia warning that the end of American dominance may be imminent and sudden. Somehow the ideas in Codevilla’s essay are popping up everywhere, whether people have read it or not. Ferguson describes how rapidly empires can fall.
The Bourbon monarchy in France passed from triumph to terror with astonishing rapidity. The sun set on the British Empire almost as suddenly. The Suez crisis in 1956 proved that Britain could not act in defiance of the US in the Middle East, setting the seal on the end of empire.
But those things happen only to the denizens of history. People who live in the today usually think they are different. So despite evidence of dramatic change, people who have spent their whole lives among the policy certainties of the postwar period find it difficult to accept they may have to build a world of their own from first principles. Ferguson asks his audience: “what would you do in a world without America? Has the question even crossed your mind?”
Australia’s post-war foreign policy has been, in essence, to be a committed ally of the US. But what if the sudden waning of American power that I fear brings to an abrupt end the era of US hegemony in the Asia-Pacific region? Are we ready for such a dramatic change in the global balance of power? Judging by what I have heard here since I arrived last Friday, the answer is no. Australians are simply not thinking about such things.
But if the Australians are not thinking about it, the Chinese are certainly preparing for it. The Wall Street Journal recently noted that Beijing objected to the right of US naval vessels to exercise in the Yellow Sea, despite the fact that they are international waters. At least they used to be. Waters are only international if kept so by a powerful navy committed to the freedom of the seas. People sometimes forget that treaties reflect realities rather than create them, no matter what the European Union may think. ...
[Caroline Glick observes that] “[j]ust as US bureaucrats, journalists, politicians and domestic policy wonks tend to combine forces to perpetuate and expand the sclerotic and increasingly bankrupt welfare state, so their foreign policy counterparts tend to collaborate to perpetuate failed foreign policy paradigms that have become writs of faith for American and Western elites.” In other words, when it comes down to funding politics or funding defense, fund politics. Ferguson made the same point more starkly: “it is quite likely that the US could be spending more on interest payments than on defense within the next decade.”
If the love of money is the root of all evil, the lack of it is the cause of the fall of empires. Ferguson gave some examples:
Think of Spain in the 17th century: already by 1543 nearly two-thirds of ordinary revenue was going on interest on the juros, the loans by which the Habsburg monarchy financed itself.
Or think of France in the 18th century: between 1751 and 1788, the eve of Revolution, interest and amortisation payments rose from just over a quarter of tax revenue to 62 per cent.
Finally, consider Britain in the 20th century. Its real problems came after 1945, when a substantial proportion of its now immense debt burden was in foreign hands. Of the pound stg. 21 billion national debt at the end of the war, about pound stg. 3.4bn was owed to foreign creditors, equivalent to about a third of gross domestic product.
Alarm bells should therefore be ringing very loudly indeed in Washington, as the US contemplates a deficit for 2010 of more than $US1.47 trillion ($1.64 trillion), about 10 per cent of GDP, for the second year running.
But alarm bells aren’t ringing in Washington. The entire alarm system has been disabled, disconnected, perhaps scrapped. Anyone who wants to turn it back on will have to root through the dumpster to see if any usable parts can still be retrieved. No better symptom of the absence of alarms is the genuine astonishment of Charles Rangel that it is illegal to break the law. Almost as a matter of course he concealed hundreds of thousands of dollars in income, used Congressional letterhead to solicit donations for private causes, took four rent controlled apartments for himself. Innocently. He probably didn’t think he was doing anything wrong. Things had been so sweet, so long that even after he was offered the chance to negotiate his way out of 13 separate violations of House rules and federal statutes he simply refused to believe it was happening.
Like Brecht’s fictional Atlantean who “the night the seas rushed in … still bellowed for their slaves,” the members of what Codevilla called the “ruling class” can’t believe it is happening. They still want their last dollar, their last perk. Literally, no matter what. “Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank caused a scene when he demanded a $1 senior discount on his ferry fare to Fire Island’s popular gay haunt, The Pines, last Friday. Frank was turned down by ticket clerks at the dock in Sayville because he didn’t have the required Suffolk County Senior Citizens ID. A witness reports, ‘Frank made such a drama over the senior rate that I contemplated offering him the dollar to cool down the situation.’”
The worst thing about the ferry incident is the possibility that if the witness had really offered Frank the dollar he might actually have taken it. Automatically; out of conditioning, like a Pavlovian dog. The culture in which the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee rose to power is one in which it is OK to blithely borrow more money than the entire defense budget can service and yet refuse to spend one whole dollar of his own money. The ethos of that world can be captured in one phrase: “don’t you know who I am?”