America: the twilight years?

Sunday 19 October, 10.00 until 11.30, Garden Room, Barbican Eye on the World

America’s problems at home and abroad have led many to wonder if the US is in decline. US foreign policy, from Syria to Ukraine, appears rudderless and impotent. The Iraq War is widely seen to have been a failure, while US forces are leaving Afghanistan with the Taliban still active and the country far from being a happy democracy.

The US recovery from the recession has been weak, too, while China and India – and even parts of Africa - seem to offer more glittering possibilities for expansion and wealth creation than the US. China may overtake the US as the world’s largest economy in GDP terms by the end of the decade.

At home, the American political class appears to be almost at an impasse, unable to address its challenges, as epitomised by last year’s shutdown of the federal government. Political commentator Timothy Garton Ash argues ‘the politicians in Washington behave like rutting stags with locked antlers’. Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, says that the failure of politics in Washington has been ‘hastening the emergence of a post-American world’.

Yet such declinist talk is hardly new, as exemplified by Paul Kennedy in his 1987 bestseller, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. America is still the largest economy in the world, despite having a quarter of the population of either China or India. America is still by far the greatest military power, has the world’s top universities and produces the most cutting-edge research and technological innovation. Even in ‘soft power’ terms, America is the pre-eminent source of the world’s culture. In contrast, the much-vaunted ‘BRIC’ countries of Brazil, Russia, India and China are all faltering in one way or another.

Is the US truly facing the prospect of being replaced as the world’s greatest power? Is the sluggish America today in similar circumstances to Britain at the time of First World War - the faded Greece to Asia’s Rome? Or, is the declinist view overly pessimistic? After all, periods of introspection and worry about US decline over the past 30 years have given way to later resurgence. Is this time different?

Watch the debate:

Dr Yaron Brook
executive director, Ayn Rand Institute; co-author, Equal is Unfair: America's misguided fight against income inequality

Dr Jenny Clegg
senior lecturer, Asia Pacific Studies, University of Central Lancashire, Preston

Dr Sue Currell
chair, British Association for American Studies; reader, American Literature, Sussex University

James Matthews
management consultant; founding member, NY Salon; writer on economics and business

Sir Christopher Meyer
chairman, PagefieldAdvisory Board; former British Ambassador to the United States

Jean Smith
specialist development consultant; co-founder and director, NY Salon

Produced by
Claire Fox director, Academy of Ideas; panellist, BBC Radio 4's Moral Maze; author, I Find That Offensive
Jean Smith specialist development consultant; co-founder and director, NY Salon
Recommended readings
America’s overrated decline

With the approach of the US Congressional elections, questions about the health of America's political institutions and the future of its global leadership have become rampant

Joseph S. Nye, Jr., Azernews, 8 October 2014

Decline and Fall of Obama’s America

The whole world knows that Mr. Obama is a disaste

Ben Stein, American Spectator, 23 August 2014

China’s Wrong About American Decline

Singapore’s prime minister thinks the U.S. is poised to “bounce back.”

Susan B Glasser, Politico, 30 June 2014

Is America committing ‘superpower suicide’?

Yes, claims that America is rotting like the Roman Empire are over the top, but two new books swing too far in the other direction.

Sean Collins, spiked, 13 April 2012

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