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America is drifting toward geopolitical disaster

In his 1987 classic, “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers,” English historian Paul Kennedy identified economic instability and long, debilitating wars as the principal causes of the decline and/or collapse of great powers throughout modern history. He described these circumstances as “imperial overstretch,” a condition arising from chronic imbalance between global obligations and the economic resources needed to meet them. 

Soon thereafter, Kennedy’s thesis was validated by the unexpected collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. In his examination of the world’s other superpower, Kennedy posited that while America’s pathologies were far less acute than Russia’s, the United States was not permanently immune from the risks of imperial overstretch.

Now, 35 years later, his prescience is again being demonstrated by alarming evidence of a dangerous and growing imbalance between the United States’s worldwide obligations and the economic resources required to meet them. At present, the U.S. may be facing a “perfect storm” of worsening political polarization at home and increasingly aggressive enemies abroad.

The most significant geopolitical development in this century has been the extraordinary rise of China and the parallel decline of the United States in the realms of military strength, economic power, and internal cohesiveness. The principal cause of America’s decline has been a series of self-inflicted wounds — most notably, two long, debilitating foreign wars that, despite immense economic commitment, ended disastrously and left a legacy of failed leadership, political polarization and vastly diminished American credibility worldwide.

Making America’s global position even more perilous are three militarily formidable authoritarian powers that share China’s longstanding goal of overthrowing what they view as the “oppressive hegemony” of the United States: Russia, Iran and North Korea. These four nations, though not in formal alliance, consistently act in concert whenever they perceive an opportunity to advance their joint project of weakening the United States.

Showing that we apparently have learned nothing from our mistakes in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States has wholeheartedly led the NATO alliance into a proxy war against Russia in Ukraine, once again entering a potentially protracted conflict with no clearly stated objectives or viable exit strategy, yet definitely consuming vast amounts of NATO money and weaponry. The stalemated reality of this war — confirmed by Ukraine’s recent successful counter-offensive — reveals that America, Russia and Ukraine cannot and will not accept defeat, thereby ensuring that the war likely will drag on with all the attendant risks of miscalculation, and potential escalation.

These daunting challenges would sorely test the United States world position, even if our country enjoyed the conditions of social cohesion and economic dominance to which we heretofore have been accustomed. Tragically, neither of these conditions exists today. America has become not only an economically battered nation but also, in Lincoln’s famous phrase, “A house divided against itself.” The reality of our national polarization finds no better illustration than the fact that, in the past two years, our chief political and military leaders have publicly declared that the greatest threats to our national security are not to be found in Russia or China but, rather, among our own citizens who have been broadly tarred with the brush of racism, white supremacy and domestic terrorism.

As the nation approaches profoundly consequential midterm elections, polling shows most Americans view the country as being “on the wrong track,” and this is bad news for the Democratic Party, which holds the White House and majorities in the House and Senate. Similarly, the issues that most concern voters — the economy, inflation, crime and the southwest border crisis — are not the ones that most animate the Democratic Party’s progressive base, which is much more responsive to the ideologically-tinged issues of gender, race and climate change.

What is bad news for the entire country is that the yawning chasm dividing not just the two political parties but society at large shows no sign of narrowing anytime soon, and as domestic economic and foreign pressure points continue to grow, the likelihood is that our situation will get worse before it gets better. When our people are encouraged to think that our history is worthy of nothing but self-loathing, and when we come to see opponents as not just having different ideas but being defective as persons or by virtue of their race or class, dark days are ahead for a country that once plausibly saw itself as mankind’s last, best hope. 

William Moloney is a Senior Fellow in Conservative Thought at Colorado Christian University’s Centennial Institute who studied at Oxford and the University of London and received his doctorate from Harvard University.  He is a former Colorado Commissioner of Education.

Tags 2022 midterm elections China NATO political polarization Russia Ukraine war

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