US Decline? (No. 11) John D. Wilkerson: China Replaces US as World’s Largest Economy

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Iran Review Exclusive Interview with John D. Wilkerson
By: Kourosh Ziabari

The fact that new contenders have been challenging the economic and political absolutism of the United States for several decades is almost clear to all of those who have been closely monitoring the developments of the American society and the U.S. foreign policy. Japan has risen from the ashes of the World War II, has consigned to oblivion the deadly atomic bombardments of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and is now featuring itself as one of the world’s largest economic powers. China has made such enormous economic progress that is predicted to surpass the United States as the world’s largest economy no later than 2020. Russia, Brazil, South Africa, Turkey and Iran, among a number of other countries are also emerging as the new political and economic powers of the world. 

Perhaps many Americans are unaware of the developments of the surrounding world and the fact that the United States is not still the world’s unrivaled superpower, capable of dictating to other nations what to do and what not to do, and that’s because the mainstream media in the West don’t tolerate the exposure of the citizens to the naked truth. However, the fact is that the world is changing, and its structures and mechanisms are not similar to those of 50 years ago.

In order to study these complexities in details, we at Iran Review have embarked on a project to study the challenges the United States is facing at home and abroad, and the possible decline it has been experiencing. In this project, we have approached world’s renowned political scientists and asked them questions about the current economic, political, social and cultural dilemmas before the American society. We are nearing the end of this series of interviews, and today, we have talked to Prof. John D. Wilkerson, Director, Center for American Politics and Public Policy and professor of political science at the University of Washington’s Department of Political Science. Prof. Wilkerson teaches American Politics, Legislative Politics, State Politics and Game Theory for Political Scientists. He is the creator of, a virtual legislature used in government courses at the college and high school levels. Wilkerson is the co-author with Prof. E. Scott Adler of the 2013 book “Congress and the Politics of Problem Solving.”

Prof. John D. Wilkerson took part in an exclusive interview with Iran Review and responded to our questions about the global hegemony of the United States, the military expeditions of the United States and the way the American public reacts to these wars, the prospects of the U.S. economy and the international perceptions of the American lifestyle. What follows is the text of the interview.

Q: As you know, the unipolar, hegemonic system of global governance led by the United State constitutes the basis and structure of current international order. In this regard, some people believe that the signs of the decline of the United States and a consequent transformation in the international order have begun to emerge. A change based on the founding of a power balance against the United States has begun to emerge in the global equations of political power. What’s your analysis of this change and the challenges it poses to U.S. hegemony?

A: I’m not sure what this means: “A change based on the founding of a power balance against the United States has begun to emerge in the global equations of political power.” There is no information in this statement for me to respond to. Nations don’t simply follow the U.S.’s lead. Russia and China opposed the U.S. on intervening in Syria. France opposed the U.S. in intervening in Iraq. Nations follow the U.S.’s lead according to their interests. Identify those interests and how they relate to the U.S. and we should have a better sense of when international relations change.

My sense is that security and trade are the key variables. The U.S. has the most powerful military in the world and many nations expect the U.S. to play an important role in promoting their security. The U.S. also has the world’s largest economy, so many nations cooperate with the U.S. because it is beneficial to their own economies. Both of these things will change and those changes will affect the U.S.’s stature in the world. For example, as China becomes more militarily and economically powerful, it will become more influential in international affairs because nations around the world will find it to be in their interests to be a good partner with China.

Q: Right. What about the militaristic approach and tendencies of the United States? Some political scientists believe that the United States is voluntarily retreating from its position as a global hegemon, as a result of a remarkable increase in the costs of the unipolar and hegemonic order and the considerable decrease in its utilities. What’s your viewpoint in this regard?

A: In the short term yes. The Iraq and Afghanistan wars are now quite unpopular. Americans want lawmakers to focus on economic problems at home first. But it is important to take a longer view. Some policymakers believe that showing any weakness invites aggression. Others are more likely to subscribe to a “cooperate first” approach. The second should not be viewed as a “retreat” however. Instead it is a difference in philosophy about the best way to achieve similar goals. I imagine you have the same debates in Iran!

And public opinion is not a very good predictor of foreign policy. It can change quickly and, generally speaking, the American public supports their government in a crisis.

Q: What I understand from your statement is that the American public doesn’t support militarism, but at the same time shows support for the government in times of difficulty. Well, the next question is about the global capitalistic economy which is collapsing and its consequences for the uni-polar and hegemonic order are beginning to appear gradually. What do you think about the impact of the downfall of global economic recession and its effects on the compasses of the U.S. power?

A: The global economy is not collapsing. Certainly there are challenges but collapse is too strong of a word. In the U.S., the current economic downturn has an impact on foreign policy. It has reduced government revenues and forced difficult decisions about spending priorities. Equally important though is that President Obama and the Democrats approach foreign policy from a different perspective than the previous administration and Congress. Obama favors less spending on defense and does not appear to be as interested in asserting U.S. power abroad. Obama is most certainly not an isolationist (e.g. Libya); he just seems to be more reactive than pro-active where foreign affairs are concerned. The exception has been combating non-governmental actors who consider themselves to be enemies of the U.S. such as Osama Bin Laden. There Obama has been as assertive as the prior administration.

Q: It’s widely believed that based on the emergence and intensification of global resistance against capitalism and liberalism, especially resistance on the microphysical level of global power against the lifestyle of imperialist system, the political power and influence of the United States has been diminishing in the recent years. What’s your take on that?

A: The world is certainly changing.  However, I do not agree that “global resistance to capitalism” has contributed to a diminishing influence of the US in recent years. China will soon replace the US as the world’s largest economy. China’s economy has grown because it has embraced its own particular form of capitalism. I also think it is an overgeneralization to suggest the world is rejecting “the lifestyle of the imperialist system.” That’s a pretty general statement that is not supported with evidence.

There will always be resistance to capitalism and the capitalist “lifestyle”, including in the U.S. Capitalism has many noteworthy benefits compared to planned economies, but also important downsides. U.S. political debates generally center on how much the government should intervene in the free market economy. Republicans, generally speaking, are acutely aware of the downside of government interventions; innovation is messy and risky; regulations and taxes stifle innovation. Democrats, generally speaking, are acutely aware of the downsides of markets; the bottom line for a company is profit, not the well being of all citizens. Under Bush we saw lower taxes and reduced regulations. Under Obama we see more regulations and more redistribution.

That said, I do think that the U.S. has failed to address important issues that will adversely impact the economy. We are not investing enough in infrastructure, such as education and research that are critical to success in a competitive global economy. It is also legitimate to ask whether the American “lifestyle” is a bad thing. I don’t really know, although I would ask – compared to what? In the U.S. that lifestyle is one of the costs of a free society. There are lots of things that I disapprove of, but I’m not sure that I want someone else (esp. the government) deciding what is best for me and my family.

Q: So you have your own considerations regarding the stability of the U.S. economy and the popularity of American lifestyle. Let’s tackle the next question. According to some studies, the resistance and opposition of the United States’ domestic forces against the interventions of the U.S. government in the other countries and the imperialistic traits of the U.S. political system have been contributing to the weakening of the global position of the United States. Would you please share your perspective on that with us?

A: Yes, domestic politics has important consequences for the U.S.’s foreign policy. Americans, generally speaking, know very little about the world, or even think much about world affairs. This means that those who are informed are often constrained in their actions by people who are not informed. As a result, the U.S. may be slow to respond to events because in a democracy public support is critical. And the lack of public understanding can also mean that policymakers are able to do things in the short term that the public would not support were it more informed.

So I don’t think that we can make a general statement about the impact of public resistance to intervention. Attitudes can quickly change when people have little information to begin with.

Key Words: Unipolar-Hegemonic System, Global Governance, US Hegemony, Militarism, Global Economic Recession, Capitalism and Liberalism, Wilkerson

US Decline? (No. 10) Giulio M. Gallarotti: US Presidents Find Industrial-Military Complex Difficult to Tame 

US Decline? (No. 9) Peter Rutland: US Trying to Reduce its Global Commitments

US Decline? (No. 8) John Owen: The United States Not completely Controlling its Allies

US Decline? (No. 7) Deepa Kumar: Anti-Imperialist Sentiments Growing across the World

US Decline? (No. 6): Paul Sheldon Foote: America, A Country Controlled by Warmongers

US Decline? (No. 5): Tahir Abbas: American Hegemony Is on the Wane

US Decline? (No. 4) Walter Hixson: Counter-hegemonic forces challenging U.S. global hegemony

US Decline? (No.3): Michael Brenner: American Public’s Appetite for Military Intervention Diminishing

US Decline? (No.2): William Wohlforth: The United States Lost Some Ground over the Past Decade

US Decline? (No.1): Francis Shor: The Us Economy & Military Fading Gradually

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