Ten Years On

There will, no doubt, be a lot said, written, and replayed regarding the ten-year anniversary of the September 11 attacks. Over the past week in the British press, there’s been a constant reference to it – whether it’s a focus on various aspects of the day (the Sunday Times doing a piece on the jumpers, for example), or focusing on particular people (the firemen), or just looking at the way the world has adapted to impact of the event.

For me, the day has a bit of personal resonance due to it being The Wiff’s birthday. I can clearly recall the day 10 years ago, when I was in Ireland, having flown to Kerry for the day on business. The Wiff was in South Africa, on a short two-week visit. I ended up in Kerry airport, phoning her for her birthday, while watching planes fly into the twin towers on CNN’s rolling coverage. The atmosphere in the airport was even more sullenly quiet than usual, and when it was time to fly, the passengers lined up like the walking dead and passively boarded the plane. It was a somewhat macabre experience.

Since then, there have been two occasions where I’ve had to think about this deeply. One was shortly after reading a rather critical Noam Chomsky (Hegemony or Survival, 2003). I was talking to a colleague in America, mentioning that I’d recently been to New York and commented on the progress of the new building. His response was that he doesn’t go there, as it just makes him angry. This was last year. I would have thought that a different emotion would have manifest itself by then. Introspection, perhaps? At the very least, the anger should have been tempered (or redirected) by more than 8 years of ineffectual war in Afghanistan and Iraq.

But for me, the major long-term impact of the attack only started to be felt in the financial crisis. It was a long, slow build-up, which started just before the attack, with the implementation of the Bush tax cuts. This significant drop in revenue was followed shortly afterwards by the huge increase in spending on the Afghanistan war, and then the Iraq war. A budget surplus in 2000 turned into a huge deficit. A total debt level of $5.7tn in 2000 quickly became $7.4tn in 2004, and $10.3tn in 2008. Even then, the level of debt wasn’t too serious – at 73% of GDP, it was well within international norms. A quick cut down in spending, combined with the expiration of the Bush tax cuts at the end of 2010, might just have been enough to return the situation to something more healthy.

But instead, the collapse of the US economy, followed by the phenomenal spending required for the subsequent bail-out, resulted in a further spike in the debt levels. The last-minute raising of the debt-ceiling above $15tn this year, followed by the much-publicised downgrade in the US credit rating, was the natural result of that. What struck me, though, was the inability of the government to come to any agreement of how to deal with the problem. Each side has their own hobby horse which they refuse to step away from. For Republicans, the mantra of reducing taxes to stimulate the economy, and for Democrats, the insistence on maintaining the social entitlement programs.

It might be a little premature, but I see this as being the beginning of the end for the US hegemony. It reminds me of a slightly overweight schoolyard bully, provoked by a nimble newcomer. On being struck, the bully lashes out wildly, but ends up huffing and puffing exhausted. With an economy in decline, racking up huge debts that they’ll be unable to repay without a dramatic devaluation of the dollar, and a firm desire to keep the social programmes of their current status, I don’t see that the political will to enact the dramatic change required exists. The bully needs to get fitter and leaner, and it’s not likely to happen without a lot of work. I see the US playing second fiddle to China much as the UK does to the US these days. There’ll be a new master of the playground – the big question is how soon this will happen.

However, as much as I’m cynical of American motives in much of their foreign policy, if I had to choose between the world’s single dominant power being America or China, I’d have to go with the former.

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