After the World War II ended in 1945, the United States and Soviet Union emerged as the only two competing superpowers, with the former having the overall edge over its rival because of its greater economic and industrial might but their military strength and capability would appear to be broadly comparable. Both were armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons of mass destruction.
However, since the unexpectedly dramatic dissolution in the late 1980s of the once much feared Soviet Empire, its nemesis became the world’s sole superpower and, to date, no serious contender is on the horizon to threaten the status quo.
Be that as it may, and because the US has always assumed the role of the “Global Policeman”, it had time and again intervened militarily in other countries’ internal affairs or in their conflicts with a country allied to it whenever its own national interests were perceived to be in jeopardy or in defence of democracy and human freedom. The relentless pursuit of this burdensome national policy has, over time, eroded its immense economic and other resources and weakens its military sinews. This has, inevitably, curtailed its financial ability to improve the lot of its own millions of economically disadvantaged citizens. It has also reduced its economic aids to the world’s poor countries.
Such a policy had led to its recent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and a substantial number of its armed personnel are currently still actively embroiled in fierce struggles with the anti-American forces there with no end in sight. These invasions have further aggravated the already strained relationships between the Islamic countries and the US. Furthermore, even the United States’ long-standing allies in Western Europe, Japan and elsewhere have become increasingly more critical of some of its international exploits, despite its past generous post WWII financial assistance to them, which had greatly helped to jump start their devastated economies. As a direct consequence of this costly interventionist foreign policy, coupled with the growing greed and gross financial mismanagement of its hitherto powerful and highly respected Wall Street financial institutions, its national economy is now in the throes of a massive financial turmoil. To compound the problem, this financial crisis has now spread to other sectors of its economy and has also adversely affected the economies of other countries. This US economic depression is the worst since the Great Depression of the late 1920s, which also began there and lasted ten years. World financial experts have predicted that the situation will deteriorate deeper before the light at the end of the tunnel would appear.
The latest authoritative US intelligence report predicts that the United States’ economic and political clout will continue to decline over the next two decades. It further predicted that the current world financial crisis will see the beginning of an international economic rebalancing leading to a global multi-polar system, with China and India, two potential world superpowers, playing an increasingly bigger role in international affairs. However, it maintains that the American military superiority over others will be maintained. Is this the ominous beginning of the demise of the US dominance in economic and political arenas over other nations? The honest truth is that no one can forecast with certainty the destinies of nations and the shapes of things to come. All that the experts can do is to engage in intelligent and subjectively objective crystal ball-gazing, based on known facts, discernible trends and personal judgments. But, there are always other less tangible or unmeasurable factors which will ultimately determine the greatness or mediocrity of any nation, if historical precedents are anything to go by.
Despite the above insightful intelligence report, one should not readily conclude that the Unites States’ pole position in world affairs will cease in the foreseeable future. My own view is that it will not only survive the current financial crisis but will eventually come out of it wiser and financially more robust than before, just as it did in the Great Depression and many other serious financial crises that had confronted it during its more than two centuries of independence from the British rule. I see no cogent reason why it should not succeed in doing so this time round, given the resilience of its people, its enormous economic and industrial base and sophisticated institutions and infrastructures.
Despite China and India’s growing economic and industrial prowess, which is most likely to be enhanced further with time, I very much doubt if either of them, or any other country like Japan, Germany or Russia, will have the capability to seriously challenge the current US supremacy in various fields of human endeavours, provided it continues to maintain its leads over others in industrial, economic and technological developments and breakthroughs. I am confident that it can, and will continue, to be a dominant world power for many more years to come. For how much longer, only time will tell. My confidence is based on the inherent strengths of the American people, including their creativity, enterprise, resourcefulness and adaptability, as well as the long established fabrics of the nation. My optimism is augmented by the fact that it is truly an open society. This has enabled it to attract and absorb talents and new skills from all over the world as it provides limitless opportunities for self advancement and realisation of one’s ultimate potential. It also has the best universities and research institutions in the world, where innovations and most advanced researches into almost any fields of knowledge and human activities are actively encouraged and vigorously pursued for their own intrinsic merits, without being unduly impeded by their perceived lack of economic values or practical usefulness when funds for these are being allocated. This is not yet matched by its counterparts elsewhere. It is therefore hardly surprising that this country has produced the largest number of Nobel Price winners in the world. It also has the foremost print, electronic and broadcasting media whose pervasiveness and influence permeate the global scene. Also, certain aspects of the American ways of life and culture tend to appeal to others and make them worthy of their emulation. Underpinning the spread of the American soft power is the popularity of the English language, which has become the common language worldwide, without which peoples of different ethnic origins and cultural backgrounds will cease to communicate with one another conveniently and effectively.
The recent election of African-American Barrack Obama as the next president of the United States is a convincing testimony of the realism and adaptability of the American people in the face of changing circumstances who were prepared to put aside racial considerations by electing a candidate whom they believe can best rescue the nation from its current financial fiasco and decline and restore it to greatness again. Not so long ago, the prospects of a non-white president heading the nation at this point in time would have been deemed most unlikely, given its past history. It also mirrors the sagacity of the late Chinese paramount leader Deng Xiaoping that “it does not matter whether the cat is black or white, so long as it catches the mice”.
This brings me to the question that will be of concern and interest to all of us: Can a nation’s dominance over others continue indefinitely? My own answer is an emphatic “no”, as I am convinced that history is an unerring arbiter of human destiny. Let me now refer to just a few great empires of the past to support my contention. China, with its almost 5000 years of history and was ahead of the rest of the world during a considerable period of that time, had produced several powerful and outstanding empires. Two of these are the Han Dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE) and the Tang Dynasty (618-907CE). The Han ruled China for 426 years, and the Tang only 289 years. In Europe, the mighty Roman Empire came into being from around 44 BCE to 395 CE. Thereafter it broke into two much smaller successor parts, the Western part collapsed in 476 while the eastern portion ended in 1453. In the Islamic world, the formidable Ottoman Empire had a history of 624 years, and at its peak its territories spanned Asia, Europe and Africa. Nearer to our time, the British Empire, the most extensive in history, had its modest beginnings in the late 16th century with the founding of some settlements in America and reached its peak between 1800 and 1914. It rapidly declined thereafter and by the 1960s, only a mere handful of them remained, all were insignificant except one. Its last major colony, Hong Kong, was returned to China in 1997. Today, the British Empire exists only in the memory of the older British people and those of its former colonial subjects.
Incidentally, a related subject was dealt with by me in some detail in an article, Complacency Leads To Demise, which I wrote in 2002 for the Bilingual Column (View Point) of a leading Singapore Chinese language newspaper, Lianhe ZaoBao. I reproduce the English version of it below for the interest of readers.
Lam Pin Foo
Complacency Leads To Demise
In recent years, Britain has been afflicted with one scandal after another, and these have been widely publicised by media everywhere. These scandals have far reaching consequences for its once much-admired public institutions. They reflected the falling standards in education, postal, transport, health care and social welfare services, to name a few key areas.
Education is a clear example. Reduced government subsidies have led to the deliberate lowering of admission standards and easier attainment of degrees in some universities aimed at attracting more students. To increase the funding of an ancient university, a don there offered college places to offsprings of substantial donors who would not otherwise be eligible for admission. Most recently, the A-Level examination marking debacle affecting hundreds of thousands of students shocked the nation. British hospitals face an acute shortage of doctors and nurses. Numerous patients with life-threatening ailments, perforce, have to wait a long time before being treated. Some subsidised patients have been sent abroad for operations in order to alleviate this problem. Staff negligence at its hospitals costs thousands of lives annually. Brain drain of its elites is becoming serious, as many have emigrated elsewhere for a better future. More will follow suit, unless effective solutions are found soon.
Yet, before World War II, the British Empire was one of the mightiest in history, with colonies worldwide. The sun never sets on our Empire, they boasted. But, by the 1960s, it had virtually disappeared except for a few overseas possessions. Singapore was a British colony from 1819 to 1963. As colonial subjects, we were taught to believe that everything British, be it education, public institutions, system of government or manufactured products, were second to none. It wasn’t an empty rhetoric. Some of us will recall that, just forty years ago, not many Singaporeans would buy Japanese cars or goods in preference to their British equivalents, but nowadays the reverse is true.
What has gone wrong with Britain, after the glory days of empire? In a nutshell, complacency set in and, over time, they lost their earlier pioneering fervour and competitive advantages over others. On the other hand, their major rivals caught up with them industrially and technologically and eventually left them behind.
The demise of the British Empire followed the same fate of the other powerful empires throughout the ages. Prominent examples include the Greek, Roman, Chinese, Portuguese, Spanish and Ottoman empires. In our own time, the sudden liquidation of the Soviet Union in 1991 has ramifications for the rest of the world.
In this new millennium, the United States is now the sole superpower on earth. Its preeminence looks secured for some years to come, provided it continues to maintain its economic, industrial and technological supremacy over its European, Japanese and Chinese rivals. Be that as it may, history is an unerring arbiter of national destinies, with their inevitable ebbs and flows just like tidal waves. Sooner or later, a stronger superpower will emerge to replace the Americans as the new world leader. This cycle will always repeat itself.
Singapore is too tiny a country to achieve a great power status. However, we are most fortunate that our national leaders are keenly conscious of the lessons of history, and are continually helping its citizenry to enhance their knowledge and skills and to strengthen their competitive edge as the way forward in an ever changing world. Hopefully, Singaporeans will have a place under the sun for a long time to come.
(First published in Lianhe ZaoBao’s Bilingual Column on 30.11.02)