Monday, 25 August 2008

The Day the American Empire Ran Out of Medals  


On January 11th, 1986 one of Gore Vidal's most often quoted and debated essays was published in the The Nation. The Day the American Empire Ran Out of Gas (published in its entirety on Bill Totten's blog) described how on September 16th, 1985 the USA became a 'debtor nation', and thus lost its empire. Vidal did not argue that the empire had crumbled, or even that its demise would be immediate; instead one of America's greatest, and most controversial, essayists merely stated that this change in the USA's status was the point at which its demise had started.

The USA has in fact demonstrated a great ability to sustain its position as the dominant world power. However much is made of the Beijing Olympics and the awe-inspiring show the Chinese put on, the US is still the dominant power, both economically and militarily. Indeed, the 'wars' in Iraq and Afghanistan have shown is that the USA is more than capable of obliterating conventional armies, even those it has helped to arm itself and that it can still extend its empire (with Dick Cheney in the role of James K. Polk, creating an excuse for war in order to acquire Iraq).

However, despite America's continued dominance ,Vidal's essay carries even more weight than it did over twenty years ago. Indeed the economic situation in 1985 pales in contrast to the trade deficit that has been created during George W. Bush's presidency, causing record amounts of public debt. The USA now owes a record $59.1 trillion in liabilities, and is placed 26th on the CIA's table of the world's biggest debtors as a percentage of GDP, sandwiched between Nicaragua and Cyprus. Despite the fact that the world's 2nd richest country, and one mentioned directly by Vidal as a key competitor of the United States fares even worse (Japan is second, only a few percentage points behind Zimbabwe), the US economy is in a much worse situation than it was in 1985 (when it was a mere $2 trillion) and this has really started to affect the US and the world in the past couple of years.

For years the US economy has run effectively based on borrowing money. The banks borrow money and lend it to their customers and the government has borrowed vast amounts of money (partly to pay for the ludicrous amount it spends on its military - something Vidal also highlighted in
The Day the American Empire Ran Out of Gas). The key difference now is that America has a huge trade deficit and it has borrowed so much more money. The present administration is hugely responsible as it pushed through tax cuts the country could not afford (something that has been described by one columnist as 'certifiably insane'). The USA is now in recession ( and, whereas its inhabitants have faced economic adversity before and have prevailed, it is difficult to see how it can find a way to stimulate its economy as its government does not have the money or the means to make funds, other than through increases in taxation - something the American electorate is unlikely to accept.

As mentioned, Vidal points to Japan as a key competitor and as one of the countries that will replace the United States. Vidal suggests that it would take more than one county, though:

Now the long-feared Asiatic colossus takes its turn as the world leader, and we - the white race - have become the yellow man's burden. Let us hope that he will treat us more kindly than we treated him. In any case, if the foreseeable future is not nuclear, it will be Asiatic, some combination of Japan's advanced technology with China's resourceful landmass.

This is one point I would disagree with; the relations between China and Japan have always been strained, particularly since the Second World War and things have become much worse as a result of the Japanese government's refusal to accept responsibility and its issuing of text books to high school children that glorify Japan's role in the war, without mentioning any of the atrocities it committed against Chinese and Korean civilians. I have seen at first hand the Japanese embassy in Shanghai besieged by angry Chinese people and the two governments are unlikely to join forces any time soon (if ever).

However, Vidal is correct that a part of East Asia will usurp the US as the world's dominant power, but it will be China's landmass and its advanced technology that will provide it alone with the tools to become the world's greatest superpower. Indeed, the Beijing Olympics have long been seen as China's declaration to the world - a declaration that it is ready and able to take up the baton of world leadership from the US. The success of the Chinese athletes, its stupendous venues and the ability of its people and officials to put on such a wonderful show have all demonstrated China's strength and its determination.

America did not, despite my rather facetious title, run out of medals (it was still ranked second) and it will still remain as the world's strongest power for some time. China is still a developing country and its countryside is more third world than first world. Equally, America's military superiority is truly awe-inspiring. However, the USA did come second in the medal table (below China) and it set won more bronze and silver medals than any other country whereas China took home far more golds than any other country. China has already over-taken the USA in the Olympic standings and now its overjoyed, nationalistic people are setting their sights on being the world's greatest economic power. Would you bet against them?

Vidal suggested that the USA, by linking up with Russia and its huge wealth of natural resources and its landmass, the USA could find away to retain its superiority. What Vidal could not have known in 1986 was that the West would treat Russia even worse than it has treated the 'Asiatic Colossus'. Indeed, the humiliation faced by the Russian people (reminiscent of the idiocy of the excesses of Treaty of Versaille) helped to lead to its collapse, and its subsequent move away from democracy and into the arms of Vladimir Putin. Equally, America's hypocritical condemnation of Russia's attack on Georgia has not helped relations between the two countries. Vidal was quite right - Russia does have the landmass and the natural resources required by the US - but it chooses to use its resources to further its own position in the world at the expense of the West rather than to benefit it.

China is both very old and very new. The old China was at one point the most innovative country (both in the science and in the arts) in the world. The new China has the capacity to be just as great and we should all hope it is as just as beneficent. I for one cannot help feeling that, after such a wonderful display in the Olympics, that there is great hope for the future.

Thursday, 14 August 2008

Beware the Russian Bear  


The Russian Bear was, in the nineteenth century, depicted as huge but slow and cumbersome. However, like bears themselves, Russia may be large but it can be both fast and lethal when it wants to be. Indeed, Russia has, under Putin, become a country that the world can once again respect and fear.

There is little doubt that Putin in his new role of Prime Minister is continuing to rule the country. He is the new Stalin or 'man of steel' and his grip on the country is strengthening and, with it, the control of a political system which owes more to the KGB than it does to Western democracy.

Putin's biggest achievement was in prising control of his country's massive oil and gas reserves from the various oligarchs who had effectively been handed Russia's riches because of the poor decisions of a weak leader (Yeltsin). Putin's managed to do this through a mixture of political shrewdness and outright brutality. Several 'refugees' from Putin's revolution now live in London (the most famous being Boris Berezovsky) and as a result Britain has often been the target of Putin's ire.

We have thus seen, more than any other Western country, the power and brutality of the Russian state, no less in the murder of Alexander Litvinenko where the British government has made it clear that they feel the Russian state was involved. In addition, we have seen the removal of British Council workers from the country on spurious grounds along with harassment for other representatives of the UK.

Also, Russia's neighbours have been feeling the full force of Russia's might. The Ukraine has seen Russia's interference in the election of
Viktor Yushchenko, including accusations that Russia had some role in his poisoning and even Belarus, apparently in union with Russia, has been held to ransom by Russia and its control over gas and oil. Now it is the turn of Georgia and it seems astounding that the West can be at all surprised that Russia has chosen to use military means to control the former Soviet state.

Russian ministers have claimed that they are only defending the rights of the people in the breakaway states of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. It is certainly true that the Georgian forces had attempted to enforce control over these areas, but the Russian bear made no effort at diplomacy and its military response has been excessive to say the least. Equally, in Russia's targeting of Georgia's oil pipeline they have shown a desire to maintain their control over Europe's energy.

With the current economic climate and the desperation for fuel, Russia has found its most potent weapon and the West has no answer. It is true that George W. Bush has condemned Russian military action and suggested that Russia could be held to account, but it is hard to imagine even the USA acting on its threats. Putin knows this and so the Russian bear has out-manoeuvred the West and proved that it is once again powerful and far from cumbersome.

Thursday, 7 August 2008

The Great MMR Mistake  


Ever since Dr Andrew Wakefield decided to make a name for himself by frightening the bejeezus out of us with his facetious claim that the MMR jab could cause autism (, we have been waiting for the inevitable results; that the ensuing panic would result in a huge drop in measles vaccinations and that we would face the possibility of an epidemic.

The fact that this was nonsense and that the offending artcile was disowned by The Lancet (itself hardly the most respected of science journals) did nothing to assuage the fears of parents. Part of this is because of the society we now live in; a society saturated in fear and a desire to shelter our children from the world. However, the government did not do enough to publicise the need to take the MMR jab and, given the high chance of a measles epidemic, they should have spend far more on a campiagn to reassure parents and, perhaps, to make them fear for their children unless they do give them the jab.

We are now in a position where people are talking about forcing children to take the jab. This is clearly not realistic. However, even with a fresh campaign from the government it is unlikely to reap rewards unless people are really fearful of non-action.

After the media created the fear by publicising Wakefield's claims it is now the medicine required to cure this epidemic. One child has already died as a result of measles; it is vital that the media takes a strong role in scaring the bejeezus out of us again so that parents panic into giving their kids the jab. Fortunately, this is something they are well practiced in doing.