Will immigrants be the downfall of America

The cat of world politics. The US has been predicted to decline for decades - it didn't come this way, it doesn't have to come like this

After the grueling experience of the Trump presidency, rumors spread that America has passed the peak of its power. It is a recurring topos in Western thinking that has already run into void several times.

The United States is not in good shape: Domestically divided into two warring parties, badly shaken by the corona pandemic, enormous national debts, foreign-politically worn down by never-ending wars against terrorism, challenged by China and Russia, which seem to be in an unstoppable position Remove. Is the American Age Over?

Let's start with cultural philosophy before we talk about the facts. The fear of losing international importance as a result of political and social decadence is a recurring topos in Western thought. At the end of the First World War, Oswald Spengler speculated about the "phases of life" of cultures and predicted the downfall of the West. His British colleague Arnold Toynbee expressed similar fears in the following decades and hoped that the Christian religion would revive the West. In 1987, Paul Kennedy of Yale University also used cyclical ideas of history in his book "The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers". According to this, hegemonic powers inevitably descend because they overstretch themselves imperially through their expansion policy and take over economically. The erosion of American power was inevitable, said Kennedy at the time, and could only be managed, not stopped.

Received heavy blows

Too bad for these cultural philosophers and historians that things turned out differently. It was not the West and the USA that collapsed, but their rivals: Nazi Germany, the Japanese military dictatorship, and finally the Soviet Union. In 1956, its head of state, Nikita Khrushchev, hurled a triumphant "We will bury you" at the West. In 1991 his country stumbled into the pit itself. America won the Cold War and was unrivaled at the zenith of its power. Even severe blows such as the Vietnam War, race riots, the Watergate affair or the oil crisis had taken the country away. The USA was the cat of world politics: it apparently had seven lives.

The US still has huge advantages that will secure its position at the top of the power food chain for the long term.

Fast forward to the year 2021: again, observers and the media are singing “Amazing Grace” for America. The funeral song seems appropriate this time, as megatrends are running against the USA: China's economy is growing rapidly and its arms spending is exploding, Russia is achieving diplomatic and military successes, while America is busy cleaning up after misguided military interventions and the chaotic Trump presidency.

Indeed, Washington's economic power relative to that of its main rivals has declined over the past two decades. According to the World Bank, the United States' share of global economic output was 30 percent in 2000, but by 2020 it will have fallen to 24 percent. The financial and economic crisis of 2008/09 called into question the superiority of their economic model, the mismanagement of the corona pandemic and the storming of parliament by an incited mob the functioning of their political system. The charisma of the USA, its “soft power”, as the political scientist Joseph Nye calls it, is less today than it was in the 1990s.

Despite these negative developments, the US still has huge advantages over its rivals, which will secure its position at the top of the power-political food chain for the long term. First and foremost, there is its privileged location: the nation is protected by two oceans and borders Canada and Mexico on friendly, militarily weak states. This guarantees the USA permanent supremacy in its hemisphere. None of their rivals enjoy such a luxury, not even Russia or China: Both have fourteen neighbors who do their best to counter their desire for dominance. Experience shows that anyone who wants to be a world power must first control their own region. Neither Moscow nor Beijing will be able to do this in the foreseeable future.

Decades ahead

At the military level, things are also looking good for the USA: According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri), its share of global defense spending is just as high today as it was at the turn of the century, at 38 percent. For almost all conventional capabilities in the air, on water and in space, the US is decades ahead of China and Russia, especially when it comes to heavy drones, fifth-generation fighter jets, aircraft carriers and spy satellites. With 800 bases in 70 countries, the US military has a global infrastructure.

For comparison: Russia has 21 foreign bases, China 4. In addition, the USA has an alliance system with, conservatively counted, four dozen partners, including heavyweights such as Great Britain, France, Germany, Japan, South Korea and Australia. Russia, on the other hand, can only come up with such dubious allies as Belarus or Syria, and China with North Korea and Pakistan. In view of the aggressive policies of Moscow and Beijing in their neighborhood, states such as Ukraine, Vietnam, Singapore, Indonesia and India are moving ever closer to the USA.

Even economically, Washington can score positive points over its competitors. China may have become the world's workbench, but American companies dominate the industries of the future. The US has 45 companies on the Thomson Reuters list of one hundred global tech leaders, China has 3, and Russia has none. Putin's empire has only one industrial bestseller: weapons of war. Beijing is trying to use the “Made in China” initiative and hundreds of billions of dollars in subsidies to create future world market leaders in robotics, artificial intelligence and biotechnology. But why should Chinese CP cadres be successful where other state capitalists have failed?

Attractive to immigrants

After all, the demographic development of the USA is more favorable than that of Russia and China - in both countries women with an average of 1.6 children have fewer children than in America with 1.8. The population of the three countries will only grow in the future if enough people immigrate. Even under the self-proclaimed greatest wall builder in history, Donald Trump, immigration - with the exception of the Corona year 2020 - has hardly decreased. Russia's population, on the other hand, has been shrinking for years, and Putin cannot annex as many Crimeans as he needed to stop the demographic downward trend. According to their own Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), the Chinese will also decrease from 2027 - their number will decrease by 250 million by 2065.

Even more: Russia and China are xenophobic, insular, dictatorial and corrupt and therefore unattractive for immigrants, especially for the brightest minds in the world. And it is precisely this group that is raging global competition in the digital age. America has won it so far: no country in the world has more natural scientists, IT specialists and engineers pouring into it. 71 percent of high-tech workers in Silicon Valley were born abroad.

The most successful immigrant group are the Indians. It is no coincidence that Vice President Kamala Harris is the daughter of an Indian biomedical scientist and one of the Republican hopes for president, Nikki Haley, has Indian parents. A high-tech cluster primarily operated by immigrants or even a head of state with foreign roots in Russia or China? Inconceivably. Putin and Xi's reactionary ethno-nationalism may stabilize their rule in the short term, but it comes at a high price in the long term. Even if it is a horror idea for Trumpists: America's greatest cultural, economic and power-political pound is its ethnic diversity and its openness to immigrants.

Will Washington use these advantages to make the 21st century American too? It is not certain. Trump could fight his way back into the presidency in 2024 and rekindle xenophobia, the Democrats could move further to the left and indulge in protectionism and neo-isolationism. But contrary to the gloomy prophecies of the Spenglers, Toynbees and Kennedys these days, the decline of the USA is not sealed, but its fate depends on wise and forward-looking politics. Historically speaking, America does better than Russia, China or Europe.

Stephan Bierling teaches international politics at the University of Regensburg. His most recent publication was America First. Donald Trump in the White House. A balance »published by C. H. Beck.