Debating current affairs
Paul Thomas is a Weekend Herald columnist

Paul Thomas: Follow them? No way they've gone crazy

President Barack Obama announces this week that America is open again ... but disaster was only narrowly avoided. Photo / AP
President Barack Obama announces this week that America is open again ... but disaster was only narrowly avoided. Photo / AP

As the saying goes, if you're not the lead dog the view never changes, and since 1945 America has been the lead dog.

The Soviet Union mounted a four-decade challenge, but its credentials were largely based on its capacity for destruction. In the name of a failed ideology, the USSR reduced its own citizens to vassals or enemies of the state and offered the world a dehumanised future of May Day parades and the Gulag Archipelago.

Japan flourished spectacularly before sinking into stagnation, and the grand European project has succeeded in its unspoken aim of preventing Germany from running amok again, but little else.

Europe is the opposite of the USSR, possessing all the attributes of a superpower bar military muscle and the willingness to flex it. Rather than shape the world, the European Union has settled for binding its disharmonious members together with red tape.

China has transformed itself from a doctrinaire basket case, North Korea on steroids, into a powerhouse that pays lip service to Marxism to justify the Communist Party's monopoly on power. Napoleon's prediction that when China awakes "she will shake the world" is coming to pass. The world may have to get used to a whole lot of shaking going on.

America meanwhile is into its eighth decade as the pre-eminent nation on earth.

Its military might and reach enables it to be the world's policeman when it so chooses and without waiting for a 111 call. The greenback is the world's reserve currency and America's cultural dominance ensures that its influence persists even when its exercise of hard power is resented.

However, the latest outbreak of lunacy in Washington DC, a chilling combination of insularity, irresponsibility, callousness and wilful ignorance, raises questions about America's fitness to lead and the rest of the world's willingness to follow.

This is the second time in little over two years that the international community has looked on, appalled, alarmed but powerless, as America's political elite has engaged in a game of chicken with the global economy in the passenger seat.

No-one knows for sure what would have happened if a last-minute deal hadn't been reached, but it was striking that the only people who didn't think the sky would fall in were those who precipitated the crisis and fought tooth and nail to obstruct a resolution - the Tea Party-aligned Republican members of Congress.

A survey of leading businesspeople and economists conducted by Bloomberg Businessweek produced a consensus that default would be far worse than the Lehman Brothers collapse that triggered the 2008 global financial crisis.

Economist Mark Zandi, an adviser to the 2008 Republican presidential campaign, warned it would doom "our economy and the entire global economy to a wrenching economic downturn with implications for years, if not decades, to come".

When you're venturing into uncharted territory and the experts are near-unanimous in predicting catastrophe, how foolish or fanatical do you have to be to press on towards the abyss?

As well as power and wealth, example and influence, American pre-eminence has rested on its willingness to shoulder the burden and exercise the responsibilities of leadership.

It's now crystal clear that a significant bloc within Congress feel little responsibility towards those fellow Americans who don't share their extreme views (the overwhelming majority, according to recent polls) and none whatsoever towards the wider world.

In the final analysis a leader is someone others are willing to follow. Who in their right mind would follow the dysfunctional, hopelessly divided and reckless nation that America has become?

The notion of America in decline is not new. Since the late 1970s the US has gone from being the greatest exporting nation to the greatest importer, from being the biggest creditor nation to the biggest debtor.

In 2008, the US intelligence community predicted that by 2025 America's power and influence would be significantly diminished.

Hopefully this is a watershed moment and the Tea Party tide is now on the way out. If the anger towards the Republican Party persists through to next year's mid-term Congressional elections, that could be the catalyst for the revival of that endangered species, the moderate conservative, and a realignment of American politics that consigns the Tea Party to its rightful place on the lunatic fringe.

But it may be that the toxic combination of religious fundamentalism and the fear and loathing among sections of the white electorate induced by America's changing demographics is causing the middle ground in the political landscape to shrink to the point where there are no outcomes between victory and surrender.

If that is the case, those who have long yearned for a reduction in America's role in the world will be joined by those who used to fear that eventuality.

- NZ Herald

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