At the end of WWII, the US enjoyed the height of its power, thus making it inevitable that a decline would follow. The question was hoe long and how fast. Militarily, the US remains the world's hegemon, but the price for such honors is the long economic decline in the last fifty years. The assumption on the part of many political and social scientists is that a hegemon solves international crises, while the record indicates that it actually creates them because it seeks to compromise the sovereignty of other nations.
The economic hegemon is needed to help provide guidance and direction to world economy, while the record actually shows that it precipitates intermittent crises, including the most recent global recession. This is because of the quest for capital accumulation from the periphery to the center. One year after Obama was in the White House, a public opinion poll indicated that 41% of the American people believed that the US was losing its global preeminence and that Pax Americana was coming to the end, while 44% of those polled believe China was the new global power. The symbolism of the decline and the public's awareness was when Obama visited China in November 2009, a turning point in which the US had no choice but to accept the reality of a multipolar and interdependent world.
Some argue that Pax Americana's end will entail the dawning of a new Dark Age, global chaos, anarchy, and a cry for new strong leadership such as the US provided from Truman to Bush. Others are more optimistic that we will see a world order similar to that of pre-1914 when Great Powers shared in the management of world affairs. No matter what, it is certain that the US will continue to play a dominant military role in the world for a long time, but it will not be an economic superpower. In short, it will be like the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
If an attempt is made to expand the current wars of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya to include Syria and Iran, decline will come sooner than later. If there is continued high defense spending that siphons off precious resources from the considerably weakened civilian economy, especially education, decadence is coming sooner than many expect. If the welfare state continues to drain resources from workers and the middle class through the regressive fiscal structure, salary and benefits, and cuts in programs, decadence is just around the corner where the Chinese are waiting to assume global economic leadership.
Decadence of empires take place in every sector from economic to cultural, and is it difficult to recognize it while it is still unfolding because the signs are an integral part of an almost organic process that goes from maturity to old age. The Romans, the Spaniards, the British realized decadence far too late after it had set in, and even then they refused to change course because change implies that the privileged orders lose their status and benefits they enjoyed in society. Hegemony is an aphrodisiac for the elites, while the masses waiting for a messiah blindly follow fearing the unknown.
How long can an empire last before it it begins to crumble, while its political, economic and social elites delude themselves because their privileges are unaffected? The American Empire (Pax Americana) has lasted for more than a century and that is indeed a long time, given the intense global competition for hegemony in various areas from military and economics to industry and technology.
In 2008, the World Bank and private institutions were predicting that China will become the preeminent world economic power by 2025, a prospect that could very well translate into military preeminence. In 2011, the IMF categorically stated that China will surpass the US as the dominant economy in less than five years. Depending how China manages its economic hegemony and how it decides to link it to defense as has the US for more than a century remains to be seen. The temptation to link economic to military power will be too enticing to resist for the Chinese as it has been for all great powers throughout history.
Despite the end of Pax Americana, the US will remain a “great power” like Germany, UK, France. Depending on how it decides to support (or not) higher education, it may remain a world leader in non-military-related science and technology areas. If the higher education model is to support anything defense-related, anything that corporations can use, anything government can use for PR and political purposes, then decadence will continue in higher education where US is currently a world leader.
Unfortunately, the value system of the academic elites has been for sale to the highest bidder, and that means academics are partly to blame for the decadence unfolding in the American Empire. There are very few academic voices crying out for a return to a Renaissance in higher education intended for the edification of the pupil and not the utilitarian value to government or corporate world. The US is highly likely to retain the best graduate schools in the world for some time, but as money becomes tight, how long will such an honor last? The average debt of the college graduate in 2011 stands at $23,000, total student debt is at $530 billion or 29% higher from 2007, and average salary is $36,000 or $10,000 down from the 2009 levels.
Trends in education are more or less the same as in health care. The US is also likely to retain the best hospitals in the world, but perhaps not the best health care system catering to all citizens. Boxed and packaged creativity for sale to the highest bidder – government and corporations – naturally entails limitations of the human spirit. The likelihood that corporations will demand greater links between education and business is a certainty. Instead of remaining in the enticing mode of hegemony and the glory of the past, the elites of the American Empire, especially educators always quick to sell out and cheaply at that, could be taking steps now to prepare for a transition from Great Power status. However, like the Romans, Spaniards, and British they will want to go down with the empire than to surrender to a lower status. Pax Americana will have a slow lingering illness before it is finally pronounced dead. How the elites handle the patient's illness will determine how the country reinvents itself for a new beginning.