This piece originally appeared at TomDispatch.
Blocked from major new domestic initiatives by a Republican victory in the midterm elections, President Barack Obama promptly lit out for Asia, a far more promising arena. That continent, after all, is rising, and Obama is eager to grasp the golden ring of Asian success.
Beyond being a goodwill ambassador for ten days, Obama is seeking sales of American-made durable and consumer goods, weapons deals, an expansion of trade, green energy cooperation, and the maintenance of a geopolitical balance in the region favorable to the United States. Just as the decline of the American economy hobbled him at home, however, the weakness of the United States on the world stage in the aftermath of Bush-era excesses has made real breakthroughs abroad unlikely.
Add to this the peculiar obsessions of the Washington power elite, with regard to Iran for instance, and you have an unpalatable mix. These all-American fixations are viewed as an inconvenience or worse in Asia, where powerful regional hegemons are increasingly determined to chart their own courses, even if in public they continue to humor a somewhat addled and infirm Uncle Sam.
Although the United States is still the world’s largest economy, it is shackled by enormous public and private debt as well as fundamental weaknesses. Rivaled by an increasingly integrated European Union, it is projected to be overtaken economically by China in just over a decade. While the president’s first stop, India, now has a nominal gross domestic product of only a little over a trillion dollars a year, it, too, is growing rapidly, even spectacularly, and its GDP may well quadruple by the early 2020s. The era of American dominance, in other words, is passing, and the time (just after World War II) when the United States accounted for half the world economy, a dim memory.
The odd American urge to invest heavily in perpetual war abroad, including "defense-related" spending of around a trillion dollars a year, has been a significant factor further weakening the country on the global stage. Most of the conventional weapons on which the United States continues to splurge could not even be deployed against nuclear powers like Russia, China and India, emerging as key competitors when it comes to global markets, resources and regional force projection. Those same conventional weapons have proved hardly more useful (in the sense of achieving quick and decisive victory, or even victory at all) in the unconventional wars the United States has repeatedly plunged into—a sad fact that Bush’s reckless attempt to occupy entire West Asian nations only demonstrated even more clearly to Washington’s bemused rivals.
American weapons stockpiles (and copious plans for ever more high-tech versions of the same into the distant future) are therefore remarkably irrelevant to its situation, and known to be so. Meanwhile, its economy, burdened by debts incurred through wars and military spending sprees, and hollowed out by Wall Street shell games, is becoming a B-minus one in global terms.