Is America a ‘failing state’? How a superpower has been brought to the brink



AAP/EPA/Albert Halim

George Rennie, University of Melbourne

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was a sense history had ended, and that the United States represented a supreme endpoint.

Today, the US is not dominant, it is in crisis: convulsed by riots and protest, riven by a virus that has galloped away from those charged with overseeing it, and heading into a presidential election led by a man that has possibly divided the nation like no other before him.

Using the most common metrics available to political scientists, there are signs the United States is failing.

Until very recently, this idea was extraordinary, unthinkable to all but the most radical critics. But, the US is increasingly performing poorly on key predictors of state failure: ethnic and class conflict, democratic and institutional backsliding, and other socioeconomic indicators including healthcare and inequality.




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Ethnic and class conflict

Comparative politics pays great attention to the role of ethnic conflict as a predictor of state failure. Those who study African countries, where most of the flare-ups are currently taking place, often observe that ethnic conflicts are closely correlated with battles to secure key resources, such as water and arable land. This closely relates the study of so-called “grievance studies”, which typically regards deep-seated inequalities as causing resource conflicts.

Black Lives Matters protesters in Washington D.C.
AAP/Sipa USA/CNP

However, it would be a mistake to think this is because of different ethnic groups per se. It is more to do with how inequality and poverty exacerbate perceived racial and cultural fissures. The US reflects this problem, where the experience of many black Americans is telling: they feel “criminalised at birth”, and when this perception reaches a critical mass among a large enough population, states fail.




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The global conflict zones that political scientists largely focus on are where groups are fighting for basic resources. These include water, mineral, and other basic economic rights.

So, areas that are deeply impoverished, such as Flint, Michigan, or almost any other recent area of profound socio-economic distress, are highly analogous to failed countries. They have also been some of the biggest challenges to the “united” part of the United States.

Signs of increased economic inequality

Yet, the economic indicators are not only dire for minority groups. America’s economy has grown at a good clip for decades, but the wealth has been taken up almost entirely by the wealthiest. For example, CEOs’ pay went from 20 times the average workers’ salary in 1965 to 278 times their salary in 2018.

In real terms, only college graduates have seen their pay increase as a group since 1979, and this occurs while 21% of American children live in poverty. Moreover, health outcomes for Americans are very poor compared to other OECD countries, despite having the highest per capita healthcare costs in the world.

Disproportionately, this is a problem affecting black Americans. This might go some way to explaining recent riots, but is far from a complete picture. All poor Americans are getting relatively poorer, which may also explain why poor white Americans seem increasingly likely to fight against the perceived injustices of other ethnic groups. They do this by pitting themselves against similarly politically and economically disenfranchised groups, rather than the power system that keeps them dispossessed.

Two children paint a mural at Black Lives Plaza, Washington D.C.
AAP/EPA/Michael Reynolds

Adding to this, a major historical study by Thomas Piketty showed the disconnect between the poorest and wealthiest Americans is getting exponentially worse, the middle class is shrinking, and the wealth of the top 1% is taking up an increasing share of the pie.

Is there a democratic deficit?

This wealth disconnect is increasingly represented as a deficit in democracy. As one study showed, America’s democracy is being seriously undermined.

In fact, “undermined” is putting it mildly: after a rigorous analysis of voting from 1982 to 2002, Gilens and Page showed the preferences of the top 10% routinely trumped those of average voters.

It would be a mistake to underestimate the importance of these findings. As analyses of the 2016 general election showed, the US states that flipped from Democrat to Republican (supposedly part of Hillary Clinton’s “firewall”) were almost exclusively part of the so called “rust belt”. Once part of America’s all-powerful manufacturing base, they are now people who feel forgotten, and increasingly angry.

The black and white, racial narrative of America’s woes misses an important, but even more consequential point: while there is no doubt black Americans are disproportionately suffering, an increasing majority is losing out, regardless of race.

American hope

The American revolution centred on the very sensible idea there should be no taxation without representation. Yet, there is now significant evidence that a majority of citizens are not being represented.

The US has one advantage: for all of its flaws, it remains an at least semi-functional democracy. This may well mean blame for state failure can exist with individuals or parties, rather than the entire system.

However, the democratic institutions of the United States continue to break down, and successive governments have proved unable to respond and listen to their citizens. Bizarrely, by the most important indicators available to political scientists, the United States is failing.

Even among its most ardent critics, few would consider America’s failure to be anything other than a catastrophe. The domestic deterioration of the world’s biggest nuclear and military superpower would prove unprecedented and frightening beyond rational analysis — rhetoric suggesting this is merely the new “fall of Rome” is almost glib.

The challenge now is whether the world’s oldest continuous democracy can live up to its own ideals.The Conversation

George Rennie, Lecturer in Politics, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Russia not so much a (re)rising superpower as a skilled strategic spoiler



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Much of the interest in Russia centres around its experienced and skilled political leader in Vladimir Putin, speaking here with Donald Trump.
Reuters

Alexey D Muraviev, Curtin University

Russia keeps posing a massive intelligence puzzle to the West: it is never as weak as we may want it to be, nor is it as strong as we fear it may be.

So, how can we classify Russia as an international power? It is not the Soviet Union reincarnated, so it is not a reborn counterpoint to US global supremacy. Nor does it intend to be. But it remains a major strategic spoiler of the US’ ambitions to retain its rules-based global order.

Moscow is trying to strengthen its relationship with like-minded major powers. China is one of Russia’s comrades-in-arms, although not a formal ally. China and Russia are not forming any sort of anti-Western/anti-US alliance; both great powers have their own national agendas.

Over the past ten years, Russia and China have developed very close military ties, but their economic relationship remains uneven and quite low on the common strategic agenda. They are de facto engaged in soft competition across Central Asia and the Asia-Pacific.

But their intention to change the status quo in support of their ambitions aligns with their security and strategic agendas, at least for now. Just like China, Russia seeks to maximise its strategic autonomy by aggressively fending off any perceived challenges to its national interests or sovereignty.

The time cannot be better. US President Donald Trump keeps puzzling allies by reversing major political decisions of previous administrations, while prioritising an inward-looking approach to running his country. And he is no match for Vladimir Putin in terms of experience, charisma, domestic popularity and global influence.




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Try a simple experiment: search any publication about Russia published by the Australian media and try to find an article on anything Russia-related that does not have a reference to Putin. We see in Putin a manifestation of Russia’s ambitions; its political, military, economic and even sport successes and failures; defence of traditional values and criticisms of the Western way of life.

Putin wants for Russia a “place under the sun”: that is, dominance over the immediate neighbourhood combined with Russia’s recognised right to have interests in other parts of the world. The big question is: does modern Russia have what it takes to be a global superpower? The reality is there is no definitive answer to that.

On the one hand, Russia possesses key elements of a superpower: it is self-sufficient when it comes to natural resources and it is an energy superpower; it is a space power with a developed sovereign capability; it has a world-class scientific capability; it is the second-biggest military superpower in the world behind the US. Finally, it has global ambitions and a global agenda.

On the other hand, like China, Russia does not have a civilisational agenda – a competitive political model that could be an alternative to Western liberalism based on a free-market economy. After all, the Cold War was a clash of competitive socioeconomic systems supported by geopolitical and military-strategic competition. There is none of that today.

Second, Russia does not have the economic might of China and its intertwined economic interaction with the US. The Russian economy has suffered a great deal from the tight sanctions regime implemented after the Ukraine crisis, and is only beginning now to show signs of recovery.

That is not to say Russia has lost the economic means to support itself and its global ambitions. Over the past two years, it has achieved a major breakthrough in exporting grain and other agricultural produce, making it one of the top-three foreign currency earners. In 2017 alone, Russia earned some US$20.5 billion by exporting agricultural produce.

Russia’s energy exports also remain high. In 2017, Russian energy giant Gazprom generated total revenue of US$103.6 billion. This year’s revenue is expected to reach US$108 billion. In Europe alone, Gazprom controls 34.7% of its energy market, thus making it an important element of Russia’s regional geoeconomics.




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The Russian defence sector plays its traditional role of both earning much-needed cash and furthering Russia’s geopolitical agenda. In 2017, Russian arms exports were worth US$17 billion, while the total portfolio of foreign orders of Russian armaments and military equipment is about US$45 billion, effectively retaining the number-two position in global arms sales.

Still, Russia has no means of global economic expansionism. It is desperately seeking new economic opportunities and partnerships with other countries that do not want all the power focused on the US. This gives China a strategic lead because of its diversified extensive economic partnerships with the US, Europe and Asia.

Yet it would be premature to crown China as the sole superpower rival to the US. Unlike Russia, China clearly lacks political and diplomatic experience – the ability to play complex games on a global chessboard.

As an incoming superpower with global ambitions but limited experience in great power politics, China studies carefully the Soviet and Russian experiences and leaves Russia to fight all the major fights at international forums. North Korea and the South China Sea are among the few exceptions where the Chinese show strategic activism.

Apart from its extensive diplomatic experience, China also needs Russia’s strategic nuclear and conventional military might.

Under Putin, the Russian military managed to close the capability gap with the most advanced Western militaries and transformed itself from a large, under-equipped and understaffed army into an effective, highly motivated and battle-hardened force. Putin has given the once-cash-strapped military machine a massive financial boost – and, more importantly, full political support.

Between 2013 and 2017, Russia landed in the world’s top-three nations on defence expenditure, just behind the US and China. In Europe, Russia has remained the single largest defence spender and buyer of major combat systems.

From 2012 until early 2017, the Russian military received 30,000 new and upgraded armaments and items of heavy military equipment. The Syria campaign and Russia’s ability to exercise strategic reach has once again made the military factor supported by active diplomacy one of the key determinants of successful realising its national strategic agenda.

In short, Russia is a major global power in outlook and reach, locked in a values-based confrontation with the West. But it still lacks all elements of a developed superpower.

The ConversationBut what it does most effectively is play the role of a strategic spoiler in times when the world is gradually accepting a new international configuration with a suite of established and emerging great powers that would dominate a future world order.

Alexey D Muraviev, Associate Professor of National Security and Strategic Studies, Curtin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.