The Choice Facing a Declining United States

America can try to hold on to global hegemony as it slips from its grasp—or it can learn from Britain's mistakes.

Nairobi National Park in Nairobi, Kenya
The sun may be setting on American empire as the moon rises over Nairobi, Kenya (Reuters)

In Nairobi National Park, a succession of concrete piers rises over the heads of rhinos and giraffes, part of a $13.8 billion rail project that will link Kenya’s capital with the Indian Ocean. It’s a project with the ambition and scale of global leadership, and the site safety posters are in the language of its engineers and builders: Chinese.

Four hundred miles further north, in one of Kenya’s city-sized refugee camps, there’s another sign of what global leadership used to look like: sacks of split peas, stamped USAID; a handful of young, quiet Americans working on idealistic development projects. I saw both this month, but one already looks like a relic of the past. The baton of global leadership is being passed from the U.S. to China.

In Africa, the evidence is everywhere. China will put nearly $90 billion into the continent this year, the United States nothing close. China is betting big on economic partnerships and dependencies along its new Silk Road, christened “One Belt, One Road.” The U.S., meanwhile, spends many of its dollars on expensive wars, to the detriment of soft-power projects like USAID, or domestic welfare programs like Medicaid.

America’s global influence is certain to decline relatively in the years ahead; it is the inevitable consequence of the return of the Middle Kingdom. As that happens, the U.S. should be more deliberate about the policy choices it makes. It’s a lesson I’ve seen my own country—which was once an empire, too—learn the hard way. On the way down from global hegemony, Britain came around too slowly to investing in domestic welfare. The U.S. should apply those lessons sooner.

The time is ripe. Its 45th president swung to power on the backs of voters worn out by the burden of expensive wars, tired of wartime austerity, and fed up with rising inequality. America has spent nearly $6 trillion on sustaining long-running conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Median wages haven’t gone up in decades. Its health-care inequality is a byword in failure, infant mortality barely better than that of developing countries, and some states’ death rates are soaring because of “diseases of despair.”

It’s clear that many voters gave up on the American empire. When they voted in 2016, they didn’t care for the international institutions the U.S. had so carefully constructed after World War II: NATO; the United Nations; the World Bank. They didn’t care for their country to protect the liberal world order, to lead the “Free World.” Voters on the left and the right showed their readiness for a policy turn inwards. They wanted a country focused on domestic policies. (These are my own views, and not those of my organization.)

A similar thing happened in Britain after World War II. In 1945, the Labour leader Clement Attlee campaigned on bettering the lives of Britons at the bottom. He promised welfare over warfare: a national health service, social security, public housing. It won him the election; scoring an upset win against the man who had just brought Britain its finest victory in a global war, Winston Churchill.

But in the tumultuous years that followed, Attlee wasn’t able or willing to fully scale down spending on the army and the Empire. When Churchill came back after him in 1951, India and other colonies had already won their independence, but the over-spending on foreign intervention and the military remained. The result was a delay of the inevitable decline of the Empire, but also a half-baked welfare state, which couldn’t provide for its citizens the promises that Attlee envisaged.

During a series of international conflicts from the early 1950s to the early 1970s, Britain continued to lose not only territory in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, but also vast amounts of money and human capital, which could have otherwise been deployed to the betterment of its people. In Cyprus, Kenya, Oman, Yemen, the Suez Canal, the British possessions in Southeast Asia, and elsewhere, Britain spent vast amounts in a futile effort to retain some its imperial power.

I don’t long for the days of the British Empire. My family spent its vainglorious reign digging ironstone from the ground. The imperial sun never shone down the mine shafts of northeast England. But I know the end of the Empire did not mean the end of Britain, or that of the wellbeing of its citizens. Quite the contrary: the Britain I grew up in provided me and my family with educational opportunities and health care we’d never have known had Britain not attempted to build a welfare state at home.

Those of us on the global sidelines, America’s anxious auxiliaries, know a collapse in the instruments of a nation’s power when it happens. In Britain that collapse was precipitated by the left’s loathing of imperialism. In the United States, it has come from the right’s loathing of “globalism.”

America remains a global power, but in the world’s capitals, policymakers are now puzzling out which alliances and organizations will shape the future. Entropy rules over empire.

President Trump posed in Churchill’s armchair on a recent visit to Britain. A bust of Winston Churchill sits once more in the Oval Office. But in terms of America’s position on the world stage, Trump’s legacy may more resemble the one that Attlee set in motion. And Attlee is remembered and respected today not for an empire lost, but for a welfare state founded.