“If Governor Romney is suggesting that we should start another war, he should say so,” –President Barack Obama, 2012
As the clocks strike January 1st, 2100, in a few days, we should reflect on how the ‘Chinese century’ came about. It was by no means inevitable.
At the beginning of the 21st Century, the smart money was on another ‘American century.’ America’s military was preeminent, its economy the strongest in the world, its population bourgeois, productive and educated. Many strategic thinkers expected a slow decline, but only in relative terms to other rising powers. In the early 2000s, it seemed that by mid-century, America would be a first nation among equals of about half a dozen regional powerhouses. But its power to define modernity would persist through the end of the century, even if the Pax Americana fractured and devolved into a more regionalized balance of power.
Though, in retrospect, the roots of America’s catastrophic decline were much older, many historians agree that the 2012 presidential election provided the catalyst that doomed American power. During the election, a weak presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, challenged the incumbent, Barack Obama. Obama was seen as dominant in foreign policy, having wound down an extremely unpopular war in Iraq and killed America’s top public enemy Osama bin Laden and defeated his organization, al Qaeda. In an attempt to weaken the president’s grasp on foreign policy, Romney got cozy with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Even at the time, Netanyahu was considered dangerously provocative, even by large numbers of Israelis. After years of brinkmanship and threats, his prophecy of an Iranian war ultimately proved to be self-fulfilling.
The dread of an imminently nuclear Iran proved a mirage, and it’s not clear what, if any, evidence they had at the time to support the idea. Nonetheless, Romney adopted Netanyahu’s hardline position on Iran as his own. The president had endangered Israel by appeasing Iran, Romney argued, in spite of the crippling sanctions and broad diplomatic isolation Obama inflicted on Iran. No amount of risk of an Iranian bomb was acceptable, no amount of containment could possibly deter an attack. This was the same line of argument that had motivated the Bush Administration to attack Iraq, and for much the same reason. Meanwhile, Netanyahu took the unprecedented step of actively meddling in American electoral politics, undermining a sitting president while supporting candidate Romney, with whom he had done personal business in the 1970s.
The results of the 2012 election created a constitutional crisis. Polls showed Obama narrowly edging out Romney, but on election night, upwards of 10% of registered voters were unable to vote in some crucial swing states. The result was that Romney lost the popular vote by nearly a million votes, but won the electoral college by 6 points. The Supreme Court ratified the Romney victory 5-4. This was the second time in only 12 years this had happened. Months of social unrest followed, with rioting in most major cities.
Romney’s presidency was essentially crippled before he was even inaugurated. As he came into office, protests continued unabated and his popularity was the lowest for any president in his first 100 days. His campaign had offered very few specifics and when he took office, his administration quickly concluded that tax cuts for the wealthy was not economically feasible, and he had no political capital to pull it off. He quickly capitulated on the issue of taxes, but had to offer something to the far right, his wealthy backers and their representatives in the House who had floated his campaign. The deal he made with his base was staunch support for Israel in exchange for tax hikes.
A mutual confrontation ensued across the Middle East. Iranian surrogates began launching terrorist attacks against US, Israeli and Saudi interests in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Bahrain. The US ratcheted up sanctions in an attempt to collapse the Iranian economy and encourage a coup. US and Israeli intelligence and special forces armed and trained rebels within Iran. Militia attacks within Iran began targeting energy grids and government installations. A senior Mullah was assassinated in a Tehran grenade attack, and later in 2013, there was an attempted but failed coup. The Iranian Army stormed the militia’s hideouts, killing US advisers.
In early 2014, an explosion ripped through a US Navy destroyer in the Persian Gulf. The Persian Gulf Incident, as it is known, bore a striking similarity to the Gulf of Tonkin Incident of 1964. Though the cause of the explosion was never proven, the US and Israel immediately blamed Iran. The US launched airstrikes against Iranian targets. Iran retaliated by raining long range rockets down on Jerusalem, US installations and oil refineries throughout the Middle East.
Though Iran took the worse beating, within weeks, political turmoil threatened American and Israeli allies throughout the Middle East. The idea that America was at war with Islam began in the Bush Administration, but was diplomatically deflected in the Obama Administration. With Romney apparently picking up the war where Bush left off, the radical extremists across the Middle East were emboldened. Though they were a small minority, the Muslim voices calling for war against the US became inexorable. The fragile democracies in their infancies, born of the Arab Spring, were quickly swept from power in Islamist coups. Washington’s allies in the region refused to support the war against Iran for fear of revolutions at home.
Within months, the message in Washington and Jerusalem evolved from “turn back Iran’s clock” to “remove the Iranian regime.” Months of bombing not only didn’t dislodge the Iranian regime, but rallied the population behind them. The idea that Iran might actually win the war was intolerable for Washington and Jerusalem. Promising that they would be greeted as liberators, Romney sent American forces from Afghanistan into Iran. Though they quickly established strategic control over much of the country, the Iranian regime went underground and waged a guerrilla campaign against the American soldiers. As the war wore on, the draft had to be reinstated and nearly half a million young Americans were called upon to fight for their country.
The Persian Gulf Incident and resulting US-Persian War caused a massive oil shock. The skyrocketing price of commodities was too much for the floundering European Union to handle. Several Southern European economies defaulted. The economic collapse rippled across the globe. The resulting depression caused political fracturing across the West. Quickly, China stepped in to guarantee the dollar. Chinese banks floated European debt so that the plummeting European economies could attempt to revert to their old currencies. Results were mixed, but it left Europe in complete disarray.
The economies across the Middle East and Central Asia suffered as well. This fueled recruitment across the Muslim world for guerrillas to fight against the US in Iran. Taming Iran, an extremely mountainous country one fifth the size of the United States, with a large population and a relatively modern army, proved to be far more than the US could handle. The fighting in Iran was worse than anything American soldiers had encountered since World War II, since the guerrillas they fought had access to virtually limitless recruits and were surreptitiously supplied by unknown outside powers.
The economic collapse was also severe in the United States. The war itself, ironically, helped the US pull out of its depression within a decade, because of the government-funded industrial war effort at home. But once America emerged from its depression, the population had reverted to essentially a late 19th century industrial economy. Though America was still productive, it was no longer the world’s largest purchaser, and its political capital in the world was exhausted.
Domestically, social unrest lasted for a generation. A number of factors, including biased corporate media, gerrymandering and limitless campaign donations led to deeply entrenched political polarization. The US eventually began splitting apart. Though it had always been a federal system of ‘states,’ by the mid 21st Century, the US began to more closely resemble the decentralization of the European Union in the late 20th Century.
By 2050, the US was barely engaged meaningfully anywhere in the world. The US was powerless to stop the rise of China. As we look back on the Chinese century, it’s important to reflect on how America’s folly became China’s opportunity. The lesson we can learn from America’s decline is that war rhetoric has a way of becoming warfare. Crying wolf over and over on the world stage can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is important that we maintain and cultivate the Pax China as we enter the 22nd century, and learn from America’s mistakes so we don’t repeat them.
Professor John Wu is the author of “Falling Eagle: The History of American Decline” published in 2098. He teaches at Deng Xiaopeng Center for Political Science in New Shanghai, Province of California.