The End of Arrogance: America Loses Its Dominant Economic Role
The banking crisis is upending American dominance of the financial markets and world politics. The industrialized countries are sliding into recession, the era of turbo-capitalism is coming to an end and US military might is ebbing. Still, this is no time to gloat.
There are days when all it takes is a single speech to illustrate the decline of a world power. A face can speak volumes, as can the speaker's tone of voice, the speech itself or the audience's reaction. Kings and queens have clung to the past before and humiliated themselves in public, but this time it was merely a United States president.
George W. Bush has grown old, erratic and rosy in the eight years of his presidency. Little remains of his combativeness or his enthusiasm for physical fitness. On this sunny Tuesday morning in New York, even his hair seemed messy and unkempt, his blue suit a little baggy around the shoulders, as Bush stepped onto the stage, for the eighth time, at the United Nations General Assembly.
He talked about terrorism and terrorist regimes, and about governments that allegedly support terror. He failed to notice that the delegates sitting in front of and below him were shaking their heads, smiling and whispering, or if he did notice, he was no longer capable of reacting. The US president gave a speech similar to the ones he gave in 2004 and 2007, mentioning the word "terror" 32 times in 22 minutes. At the 63rd General Assembly of the United Nations, George W. Bush was the only one still talking about terror and not about the topic that currently has the rest of the world's attention.
"Absurd, absurd, absurd," said one German diplomat. A French woman called him "yesterday's man" over coffee on the East River. There is another way to put it, too: Bush was a laughing stock in the gray corridors of the UN.
But the ridicule was a new thing. It marked the end of respect.
"Well," Brazilian President Luiz Inacio "Lula" da Silva began, standing outside the General Assembly Hall. Then he looked out the window and said: "He decided to talk about terrorism, but the issue that has the world concerned is the economic crisis." Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, the president of Argentina, said that the schoolmasters from Washington had dubbed the 1994 Mexican crisis the "tequila effect" and Brazil's 1999 crisis the "Caipirinha effect."
Are we now experiencing the "whiskey effect?" But President Kirchner was gracious and, with a smile, called it the "jazz effect."
Is it only President George W. Bush, the lame duck president, whom the rest of the world is no longer taking seriously, or are the remaining 191 UN member states already setting their sights on the United States, the giant brought to its knees? UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon referred to a "new reality" and "new centers of power and leadership in Asia, Latin America and across the newly developed world." Are they surprised, in these new centers, at the fall of America, of the system of the Western-style market economy?
Even America's closest allies are distancing themselves -- first and foremost the German chancellor. When push came to shove in the past, Angela Merkel had always come down on the side of the United States. As a candidate for the Chancellery for the conservative Christian Democrats, she helped Bush in the Iraq war, and as chancellor she supported tougher sanctions on Iran and campaigned in Europe for an embargo against Cuba. "The partnership with the United States," the chancellor insisted again and again, "has a very special meaning for us Germans."
There was no mention of loyalty and friendship last Monday. Merkel stood in the glass-roofed entrance hall of one of the German parliament's office buildings in Berlin and prepared her audience of roughly 1,000 businesspeople from all across Germany for the foreseeable consequences of the financial crisis. It was a speech filled with concealed accusations and dark warnings.
Merkel talked about a "distribution of risk at everyone's expense" and the consequences for the "economic situation in the coming months and possibly even years." Most of all, she made it clear who she considers the true culprit behind the current plight. "The German government pointed out the problems early on," said the chancellor, whose proposals to impose tighter international market controls failed repeatedly because of US opposition. "Some things can be done at the national level," she said, "but most things have to be handled internationally."
Merkel had never publicly criticized the United States this harshly and unapologetically. In this regard, she enjoys the wholehearted support of her coalition government partner, the center-left Social Democrats (SPD). In a speech before Germany's parliament, the Bundestag, Finance Minister Peer Steinbrück of the SPD spoke of the end of the United States as a "superpower of the global financial system."
The banking crisis in the United States has shaken many things in recent days, not just the chancellor's affection for America and the respect the rest of the world once had for the US as an economic and political superpower. Since the US investment bank Lehman Brothers plummeted into bankruptcy two weeks ago, the financial crisis has developed a destructive force of almost unimaginable strength. The proud US investment banks with globally recognized names like Merrill Lynch and Goldman Sachs have all gone bankrupt, been bought up or restructured. The American real estate market has essentially been nationalized. And the country's biggest savings and loan, Washington Mutual, has failed and been sold at a loss.
In light of the almost daily reports of losses in the financial sector, it seemed almost secondary to note that the disaster had also turned into one of the biggest criminal investigations in American history. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is already investigating 26 large financial corporations as well as 1,400 smaller companies and private citizens for possible fraud.
Economists now characterize what began two years ago with falling prices in the American real estate market as the biggest economic disaster since the world economic crisis of the 1930s. No one knows whether and how the meltdown of global financial markets, which would have grave consequences for the world economy, can still be prevented.
And now, of all times, the world is faced with a preeminent power that no longer seems capable of leading and a US president who is not even able to unite his divided country in an hour of need.
For weeks, Bush ignored the crisis, insisting on the strength of the market and telling Americans: "Everything will be fine."
In a televised address to the nation last Wednesday, Bush gave his oath of disclosure. He warned Americans that they could face a "long and painful recession" and that "millions of Americans could lose their jobs" unless swift action is taken.
But nothing happened swiftly, at least not at first. The crisis is happening while the United States is in a political vacuum. Bush lacks the power needed for decisive leadership, and his potential successors, John McCain and Barack Obama, seem more concerned about making a strong impression on voters.
Ironically, it is in the country of unfettered capitalism that the government now plans to intervene in the economy on a scale not seen since the Great Depression, and, with hundreds of billions of dollars, attempt to save the financial sector from failure -- out of fear of something even worse: an economic collapse with declining prices and widespread unemployment.
This is no longer the muscular and arrogant United States the world knows, the superpower that sets the rules for everyone else and that considers its way of thinking and doing business to be the only road to success.
A new America is on display, a country that no longer trusts its old values and its elites even less: the politicians, who failed to see the problems on the horizon, and the economic leaders, who tried to sell a fictitious world of prosperity to Americans.
Also on display is the end of arrogance. The Americans are now paying the price for their pride.
With its rule of three of cheap money, free markets and double-digit profit margins, American turbo-capitalism has set economic standards worldwide for the past quarter century. Now it is proving to be nothing but a giant snowball system, upsetting the US's global political status as it comes crashing down. Every bank that US Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson is currently forced to bail out with American government funds damages America's reputation around the world.
Of course, it is not solely the result of undesirable economic developments that the United States is in the process of forfeiting its unique position in the world and that the world is moving toward what Fareed Zakaria, editor of Newsweek International, calls a "post-American age." Washington has also lost much of its political ability to impose its will on other countries.
- Part 1: America Loses Its Dominant Economic Role
- Part 2: Bush's Failed Leadership
- Part 3: Wall Street's Central Values: Avarice and Greed
- Part 4: Irrational Exuberance
- Part 5: 'One Can See that We Are on a more Solid Base'
© SPIEGEL ONLINE 2008
All Rights Reserved
Reproduction only allowed with the permission of SPIEGELnet GmbH