This post is syndicated from blog contributor, Sir Jeremy Greenstock of Gatehouse Advisory Partners

We have become so used to regarding the United States as the world’s primary democratic, industrial and military power that it is hard for optimists not to assume that it will bounce back into a leadership role once the economic cycle turns back. Pessimists put weight on the US’s relative decline since the turn of the millennium and count the years to Chinese dominance. Where is the truth likely to lie?

There is plenty of evidence of American frustration that their single-superpower period turned out to be so short. The difficulties they have faced in dealing with Iran, for instance, whose military budget stands at something like 1% of America’s, or with North Korea, whose government can barely feed its people, and the failure to notch up any lasting victories in the ‘War on Terror’, suggest worse returns from the investment in hard power and in the promotion of democracy than most people might have been expecting. Had Americans not, after all, put their hearts into building a secure and free world without imperial ambitions, which everyone ought to have appreciated?

But let’s also look at the internal picture. Wise decision-making comes from a system which gives leadership the scope to plan strategically and the flexibility to match the external environment. The US political structure is not built that way. The constitution is designed to split the tasks of proposing and implementing policy to two different branches of government; and the drive for power and influence internally too easily takes over from the motivation to realise the country’s best interests. The transparency of politics in the modern age aggravates the problem, because it places a huge accent on public presentation and on the short term. And Americans do not expend a lot of thought on interpreting global change when they are accustomed to feel reasonably well insulated from it.

Meanwhile, as democracy matures, greater freedom for the individual reduces respect for the centre. People feel inclined to act and communicate with those they identify with most strongly without having to compromise with opposing views. So horizons narrow and politics polarise. This can happen between different parts of the political spectrum or between different social and economic levels. Wage-earners in the lower part of the US economy find they have benefited far less from national growth since 1990 than their richer counterparts. So there has been mounting anger, as instanced in the rise of the Tea Party movement, both from America’s loss of relative influence globally and from the poorer return from global economic opportunities than others in other countries or sectors.

It is hard for a President to stand above these trends and plot a way forward for the whole nation when his power within the system is checked. Different popular viewpoints expect executive support for their preferences and are disinclined to accept a balance. So we are looking at a contorted scenario in which American interests are more linked than ever with the world outside, American relative weight in the world is diminishing, Americans are even less interested than before in supporting a strong central government and the constitution stands in the way of the centre seizing the initiative.

The United States is too dynamic a society, especially in the private sector, to allow this combination of trends to continue for long. Education, science, technology and the incentives to create wealth are strong enough to support a counter-trend. But previous eras saw the government leading an organised turnaround and this may not be the case next time. Dynamism with a degree of disorganisation is likely to be the result.

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