How would the United States respond domestically if China usurps China's position as global top-dog power?
There will be enormous emotional and psychological impacts on a society that has taken its hegemony for granted for more than three-quarters of a century, in addition to the obvious economic and geopolitical ramifications of an end to American imperium.
The via dolorosa that lies ahead of the United States will almost certainly include the dollar's replacement as the world's reserve currency, the recognition that the South China Seas are no longer navigable by the US Navy, the acceptance that Africa has effectively been colonized by China, and the possible swallowing of Ukraine by Russia and Taiwan by China. Americans should brace themselves for a century of humiliating setbacks if the US continues on its current path. So, how are these changes going to play out in a culture and government that is already highly divided?
An comparison may be drawn between the British Empire and the three-and-a-half decades of mourning experienced by Britons after India's independence in 1947. Within a generation and a half, the world's biggest empire had been reduced to a dispute with Argentina over the Falkland Islands. Empires build and fall more quickly in modern history than in ancient history, so what can Britain's loss of Empire teach us about America's potential decline and collapse?
The Kübler-Ross Grief Cycle—the five-stage process by which humans deal with disaster, grief, and a rising realization of impending death—provides a good method of understanding how Britons gradually adjusted to their postwar loss of power and status. If America continues along her chosen road of impotence and retreat, the British people's journey through those five stages of mourning will have tremendous ramifications for her.
The first stage of the Kübler-Ross Cycle is Denial, which was the British government's immediate reaction to the loss of the imperial gem. Despite Clement Attlee's Labour government's doctrinal anti-imperialism, it demanded that India remain a part of the British Commonwealth (as it was still known at the time) and a member of the Western anti-Communist axis. Indeed, the Commonwealth, which was formed in December 1931 but was not regarded seriously until 1947, might be considered as a bribe to a populace still reeling from the loss of Empire.
America is already in the Denial stage of appreciating the loss of power overseas. President Biden’s speeches and press conferences at the time of the coalition’s over-hasty and humiliating scuttle from Afghanistan betray a psychology symptomatic of the first stage of the Kübler-Ross cycle. “Last night in Kabul,” Biden announced in the White House State Dining Room on August 31st, “the United States ended 20 years of war in Afghanistan—the longest war in American history. We completed one of the biggest airlifts in history, with more than 120,000 people evacuated to safety. … No nation has ever done anything like it in all of history. Only the United States had the capacity and the will and the ability to do it, and we did it today.”
In fact, plenty of nations have the capacity, will, and ability to lose wars, but the United States had not done it since Vietnam. And as Biden’s speeches and actions have subsequently shown, his administration is in denial about the message that defeat at the hands of the Taliban sends to vacillating allies and jubilant antagonists alike.
The Suez Crisis of 1956, which occurred less than a decade after the loss of India, jolted Britain out of its Denial stage. The Kübler-Ross Cycle's second stage is Anger, and Anthony Eden's invasion of—and subsequent departure from—the Canal Zone was emblematic of a larger anger over Britain's waning status on the international arena. The United States' participation in forcing Britain's humiliating withdrawal following a successful military operation underscored the new international order, and drove many Conservatives, like Enoch Powell, into a barren cul-de-sac of lifelong anti-Americanism. The League of Empire Loyalists, which disrupted political meetings in the early 1960s, reflected the discontent in British politics. Its members were furious that after Suez and the independence of Sudan, the Conservatives no longer considered itself the party of Empire.
The capacity for anger in modern American politics hardly needs emphasising since the appalling scenes at the Capitol on January 6th, 2021. The mid-term elections in November 2022 may see at least some outpouring of anger over American loss of hegemony. It will be the first time that large sections of the American electorate have gone to the polls since the Afghan catastrophe. Anger with the Democrats will likely result in their loss of the House of Representatives and the relegation of Biden to lame-duckery.
In the 1960s, Britain reached the third stage of the Kübler-Ross Cycle, Negotiation, when she took the sensible decision to ally with the United States, or, as Harold Macmillan put it, to strive to be Greece to America's Rome. The roots of a new post-Churchill Special Relationship were his friendship with President Kennedy and his backing during the Cuban Missile Crisis. This was a natural reaction to the Suez disaster, and Harold Wilson and Edward Heath's unwillingness to be lured into Vietnam did not detract from it.
It remains to be seen what the United States will do in her Negotiation stage. Certainly, she starts at a disadvantage because President Biden is not as good a diplomatic negotiator as President Xi of China or Russian President Putin, both of whom seem to outmanoeuvre him repeatedly. It is therefore doubtful that the United States can negotiate with her opponents and rivals successfully in an effort to defend a rules-based world order once she is eclipsed as the world’s pre-eminent superpower.
In the 1970s, when Britain entered the Kübler-Ross Depression stage, she did so with a comprehensive bipartisan commitment to national collapse. She was depressed in both the spiritual and somatic aspects. Because of socialism and the pathos-laden Heathite Conservative response to it, she feared sliding into the third rung of international powers, both economically and in terms of reputation. OPEC oil price trebling, IRA violence and internment in Northern Ireland, a miners' strike that resulted in power cuts and a three-day week, stagflation, price and income caps, and trade union militancy that endangered the supremacy of Parliament all occurred during that bleak decade. The worst (and longest-lasting) development of the decade occurred when Britain abandoned the Commonwealth and joined the EEC in 1973. Only a country suffering from acute melancholy, self-doubt, and historical forgetfulness could pull this off.
When the United States recognizes that it no longer matters in the world as it once did, that key allies are distancing themselves and flirting with China, that the global organizations erected by Bretton Woods and Dumbarton Oaks no longer guarantee her primacy, and that there is little she can do about it, then depression will hit America. It will leave her confused, morose, and liable to turn in on herself politically. It will be an ugly time.
The fifth and final stage of the Cycle, Acceptance, was adopted by Britain in the 1980s. Margaret Thatcher was nearly solely responsible for this. The tragic slide and capitulation since Suez looked to be halted by the Falklands War, and the magnificent Cold War success, thanks in part to her tight friendship with Ronald Reagan, ultimately gave closure after the loss of Empire. Despite the fact that she would never be the dominant power again, Britain's replacement by a close ally was acceptable because the Special Relationship had shown to be beneficial to both nations as well as the rest of the globe in ridding the world of Soviet Communism.
For modern America, however, acceptance of decline cannot have any sense of closure because the successor-state is totalitarian. Every precept of National Socialist China is entirely antithetical to American values. Britain’s successor-state shared her language, common law, liberal principles, free market, and outlook. The United States can take no such comfort when peering into her post-imperial future. So, America’s final Acceptance stage is fraught with far greater dangers than the other four put together. The Free World really will have met its “time when the locusts feed.”
Is all this inevitable? Not if the United States can grasp the leadership of the West once more instead of wallowing in self-destructive and profoundly decadent obsessions with its own faults, real and imagined. The United States ought to heed the words of Winston Churchill during the Munich Debate of October 5th, 1938. The people, he said, should be told that “we have sustained a defeat without a war, the consequences of which will travel far with us along our road; they should know that we have passed an awful milestone in our history … And do not suppose that this is the end. This is only the beginning of the reckoning. This is only the first sip, the first foretaste of a bitter cup which will be proffered to us year by year unless by a supreme recovery of moral health and martial vigour, we arise again and take our stand for freedom as in the olden time.”
President Biden has previously said that he does not comprehend or appreciate the significance of those comments at this time. For the time being, Americans are consumed with navel-gazing about Critical Race Theory and continuously rehashing slavery, even though it was abolished 158 years ago. Hopefully, before China seizes Taiwan, Putin seizes Ukraine, and Iran obtains nuclear weapons, the US will reject Acceptance of her eclipse and embrace her own supreme revival of moral health and martial strength.