Sunday 19 Aug 2018 | 10:09 | SYDNEY
Sunday 19 Aug 2018 | 10:09 | SYDNEY

US decline: Is the media the message?


Sam Roggeveen


7 January 2009 13:59

I'm broadly sympathetic to Michael Fullilove's argument against American declinism in today's Sydney Morning Herald. I remain open to the idea that, largely as a result of China's rise, America's unipolar moment has passed. But as Michael says, the evidence and arguments for decline remain pretty shaky at this point.

Still, I would take issue with one part of Michael's column, in which he claims the massive international attention on US politics as evidence against the declinist thesis:

If America is in decline, why did so many non-Americans watch this year's presidential election so intently - often as closely as they follow their own national politics? Speeches, debates and vice-presidential picks were immediately dissected in newspaper columns and blogs published in every language. Everyone had a view on Wilmington and Wasilla.

Is the world similarly on the edge of its seat as it monitors the subtle shifts in influence within the State Council in Beijing? Are young people excited about the dynamic developing between the Russian President, Dmitry Medvedev, and his Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, in Moscow - or are they only concerned? Did our television networks interrupt their ordinary programming to bring us the result when the Brazilian President, Lula da Silva, was re-elected? Will we enjoy wall-to-wall coverage when Indians go to the polls this year?

A couple of points here. First of all, it is possible to believe in American decline and simultaneously to acknowledge that America remains the largest world power. Both things could be true, so the inordinate attention on the US election does not necessarily disprove the declinist thesis.

Second, media and public interest may not be very good indicators of international power shifts anyway. US politics is seemingly more gripping for the global audience than its Chinese equivalent, but isn't that largely down to the competitiveness and transparency of the US system compared to the Chinese politburo? There's just far more to report. Then there are the huge investments news networks around the world have made in reporting from Washington. There could be an institutional inertia there that will see the proportion of news coverage lag behind any US decline.