As the U.S. bond rating falls and the stock market plunges, the American Century looks to be well and truly over. While this has provoked no small amount of hand-wringing, Americans may soon come to enjoy no longer bearing the responsibility for running the world's indispensable nation.
The signs of decline are everywhere. Illegal immigrants are heading back home in search of a better life. China already leads the world in green technology and is about to become the world's biggest economy in terms of purchasing power. Two U.S.-led wars are dragging toward an end charitably described as: mission not completely failed. The United States was able to avoid default only by stopping pretty much all other government business for several weeks. And it's not only U.S. political and economic preeminence that is deteriorating, but its cultural hegemony: India's Bollywood and Nigeria's Nollywood are each producing more films a year than Hollywood (to say nothing of their superior artistic quality).
Of course, the United States still possesses greater military strength than any other country in the world. But what good has being the world's policeman done for Americans? Wielding that might meant the United States saw more combat deaths overseas last year than any other country, according to data from Uppsala University. Beyond the blood is the treasure: U.S. military spending increased 81 percent between 2001 and 2010 and now accounts for 43 percent of the global total -- six times its nearest rival, China. The U.S. military burden is equivalent to 4.8 percent of GDP, the largest economic burden of any OECD country.
It is no coincidence that the man who coined the term "imperial overstretch," Yale University historian Paul Kennedy, is British. Britain was the last country to get knocked off the top spot, after all -- and the United States could learn a lot from its experience.
Britain spent much of the 1950s pretending it was still a global power, which resulted in one of the country's grimmest decades -- food was still rationed until 1954. This exercise in delusion culminated in Britain's attempt to occupy the Suez Canal in 1957, an effort that was scuttled by the world's new ascendant power, the United States.
But it was only a year after the Suez crisis signaled the end of Britain's global reach that British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan declared his compatriots "never had it so good." He was right: Average incomes, health indicators, and levels of education were all far better than in the glory days when Britannia ruled the seas. Then, after Britain gave up on empire -- decolonizing across Africa and Asia in the early 1960s -- they got the Beatles, the Mini, and free love.
Britain may still go on about "punching above its weight" in international affairs, and it has kept some of the trappings of great-power status, such as a seat on the U.N. Security Council and a small flotilla of nuclear submarines, but its burdens are significantly less momentous. Freed from the distractions of colonial oversight and global leadership, it could retire its planet-spanning chain of military bases, shrink the Royal Navy, and devalue the pound without fears that the world would come to an end. And the country learned to collaborate without feeling equal status was a slight to its dignity -- joining the European Union, for example, and signing the Kyoto Protocol.