If the United States is heading for a future as just one of the world’s major powers, not the overwhelmingly dominant economic and military force it has been for the last century, what are the implications for US politics? Charles Kenny, in a recent post for Foreign Policy titled “Three Cheers for Decline” points out that after the U.K. accepted its diminished role in the world, following the end of the Suez crisis of 1957, Britons got the Beatles, the Mini, and better cooperation from abroad. Kenny quotes British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, who in the late 1950s declared his compatriots “never had it so good.” Macmillan was right on the data: Average incomes, health indicators, and levels of education were all far better than in the glory days of Britain’s global empire.
But that didn’t mean that either Macmillan or the UK were ready to settle into a happy decline. When a global hegemon downsizes to mere major power status, a lot of adjustments have to be made. The military not only needs to be downsized to meet new financial realities, but allies need to be found to take up the slack in global security, or chaos may reign. Promises of entitlements and public sector employments and benefits that were undertaken in the belief that resources would be ever-expanding need to be trimmed to levels that a less dominant economy can still afford. Although Macmillan began the downsizing of the British military and building an alliance with the US right after Suez, which would shift the burden of global security mainly to the US, the second task was put off and fell to Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. Under the “Iron Lady” the power of labor unions was significantly reduced, the public sector pruned, and the UK turned in a conservative direction for more than a decade.
Although more than a decade separated Macmillan and Thatcher, things happen faster today. Might it be the case that Obama plays a role similar to Macmillan, trying to downsize the military and reduce the global security role of the US through greater reliance on allies, but preserve American government social programs? Of course, Macmillan inherited a major economic upswing in the early 1960s, while Obama inherited a major depression, so that may account for the swifter shift. US politics may be moving toward a Republican platform of downsizing government spending, neutering unions, and reducing public sector promises, as many Americans come to believe we should retreat from spending and acting so much abroad, focus more on domestic issues, and pare back past government expansion. Rick Perry seems determined to run on that platform, and if elected President, to act much like Margaret Thatcher in the UK in shifting the tone of politics and the role of government in society.
Of course, Thatcher’s policies were much-hated by liberals, labor, and others who had benefitted from expansive social spending. But she prevailed nonetheless, and many people feel the UK emerged stronger and richer for it.
So could Rick Perry be the US’s Margaret Thatcher? It remains to be seen whether he has the intelligence, political skills, and policy success that distinguished the Iron Lady. But at the least, given the zeitgeist of the US, Perry should be taken very seriously as a candidate for President.