Great powers come and go. For more than six decades the United States has been the world's dominant power. Seventy years ago, Great Britain—with its vast empire—was the world's greatest power. Is the United States following Britain's path to decline, to be replaced by another power? Are we seeing the first stages?
by Melvin Rhodes
One of the consequences of the financial upheaval of the past 18 months is that Europe is now richer than North America. The accumulated national wealth of North Americans has dropped by 21.8 percent while Europe's fell by only 5.8 percent, "down to 22.2 trillion euros—a quarter of the globe's total wealth" ("Europe Now Richer Than North America," BusinessWeek, Sept. 16, 2009).
Since great wealth is necessary for global power, could Europe be on the verge of taking over from the United States?
Bible prophecy shows that a new, European centered superpower will exist immediately before Jesus Christ's return. It will be a great commercial system whose trade dominates the world.
It's no coincidence that all 27 member countries of the European Union have signed the Lisbon Treaty, uniting Europe more than ever before with its own president and foreign minister collectively representing all member nations.
Its currency, the euro, is now valued at 1½ times the U.S. dollar and is used by more people. With more than 500 million citizens, the EU is the world's biggest single market and by far the world's greatest trading power. Having now surpassed the United States in economic power, could it soon replace America as the world's foremost political and military power?
Lessons from a fallen empireThere's a lesson for the United States in the memory of some still living.
Few people alive today can remember a time when the world was dominated by the British, but that's the way things were before World War II. After fighting alone against the Third Reich for two years (assisted only by forces from Commonwealth countries), the British were joined by the Soviets when Germany attacked them in June 1941. Another six months would pass before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, which brought America into the war.
Americans expected that their boys would all return home after the war, just as they had done after World War I. U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt told British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin that American troops would leave Europe two years after the war's end. No one expected U.S. forces to stay longer. But American troops still remain in Europe 65 years later!
What change led to American troops remaining in Europe? Quite simply, Britain was broke! London was not able to return to the role it had held for two centuries, the task of policing the world. Such a role requires great wealth. After fighting two world wars in just over three decades, the British did not have the funds for foreign commitments and could no longer support their allies around the globe.
This wasn't apparent immediately after the war ended in 1945. The British Empire remained intact. Some British possessions in the Far East had been conquered by Japan, but all voluntarily returned to British rule.
In his 2008 book Picking Up the Reins, which describes the transition of superpower status from Great Britain to the United States, historian Norman Moss states: "British atlases showed a quarter of the earth either ruled by Britain or linked to it in the Commonwealth. Britain ruled directly much of Asia and most of Africa and it was the dominant power in the Arab world" (p. 27).
Other European powers did not fare so well. The Dutch soon lost Indonesia, and the French had to fight a prolonged war in Indochina.
"A catastrophe scarcely thinkable"One of America's most respected historians, James Truslow Adams, wrote a book titled The British Empire 1784-1939 in 1940—the crucial year of the Battle of Britain, an airborne struggle for survival, when the future of the world depended on Britain holding out against an attempted Nazi invasion.
At the end of the book, he wrote the following warning to his fellow Americans: "The possible overthrow of the British Empire would be a catastrophe scarcely thinkable. Not only would it leave a vacuum over a quarter of the globe into which all the wild winds of anarchy, despotism and spiritual oppression would rush, but the strongest bulwark outside ourselves for our own safety and freedom would have been destroyed" (p. 358).
It certainly seemed that the preservation of the Empire intact was in the best interests of the United States and other nations.
One year after the war, the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff similarly advised: "The defeat or disintegration of the British Empire would eliminate from Eurasia the last bulwark of resistance between the US and Soviet expansion...Our present position as a world power is of necessity closely interwoven with that of Britain" (quoted by Moss, p. 64).
On top of financing their empire—which included a quarter of the world's people—the British were also soon embroiled in a war against communists in Greece, where Britain stationed 9,000 troops to support the anticommunist forces and had given 40 million pounds in financial assistance in the months following World War II.
But by February 1947, in the middle of the harshest winter on record, the British could no longer afford to support Greece. A cabinet meeting on Feb. 18 led to London asking Washington to take over, announcing that aid to Greece "would stop on March 31. It was accompanied by another note saying Turkey also needed help and Britain could not provide it" (p. 62).
Although few comprehended it at the time, this change was truly momentous. "For two centuries Britain had been the dominant power in the eastern Mediterranean. Now it seemed to be surrendering that role in two key countries.
"It is often said that Americans lack a historical sense that Europeans have, but on this occasion it was the Americans who saw the historical significance of that moment. To British ministers, battling from day to day to keep the country's head above water, this seemed to be just a temporary retrenchment in one area. None of them appeared to see any larger implications in the decision.
"The American view was put in grandiloquent terms by Joseph M. Jones, who was in the State Department at the time: ‘Reading the messages, [it was] realized...that Great Britain had within the hour handed the job of world leadership, with all its burdens and all its glory, to the United States" (p. 64, emphasis added throughout).
The date was Feb. 21, 1947—the day the United States effectively replaced Great Britain as the world's global superpower.
Changing roles prophesied"And thus he set Ephraim before Manasseh," reads Genesis 48:20. In this passage of Scripture, the patriarch Jacob, whom God had renamed Israel, prophesied that the descendants of his two grandsons, the sons of Joseph, would "become a multitude of nations" and a great nation. This prophecy was fulfilled in the British Empire and Commonwealth (the multitude of nations) and in the United States (the great single nation), which broke away from the empire. Ephraim, the multitude of nations, was to be great before Manasseh.
Ephraim, the younger brother, was foretold to be greater than Manasseh (verse 19). Without any knowledge of the biblical significance of the moment, Dean Acheson, then undersecretary at the U.S. Department of State, said that "Britain was so weakened financially that there were now only two great powers in the world. Not since Rome and Carthage, he said, had there been such a polarization of power, and it was between democracy and dictatorship" (Moss, p. 68).
Rome and Carthage were major rivals before the time of Christ. Will Clayton, assistant secretary of State, in May 1947 summed up the situation with these words: "The reins of world leadership are slipping from Britain's competent but now very weak hands. These reins will be picked up either by the United States or Russia."
Both men realized that the United States already had a major rival in the Russian-dominated Soviet Union, something the British had not had to contend with.
Britain had enjoyed unrivalled global power during the time of the "Pax Britannica"— between the fall of Napoleon and World War I a century later. In relative terms, the United States was to be less dominant, as Bible prophecy had foretold.
It wasn't until the collapse of the Soviet Union and its communist allies in Europe more than 40 years later that the United States would enjoy unrivalled power. But even then it was brief. Now facing mounting financial problems, Washington has to contend with the rising power of China and may soon have to deal with a resurgent Europe.
Just as global power passed from Britain to America, could power now pass from America to Europe?
God controls the rise and fall of nationsThe Bible tells us that God intervenes to bring about the rise and fall of nations. In Daniel 2:21 we read that "He changes the times and the seasons; He removes kings and raises up kings."
In the same chapter, Daniel asked God to help him interpret the cryptic dream of King Nebuchadnezzar. In verse 19 God revealed its meaning to him. Nebuchadnezzar, ruler of Babylon, the world's greatest power at the time, came to understand that after Babylon would come another great power, then another and another. Eventually, the last of these powers would be replaced by the Kingdom of God, a world government directly ruled by God that will put an end to the present misrule of man.
Daniel himself had a similar vision in chapter 7 giving more detail. Babylon, where Daniel lived for almost seven decades as a Jewish exile following the invasion of his own country, would lose its preeminence to Persia. In turn, Persia would lose its position to Greece, and then Greece would lose its to Rome. The prophecies revealed to Daniel in the sixth century before Christ were fulfilled in the centuries that followed.
The supremacy of Britain with its empire and then the United States of America was prophesied for "the last days" (Genesis 49:1). However, at the time immediately before the end, preceding the second coming of Jesus Christ, there is to rise a revived and renewed Roman Empire—the new world superpower mentioned earlier.
How could the United States lose its power?British historian Paul Kennedy, who now lectures at Yale, wrote his monumental book The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers in 1987. In it, looking back to the year 1500, he showed that the qualities that lead to nations' rising to power and the reasons for their decline and fall have certain commonalities —debt and imperial overreach.
Just as the British Empire collapsed due to debt and an overstretched military, so the United States faces the same problems today. It cannot field enough troops for all its military commitments, and debt is a crucial and growing problem. No nation in the history of the world has ever accumulated debts as great as those of the United States—and certainly not in so short a time!
As The Economist recently observed: "For years America's fiscal problems had a surreal quality. No one disputed that an aging population and health-care inflation could bust the budget, but that prospect was decades away and procrastination seemed painless.
"No longer. A giant hole has opened in the budget because of stimulus, bailouts and a recession that has savaged economic growth and tax revenue. On current policies the publicly held federal debt, 41% of GDP last year, will double in the next decade. Total government debt will move well above the G20 average" ("Dealing With America's Fiscal Hole," Nov. 21, 2009).
Only a generation ago the United States was in such sound financial condition that it was the world's greatest lender. No longer. Due to its profligate spending, now it is the most indebted nation in history!
Massive problems loom in financing Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid as tens of millions of baby boomers retire in the coming years. Some economic experts estimate that, when these unfunded liabilities are factored in, America's true national debt is greater than $50 trillion—approximately half a million dollars for every U.S. household!
Inevitably, defense spending will be impacted by America's enormous debt load, just as it was with Great Britain six decades ago. As another Economist article titled "Stemming the Tide" reports, "Defence and discretionary items represent just a third of spending, and Mr Obama has already planned to shrink both in nominal dollars by 2014, as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (with luck) wind down and the stimulus expires" (Nov. 21, 2009).
Rising costs for health careInterestingly, even the administration's plans for a government-run health-care system parallel the United Kingdom after World War II. At the very time when the country was exhausted and broke after fighting two global conflicts, "the British Government was determined to soldier on and not be deflected from its course by Britain's straitened [limited] economic circumstances. In April 1948 it introduced the National Health Service, despite Opposition arguments that the country could not afford it. This was at the center of its welfare program" (Moss, pp. 159-160).
The initial estimated cost was minor compared to the eventual (and still rising) cost. By 1956, a crucial year in the country's decline and fall from global power, "a new generation was finding its voice, people who were prouder of the National Health Service than of the British Empire" (p. 199).
The Economist article "Stemming the Tide" hints at the increased financial burden that will come on the United States as it, too, embraces universal health care. "Mr Obama had long planned that his health reform would not just cover the uninsured but also stop the long-term growth in health costs. In the bills currently in Congress, that second goal may be out of reach. Although Mr Obama insists that the reform will not raise the deficit, it will still absorb some of the revenue that could have been used to reduce it."
A Nov. 14, 2009, article in The New York Times reported China's concerns about U.S. government health-care plans. It's not that the Chinese are concerned about the medical care of Americans. Rather, they are concerned about the burgeoning U.S. deficit, as they are the ones financing most of it.
The article described Obama's visit to China as "assuming the role of profligate spender coming to pay his respects to his banker" and indicated that American domestic policies may have to first gain Chinese approval. "Like any banker," the article notes, the Chinese want "evidence that the United States [has] a plan to pay them back."
It reports that "in a July meeting, Chinese officials asked their American counterparts detailed questions about the health care legislation making its way through Congress...They wanted to know, in painstaking detail, how the health care plan would affect the deficit" (Helene Cooper, Michael Wines and David Sanger, "China's Role as Lender Alters Dynamics for United States").
Commenting on this trip, a Nov. 16, 2009, Canada Free Press article warned: "Obama's socialist spending spree does not simply come at the expense of America[n] freedoms, it explicitly puts China in charge of American policy. The price for universal health care will not simply be paid by Americans, it will be paid for by American allies in Asia" (Daniel Greenfield, "Obama in China and Twilight for America").
Just as Britain was unable to send any more financial and military support to Greece in 1947, so it appears the United States will be unable to help traditional allies around the world. And the American military empire will inevitably follow the British Empire into history.
Historian Niall Ferguson recently wrote: "This is how empires decline. It begins with a debt explosion. It ends with an inexorable reduction in the resources available for the Army, Navy, and Air Force. Which is why voters are right to worry about America's debt crisis. According to a recent Rasmussen report, 42 percent of Americans now say that cutting the deficit in half by the end of the president's first term should be the administration's most important task—significantly more than the 24 percent who see health-care reform as the No. 1 priority.
"But cutting the deficit in half is simply not enough. If the United States doesn't come up soon with a credible plan to restore the federal budget to balance over the next five to 10 years, the danger is very real that a debt crisis could lead to a major weakening of American power" ("An Empire at Risk," Newsweek, Nov. 28, 2009).
Why Europe and not Asia?While many are warning that China will replace the United States as the world's dominant power, Bible prophecy shows otherwise—though it should be emphasized that the Scriptures strongly suggest that the revived European-centered Roman Empire will not last long.
Revelation 17:12 tells us that the leaders who will unite and surrender their national sovereignty to this new geopolitical force will "receive authority for one hour." An hour is symbolic of a short period of time.
The Bible also prophesies a great power rising in the Far East when it writes of massive military forces coming against the revived European power from beyond the Euphrates River (Revelation 9:14-16; 16:12). This could very well include China, perhaps in alliance with other regional powers.
China is a great power and is set to become even more powerful. However, its economy is closely tied to the United States and could be negatively affected by developments in America.
At the same time, there are serious concerns about its own banking system. "The current expansion in lending...risks creating China's own home grown banking crisis with a rise in non-performing bank loans...Chinese bank regulators are concerned that new lending is being used to finance real estate and stock market speculation rather than productive purposes" (Satyajit Das, "China: A Future That Was," eurointelligence.com, Nov. 20, 2009). Putting it simply, China is repeating America's mistakes!
In comparing the European Union and China, we should also note that, as an article in the Nov. 15, 2009, Sunday Times points out, the European Union's gross domestic product "is just behind that of the United States and China combined" (Matthew Campbell and Bojan Pancevski, "Europe Rises as the Modest Superpower").
The article continues: "Europe, however, also seems more secure and united than at any point in its blood-soaked history and the financial crisis may have served to strengthen that cohesion. The more regulated brand of capitalism favoured from France to Finland is now the preferred model for the rest of the world—including America—and countries are queuing up to gain admission to the protective fold of the EU.
"With 71,000 troops stationed beyond its borders, the EU can claim a military presence overseas second only to America's. It has led to Europe being hailed as ‘the modest superpower' by Newsweek magazine. Its rise can be seen in the increase in membership from 12 to 27 countries since 1989 and in the fading of tensions between old and young members. It is also evident in the way Europe has beaten America out of recession, led by the usual Franco-German motor."
Europe's long-term goal in sightThe European Union was formed by the Treaty of Rome in 1957. Its six founding members pledged themselves to form "an ever closer union." The Lisbon Treaty is the latest phase, creating a single political entity that overnight rivals the United States and China.
Its first president is Herman van Rompuy, who was prime minister of Belgium. Its first foreign minister is British Baroness Catherine Ashton. According to Wolfgang Munchau, writing in the Nov. 23, 2009, Financial Times, these two are just what the EU needs as it deals with "three fundamental problems": "an inability to set precise policy goals; poor follow-through; and perhaps most importantly, poor co-ordination and crisis management" ("Van Rompuy Is the Right Man for the Job").
In other words, these two will streamline the EU, making it more efficient and more effective and thereby more powerful.
To be clear, however, the EU is not the prophesied end-time power in its final, biblical form. Bible prophecy clearly states that 10 "kings"—we might call them presidents, premiers or prime ministers—will give their power and authority to a final supreme leader who rules over them all. What the EU has achieved is a powerful commercial and political system that places Europe in a position of global leadership. The final European power will likely emerge from this. Exactly how remains to be seen.
But Europe has come a long way, even in the five-plus years since T.R. Reid, former Washington Post London bureau chief, wrote his book The United States of Europe: The New Superpower and the End of American Supremacy.
"At the dawn of the twenty-first century," he wrote on the book's first page, "a geopolitical revolution of historic dimensions is under way across the Atlantic: the unification of Europe. Twenty-five nations [now 27] have joined together—with another dozen or so on the waiting list—to build a common economy, government, and culture. Europe is a more integrated place today than at any time since the Roman Empire" (2004).
Continuing, Mr. Reid wrote: "The new United States of Europe—to use Winston Churchill's phrase—has more people, more wealth, and more trade than the United States of America. The New Europe cannot match American military strength (and doesn't want to, for that matter). But it has more votes in every international organization than the United States, and it gives away far more money in development aid.
"The result is global economic and political clout that makes the European Union exactly what its leaders want it to be: a second superpower that can stand on equal footing with the United States."
Waiting to take the lead from WashingtonSince Reid's book came out, we've gone through the early stages of the international financial crisis, a transitional period that has seen Europe become richer relative to the United States. Whereas America has accumulated a record debt burden, Europe is solvent!
There's a great irony here. Great Britain established the 13 colonies that eventually became the United States, which, less than two centuries later, took over London's leadership role in the world. In a similar way, America forced the creation of a united Europe in its early stages through the Marshall Plan, a U.S. government aid project to get Europe moving again after World War II.
"The Marshall Plan...was a joint European-American program for restructuring the economies of western European countries and joining them more closely together, to set them on their feet, give them social and political stability, and make them once again trading partners on equal terms with the rest of the world. It achieved all of this. It also, with American pressure, sowed the seeds of the European Union" (Moss, p. 100).
Washington did not want to have to deal with 16 individual European countries all needing help, so it encouraged them to cooperate and work together economically. This fledgling project led to "an ever closer union" and today's European Union, now set to rival the United States—and will, just as Washington took over from London, eventually lead to Europe taking over Washington's leadership role in the world. GN
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