The western world has been riveted by the contest for the Democratic nomination between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. After the long winter of the Bush presidency, it is as if the spring that no one dared entertain, and many believed might never come, has finally arrived. Above all, the idea that the United States could seriously consider electing a black president has thrilled many. Even if his candidacy should fail, his campaign has given hope around the world that America has another face, that it is not reducible to Bush's extremism, or Bill Clinton's cynicism, or the big-money vested interests that dominate American politics. It offers the alluring possibility that race, in the form of the immovable prejudice of white Americans, the legacy of slavery and the destruction of the Amerindians, does not constitute an eternal closure, and thereby suggests hope for the world more generally.
We should not, though, let the euphoria of Obama's string of primary victories go to our heads, intoxicating as it may be. He may yet fail to win the Democratic nomination: while victory in the presidential election is another matter altogether. It is as well to bear in mind that, notwithstanding the convulsive and inspiring movements of the time, Richard Nixon ended up being elected as American president in 1968 – and John F. Kennedy, his brother Robert, and Martin Luther King, who between them defined the hopes of an era, were assassinated. Obama's popularity gives us hope, but America's dark days are not over. In this context, there is a broader intangible that we must contemplate – and which has barely surfaced in the primaries. The United States is descending into a serious recession; some recessions represent little more than punctuation or pauses but this one most certainly does not. It might be described as the first recession of a new era which is defined by American decline and the growing power of China.
The backdrop to Bush's victory in 2000 was provided by the defeat of the Soviet Union, the economic euphoria of Silicon Valley and the dot-com bubble, which led the neo-conservatives to believe that the new century would belong to the United States and that it could assert its power across the world in a quite new way.
In fact, the reverse was happening. The US was in decline and a new rival, China, was on the rise. The United States has not yet begun to think what this might mean. For certain, it will profoundly transform American politics, and the mood of its people, just as Europe has spent the last half-century trying to adjust to a world in which it is merely a secondary player. The vibrancy and optimism that characterise China and India in their rise is destined to be matched by introspection, heart-searching and a pervasive sense of gloom in the United States. The reality is that the US is utterly unprepared for the kind of material and existential crisis that it is likely to face over the next few decades, as it comes to terms with the fact that what it once could do, it no longer can, and what it once was, it no longer is. Great powers always find decline immensely painful and traumatic.
Is this a reason for pessimism? Not really. This, after all, is how history has always worked: no nation reigns forever. And the rise of China and India, between them representing almost 40 percent of the world's population, is a cause for celebration, not dismay: especially as for the last two centuries they have both suffered profoundly at the hands of the West. Their rise offers hope for the majority of the world's population as opposed to the small elite that is the West. New voices, cultures, ethnicities and traditions will belatedly achieve global representation. Such seismic changes, though, also carry with them great danger and uncertainty of the threat of new rivalries and tensions. We are moving into a new and very unpredictable world.
_Martin Jacques is a columnist for The Guardian and visiting research fellow at the Asia research centre at the London School of Economics.