Is the world balance of power shifting away from the West and moving to India and China? That’s what a number of geopolitical sages are discussing in think tanks from Moscow to Beijing to London to Washington.

In a joint SOS piece in the November-December issue of Foreign Affairs, former U.S. Deputy Treasury Secretary Roger Altman and the President of the Council on Foreign Relations Richard Haass, warned U.S. leaders to curb "the current debt addiction — or global capital markets will do it for them." An age of austerity and draconian belt tightening — and sudden decline in U.S. power – is upon us. Gridlocked Congress, fiscal train wreck, climbing without a rope, all the stuff of headlines the world over.

The political move to center stage of satirical humorist Jon Stewart with his mass "Rally to Restore Sanity" is seen by some as throwback to the collapse of Germany’s post-World War I Weimar Republic.

But where can the United States afford to disengage and leave heavy geopolitical lifting to regional powers? In some key areas, U.S. power remains indispensable for the indefinite future. The Persian Gulf and its huge oil resources are at the top of the list.

North Korea, faced with total economic collapse, is unpredictable and makes a U.S. Army division-plus an indispensable tripwire in South Korea. Everything else is marginal — and debatable.

America’s global military footprint (outside of Iraq and Afghanistan) tops $250 billion a year. There are still 200 U.S. military facilities in Germany 65 years after World War II. U.S. military hospitals for U.S. casualties in transit from Afghanistan and Iraq as an intermediary stage home are important. All else is marginal. If CENTCOM and SOCOM can be in Tampa, Fla., why not EUCOM in Norfolk, Va., where NATO’s Atlantic command is based?

World War II hastened the end of the British Empire but it took several decades to manage its decline. The partition of India and the creation of Pakistan in 1947 triggered a bloodbath that took 1 million lives.

There were several more last gasps of empire before a British government decided in October to live within its means, slashing defense to where it could no longer be used to defend the Falkland Islands against another Argentine invasion, as it did successfully in 1982.

In the mid-1950s, British-controlled Aden was the world’s largest bunkering port, servicing traffic in and out of the Red Sea and Suez Canal. But in 1967, Britain took another drubbing as it exited Aden, then, a year later, London, under Laborite Harold Wilson, gave up all its commitments and obligations east of Suez, from the canal to the Persian Gulf to Singapore. It took another 10 years to turn over Hong Kong to its original owner.

From Oman, at the entrance to the Persian Gulf, all the way up to Kuwait, Britain kept the peace until 1972 with the British officered "Trucial Oman Scouts" for a total annual outlay of $40 million. The Nixon Doctrine succeeded Pax Britannica in the gulf and the Shah of Iran became America’s proxy.

Instead, the shah was overthrown in 1979 and a hostile, obscurantist religious dictatorship has kept the rest of the gulf in psychological thrall ever since.

The French empire unraveled with 16 years of rearguard fighting (1946-54; 1954-62) — eight years in Indochina, followed by a six-month break before another eight years of warfare in Algeria. World War II hero Charles de Gaulle rode to the rescue and managed decline by putting France on the road to modernity — with nuclear weapons and a new high-tech vision of the future (that produced the Caravel and the supersonic Concorde).

Is the time at hand for a new leader to manage the decline of the modern American empire? Iraq was clearly an expensive geopolitical illusion, a weird concoction of motives, inspired by neocons who thought they were making Israel more secure.

Precisely the opposite was achieved. Seven years and $1 trillion later, Iran now has more influence in Iraq than the United States. Its agents are also dropping off the occasional million-dollar bundle to keep Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s chief of staff sweet and compliant.

Psychologically, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is more beholden to Tehran these days than to Washington. After the United States coughed up $1 trillion it didn’t have to fight the Iraq War, Baghdad still has less electric power today than it had under Saddam Hussein.

None of our modern knuckle-headed empire builders, who thought they perceived Israel’s interests more clearly than the rest of the country, understood that Saddam Hussein, albeit a cruel dictator, was our best defense against Iranian expansionism.

In 1980, Saddam had taken on the evil empire next door. But Iran’s obscurantist zealots used teenagers with golden keys to paradise to walk across Iraqi minefields and a million dead and eight years later, the two gulf giants fought themselves to a Mexican standoff.

The decline of the American empire may be hastened by another war in the gulf — this time triggered by Israeli and/or U.S. bombs on Iran’s nuclear installations. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad appears to be pushing his luck by moving Iran’s frontiers to Israel’s borders — with Hezbollah to the north in Lebanon, Syria to the east and Hamas in Gaza to the south.

Iran’s medieval hawks have convinced themselves an asymmetrical gulf war would speed up the end of what they call "American imperial colonialism."

The burdens of a global Pax Americana have shunted domestic priorities off center stage. Long postponed and now increasingly urgent infrastructure projects are pending.

Bridges, roads, railroads, airports (from runways to terminals to air traffic control), schools, hospitals, all have deteriorated to what author Arianna Huffington’s new book describes in the title — "Third World America." Some $1 trillion worth of urgent infrastructure is in arrears.

The once acclaimed Acela Express in the eastern corridor is an embarrassing joke next to the high speed trains of Europe, Japan and China. A bullet train that covers the equivalent mileage of Washington-New York in 90 minutes made its debut last week on China’s rapid rail network of 4,617 miles.

At the same time, the United States is awash with unemployed — pushing 18 million if one includes those who have given up looking and whose benefits have run out. Surely this points to a domestic Marshall Plan for a high-tech renaissance. But the current political rumblings — from the Tea Party to ultra-liberal kibitzing — leave little hope for a quiescent phase of historical reawakening.

Meanwhile, China continues to spread its worldwide influence — without the military. Its new supercomputer just beat America’s, with a speed of 1.4 quadrillion operations per second.

Arnaud de Borchgravea member of the Atlantic Council, is a senior fellow at CSIS and Editor-at-Large at UPI. This article was syndicated by UPI. Photo Credit: UPI.