The Declinists Are Wrong Again

By July 30, 2008

BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 47

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: It is premature to write the epitaph for American power and leadership. In contrast to popular argumentation, America continues to maintain a position of relative predominance, and despite an increasing diffusion of power, no single country has emerged as a plausible counterpart or peer competitor. Apart from the long-term possibility of China, none is likely to do so. Similarly, without minimizing the impact of domestic problems, it would be wise not to overstate the likelihood of American economic decline. Neither the rise of important regional powers, nor competition in a globalized world economy, nor “imperial overstretch,” nor domestic weakness are likely to have the transformative effects that new “declinists” postulate.

The Declinists Are Back

Scarcely a day goes by without yet another book, article, speaker or report asserting that America is in trouble. We are told that the rise of China and India, the recovery of Putin’s Russia and the expansion of the European Union signal a profound shift in geopolitical power. War and insurgency in Iraq and the tenacity of the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan are cited as evidence that military commitments are “breaking” the army. The leaders of Iran and North Korea vilify America and frustrate efforts to limit their nuclear programs. President Chavez of Venezuela, fortified by $130 per barrel oil, denounces Yankee imperialism and threatens to cut off oil shipments to the US. Meanwhile, opinion polls show widespread anti-American sentiment abroad.

On the domestic front, the subprime mortgage crisis, investment bank turmoil, a yawning balance of payments deficit, and the falling dollar lead to a warning that, “We are competing – and losing – in a global marketplace.” And America has become an “enfeebled” superpower, according to Fareed Zakaria, who adds that while the US will not be replaced in the foreseeable future, nevertheless, “Just as the rest of the world is opening up, America is closing down.”

The declinists’ central proposition holds that both the rise of other countries and an increasing degree of counterbalancing are transforming the international system and profoundly weakening the leading role of the United States in world affairs.

The new declinism rests not only on a global narrative, but it also makes an argument about fundamental domestic weaknesses. It points to the long-term burdens of entitlement programs, which will face large unfunded liabilities. Deficits in international trade and payments and the federal budget, a major credit crisis, collapse of the residential housing bubble and economic turbulence add to the list of troubles. Another clearly overdue task concerns the need to reduce dependence on imported oil and the resultant economic and security vulnerabilities. America’s infrastructure is aging and in need of repair and modernization. In addition, the effectiveness of government institutions may be less than optimal, as evident in the chaotic response to Hurricane Katrina, ongoing problems at the Department of Homeland Security, cumbersome interaction among intelligence agencies, and the need for more effective coordination of national security policy.

An Alternative Viewpoint

It is premature to write the epitaph for American power and leadership. In contrast to these arguments and analyses, America continues to maintain a position of relative predominance, and despite an increasing diffusion of power, no single country has emerged as a plausible counterpart or peer competitor. Apart from the long-term possibility of China, none is likely to do so.

Similarly, without minimizing the impact of domestic problems, it would be wise not to overstate the likelihood of fundamental economic decline. Current challenges are ultimately manageable and are likely to prove less daunting than those that afflicted the US economy in the mid- to late-1970s and early 1980s. It is worth reminding ourselves that the overall size and dynamism of the economy remains unmatched. Consider that America continues to lead on comparative measures of competitiveness, technology and innovation, for example ranking first in information technology and second (after Finland) in overall competitiveness. The US even ranks first in “space competitiveness.” Higher education and science represent another huge asset. America’s major research universities are outstanding in their international stature and rankings, occupying 17 of the top 20 places and 35 of the top 50. Noteworthy, 70 percent of the world’s Nobel Prize winners work in US institutions.

Broad demographic trends also favor the United States, whereas countries that are possible peer competitors face much more adverse patterns of aging populations. This is not only true for Russia, Europe, and Japan, but even China is affected as a result of its long-standing one child policy. America’s birthrate is consistently higher than in those countries and its population continues to grow through natural increase as well as immigration. Population patterns thus contribute to the long-term persistence of American predominance.

Militarily, no other country possesses anything like the capacity of the United States to project power on a global basis. American military technology remains unmatched, and even when foreign countries may achieve comparable quality in producing an individual type of modern weapon, none come close to parity in the overall systems applicable to land, sea or air warfare. While military spending is enormous in real terms, the defense budget amounts to approximately 4.2 percent of GDP. That contrasts with 6.6 percent at the height of the Reagan buildup and double digit percentages during the early and middle years of the Cold War. In short, the costs of national defense do not by themselves pose an imminent danger of overstretch.

Through the Decades

To put current critiques in context, it is important to note that declinist admonitions have a long history. Prophecies of gloom were not uncommon in earlier parts of the 20th century, especially during the 1930s and again during the Cold War, but their antecedents are as old as the founding of the United States itself. Late 18th and early 19th century European observers, especially royalists and reactionaries, commonly disparaged and discounted the American colonialists. British leaders made the mistake of underestimating what they were capable of achieving and lost much of the North American empire as a consequence. Jacobin and Napoleonic leaders condemned America for its materialism, treachery and plutocracy, and other foreign critics of American society ridiculed its bourgeois society, mercantile spirit, rough and ready manners and lack of high culture.

In the 1920s and 1930s, communist and fascist critics offered sweeping condemnations of the US. The 1930s saw not only foreign criticisms, but in the midst of the Depression with as much as one fourth of the labor force unemployed, there was deep domestic anxiety about whether American and Western capitalism and democracy were any longer viable. In the US as well as in Europe, significant numbers of public intellectuals embraced Soviet communism as the model best suited for the modern world.

At times during the Cold War, there were fears that the regimented and militarized Soviet Union, with its command economy and centralized planning might outpace the United States, both directly and in the contest for hearts and minds. The launch of Sputnik in October 1957 gave rise to anxieties that the US was falling behind not only in the space race, but also in the arms race and in educating young people in math and science. In response, John F. Kennedy waged his 1960 election campaign by criticizing the Eisenhower Administration’s lethargy and promising to get America moving again.

The 1970s saw two oil shocks and deep recessions, a humiliating withdrawal from Vietnam, victories by Soviet supported regimes or insurgent movements in sub-Saharan Africa and Nicaragua as well as in Indochina, revolution in Iran and the seizure of the US embassy there along with American hostages in a crisis lasting 444 days. Concerns about a flagging American economy, inflation, recession, and unemployment culminated in Jimmy Carter’s July 1979 “malaise” speech in which he warned of a crisis of the American spirit.

A leitmotif of the 1980s was the success of the Japanese model (“Japan as #1”) coupled with anxieties about American competitiveness. Also in the early 1980s, some strategists warned that a number of allied countries risked “Finlandization” as a result of Soviet pressure and the influence of domestic peace movements, and others cautioned that Soviet strategists might come to believe they could fight and win a nuclear war.

In 1987, Paul Kennedy’s bestseller, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, implied that the cycle of rise and decline experienced most recently by Great Britain and brought to an end by “imperial overstretch” might foreshadow the fate of the United States. Yet by the end of the decade, the Cold War had ended, the Soviet Union was on the threshold of collapse, the Japanese economic engine had stalled, and the US economy was launched on a two decade period in which its growth rate, competitiveness and job creation would far outpace those of the Europeans and Japanese.

Much of the new declinism seems propelled not only by arguments over real world events, but also by a fierce visceral reaction against the Bush presidency and its policies. For some, this antipathy at times seems to transcend concerns about the lethality of external threats, nuclear proliferation, and terrorism in the post-9/11 world. As with pessimistic assessments in reaction to the Depression of the 1930s, Vietnam, and the economic stagflation of the late 1970s and early 1980s, there is a tendency to over generalize from a momentous but singular event, in the present case the Iraq War. Much of the declinist case thus tends toward over-emphasis on reversible phenomena.

Dangerous external threats do exist, the most lethal of which is nuclear proliferation. Other international problems include failed states, the maintenance of a successfully functioning and globalized international economy, threats to stability in the Persian Gulf and wider Middle East, coping with state sponsors of terrorism, and diverse issues ranging from economic development to humanitarian intervention, AIDS, and the global environment. Most of these challenges require collective international efforts of some kind, but the United States has a unique role to play and few global problems can be solved, let alone managed, without significant American involvement. Other countries understand this absence of alternatives and its implications. This helps to explain why Europe, India, Japan and much of East Asia, and important countries of the Middle East, Africa and Latin America are not inclined to balance against America, but instead to maintain practical working relationships or alliances with it.

America’s Strength

Does the United States have the capacity to sustain the kind of international engagement that its own national interests as well as the maintenance of a more stable and decent world require? Ultimately, America’s underlying strengths matter much more than economic cycles, trade imbalances, or the ups and downs of anti-Americanism. These attributes include not only size, wealth, human and material resources, military strength, competitiveness, and liberal political/economic traditions, but also a remarkable flexibility, adaptability and dynamism. Time and again, especially in response to crises, the United States has demonstrated this capacity. And it has typically done so with extraordinary rapidity and on a vast scale, for example with wartime mobilization after the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor in 1941, the Manhattan Project to build the first atomic bomb, the Marshall Plan for European recovery after World War II, construction of the interstate highway program beginning in the mid-1950s, the massive expansion of higher education post-Sputnik, and the Apollo Program to put the first man on the moon.

In sum, neither the rise of important regional powers, nor competition in a globalized world economy, nor “imperial overstretch,” nor domestic weakness are likely to have the transformative effects that the new declinists postulate. Instead, the United States is unlikely to lose its position of international predominance anytime soon. Over the years, America’s staying power has been repeatedly underestimated – by condescending French and British aristocrats in the 18th century, by European powers at the time of the Civil War, and during the past 80 years by Imperial Germany, Imperial Japan, Adolf Hitler and Saddam Hussein, among others. Declinist forecasts in previous eras have been wrong, and it is a good bet that the current crop of declinists will prove to be similarly mistaken.

BESA Center Perspectives Papers are published through the generosity of the Littauer Foundation

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Prof. Robert J. Lieber

Prof. Robert J. Lieber is a professor of government and international affairs at Georgetown University.