Fear Factor: The Illusion of American Decline
At their conventions last month, both the Republican and Democratic parties declared that the United States is not in decline. The very fact that they felt compelled to deny such a claim, however, reveals the degree to which the issue has become part of the domestic political debate over America’s role in the world. Republican nominee Mitt Romney has cited the high rate of unemployment (above 8 percent) and slow economic growth (1.7 percent) as evidence that President Barack Obama is indeed presiding over an American decline, one that Romney claims he would reverse. Democrats reply that these numbers represent short-run problems and reflect the fact that recovery from financial crises is slower than recovery from ordinary recessions. Obama responded to the charge of American decline by proclaiming that “if anyone tries to tell you our greatness is past, that America is in decline, you tell them this: Like the 20th century, the 21st century will be another great American century.”
Once the electoral dust settles, and no matter who is president, what will be the status of American power in global politics? Conventional wisdom, reflected in current polls at home and abroad, is that American power is indeed in decline. But such polls tell us more about psychology than about power. After all, in the 1960s, a majority of Americans thought the Soviets were 10 feet tall. Then in the 1980s, it was the Japanese who were going to eat our lunch. Today it is China. It is worth remembering that in the 18th century, after Britain lost its American colonies, Horace Walpole lamented that Britain had been reduced to insignificance, on a par with Sardinia or Denmark—this on the eve of an industrial revolution that produced Britain’s greatest century. The 20th century produced an unprecedented American primacy in which 5 percent of the world’s population controlled a quarter of the world’s product, nearly half its military expenditure and enormous soft power resources ranging from Harvard to Hollywood.
Will it last? Certainly not in the form it took in the last century. In his recent book, The Obamians, James Mann argues that “the Vulcans of the Bush era reflected a belief in overwhelming American power, one that was linked to the years immediately after the end of the Cold War…. Obama’s time in office has marked the beginning of a new era in America’s relations with the rest of the world, an era when American primacy is no longer taken for granted.” Whether Mann is correct that 2003 represented the outer limits of American power or simply another turn in popular cycles of hubris and declinism cannot be known at this time, but as I argue in The Future of Power, the 21st century is encountering two major power shifts to which American leaders will have to adjust. One is power transition among countries, from West to East, and the other is power diffusion from governments to nongovernmental actors, regardless of East or West.
This power transition is sometimes called the rise of Asia, but it should more properly be called the return of Asia and the rise of the rest. What we will see in this century is the recovery of Asia to its normal—that is, historical—proportions, representing more than half of the world’s population and more than half of the world’s product. Power diffusion is best understood in terms of the way technologies, and particularly information technology, are affecting the costs and reducing the barrier to entry of participating in international affairs. What this means is that capabilities once restricted to very large organizations like governments or corporations are now available to anyone, and this has a significant impact on world politics. It does not mean that governments are being replaced or that the nation-state is obsolete. Rather, it means that the stage on which governments act is now crowded with many more smaller actors.
Regarding the issue of power transition from West to East, the Bush administration did not ignore Asia, but neither did it focus resources or attention on the fastest-growing part of the globe. Instead, partly in reaction to Sept. 11 and partly because of the Bush Doctrine of preempting state sponsorship of terrorism, in the first decade of this century the United States spent the largest part of its resources on one of the poorest parts of the globe. In 2011, the Obama administration announced that it would “pivot” its foreign policy toward a greater concentration on Asia, though it later changed that unfortunate terminology to “refocus” so that Europe and the Middle East—regions the U.S. cannot afford to ignore—would not feel neglected.
In Asia, China will almost certainly pass the United States in the total size of its economy within a decade or so, but if one looks also at military and soft power resources, the United States is likely to remain more powerful than China for the next few decades. Why does it matter? Too much power can lead to hubris and mistaken strategy, but so can inaccurate perceptions about the distribution of power. When people are too worried about power transitions, they may overreact or follow strategies that are dangerous. The Peloponnesian War in which the Greek city-state system tore itself apart was caused by the rise in power of Athens and the fear it created in Sparta. Similarly, World War I, which destroyed the centrality of the European state system in the world a century ago, is often said to have been caused by the rise in power of Germany and the fear that created in Britain (though the causes were actually much more complex).
Some analysts predict that this will similarly be the story of power in the 21st century: The rise in power of China will create fear in the United States, which will lead to a great conflict, but that is bad history and a poor understanding of power for our century. By 1900, Germany had already passed Britain in industrial strength. In other words, the U.S. has more time than Britain had, and it does not have to be as fearful. If we are too fearful, both sides may overreact. The Chinese, thinking America is in decline, may push too hard, and Americans, fearing the rise of China, may overreact. That is the danger we face in power transition, and the best way to avoid it is by having a very clear-eyed view of all dimensions of power and how it is changing, while remembering that we do not have to be so fearful.
The other reason why it is important not to be too fearful is the diffusion of power. What we are seeing is that both China and the United States, and of course—Europe, Japan and others, will be facing a new set of transnational challenges—issues like climate change, transnational terrorism, cyber insecurity and pandemics. All these issues, which are going to be increasing in scale and importance in the future, are going to require cooperation. Obama’s 2010 National Security Strategy refers to the fact that we have to think of power as positive-sum, not just zero-sum. In other words, there may be times when it is good for the United States, and for the world, if Chinese power increases. Take, for example, China’s power to control its greenhouse gas emissions, the one area where China is an undoubted superpower. We should be eager to see China increase its capacities in that area. This is win-win. Similarly, many of the other new transnational challenges that we face are areas where we have to get away from just thinking about “power over” others and think about “power with” others. That is another reason why we do not want to become so fearful that we are not able to cooperate with China. Global leaders in the 21st century are facing a world that is going to be quite different than the world of the 19th or 20th centuries.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described the Obama administration’s policy as based on smart power, which combines hard and soft power resources. Indeed, she said we should not talk about a multipolar world, but rather about a multipartner world. This is a different approach to the future of power in the 21st century. At the time of the Great Depression, Franklin Roosevelt said, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” In the 21st century, leaders will have to educate their followers that, once again, fear itself is one of the most worrisome dangers we face. If we can keep a balanced appraisal of the distribution of power, and figure out ways to deal with these common challenges that we face, we can indeed have win-win situations. No matter who wins the election, a successful president will need to get away from our old ways of thinking about power and educate his followers about a broader understanding of power to be able to accommodate the changes that are going to occur in this 21st century.
The context of politics in this century is like a three-dimensional chess game in which interstate military power is highly concentrated in the United States; interstate economic power is distributed in a multipolar manner among the U.S., the European Union, Japan and the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa); and power over transnational issues like climate change, crime, terror and pandemics is highly diffused. Assessing the distribution of resources among actors varies with each domain. The world is not unipolar, multipolar or chaotic—it is all three at the same time. Thus a smart grand strategy must be able to handle very different distributions of power in different domains and understand the trade-offs between them. It makes no more sense to see the world through a purely realist lens that focuses only on the top chessboard of military power or a liberal institutional lens that looks primarily at the other boards. Contextual intelligence today requires a new synthesis of “liberal realism” that looks at all three boards at the same time. After all, in a three-level game, a player who focuses only on one board is bound to lose in the long run.
Power is the ability to affect others to obtain the outcomes one wants, and the new context of power in this century will require an understanding of how to exercise “power with” as well as “power over” other states. On issues arising on the top board of interstate military relations, an understanding of how to form alliances and balance power will remain crucial. But the best order of military battle will do little good in solving many of the problems on the bottom chessboard, such as pandemics or climate change, even though these issues can present threats to the security of millions of people on the order of magnitude of military threats that traditionally drive national strategies. Such issues will require cooperation, competent institutions and a pursuit of public goods from which all can benefit and none can be excluded.
Any net assessment of American power in the coming decades remains uncertain. There is always a range of possible futures, not just one. Regarding American power relative to China, much will depend on the uncertainties of future political developments in China. Barring a major setback, however, China’s size and high rate of economic growth will almost certainly increase its relative strength vis-a-vis the United States. This will bring it closer to the United States in power resources, but as Singapore’s Lee Kwan Yew has pointed out, it does not necessarily mean that China will surpass the U.S. as the most powerful country. Even if China suffers no major political or economic reversal, projections based on GDP growth alone are one-dimensional and ignore U.S. military and soft power advantages, as well as China’s geopolitical disadvantages in the internal Asian balance of power.
Looking to the future, Anne-Marie Slaughter has argued that America’s culture of openness and innovation will keep it central in a world where networks supplement, if not fully replace, hierarchical power. The United States is well-placed to benefit from such networks and alliances, if it follows smart strategies. It matters that the two entities in the world with per capita income and sophisticated economies similar to the American economy—Europe and Japan—are both allied to the United States. In traditional realist terms of balances of power resources, that makes a large difference for the net position of American power. In addition, in a more positive-sum view of “power with” rather than “power over” other countries, Europe and Japan provide the largest pools of resources for dealing with common transnational problems.
On the question of absolute rather than relative American decline, the United States faces serious problems in areas like debt, secondary education and political gridlock, but one should note that they are only part of the picture. Of the multiple possible futures, stronger cases can be made for the positive than the negative ones. America is at the forefront of new technologies like biotech, nanotech and the next generation of information tech. Moreover, new technologies are affecting American energy production as well as manufacturing potential. Among the negative futures, the most frightening is one in which the United States harms itself by overreacting to terrorist attacks or other external threats by closing inward and thus cutting itself off from the strength its obtains from openness.
But barring such mistaken strategies, in principle and over a longer term, there are solutions to the major American problems that preoccupy us today. Spending cuts and consumption taxes that pay for entitlements after the economy recovers can address long-term debt, for example; changes in redistricting procedures to reduce gerrymandering as well as changes in Senate procedural rules can help reduce political gridlock. Of course, such solutions may forever remain out of reach. But it is important to distinguish hopeless situations where there are no solutions from those which could in principle be relatively easily solved.
Decline is a misleading metaphor. America is not in absolute decline like ancient Rome, and in relative terms, there is a reasonable probability that it is likely to remain more powerful than any single state in the coming decades. We do not live in a “post-American world,” but neither do we live any longer in Henry Luce’s American century. In terms of primacy, the United States will be “first” but not “sole.” No one has a crystal ball, but the National Intelligence Council may be correct in its new report on the world in 2030: While the unipolar moment is over, the U.S. most likely will remain “primus inter pares” among the other great powers because of the multifaceted nature of its power and the legacies of its global leadership.
The U.S. will be faced with a rise in the power resources of many others global actors, both states and nonstate actors, as power shifts from West to East and diffuses from governments to nonstate actors. Americans will also face an increasing number of issues in which obtaining our preferred outcomes will require “power with” others as much as “power over” others. As a result, America’s capacity to maintain alliances and create networks will be an important dimension of our hard and soft power. The problem of America’s role in the 21st century is not one of a poorly specified “decline,” but rather of developing the contextual intelligence to understand that even the largest country cannot achieve the outcomes it wants without the help of others. Educating the public to both understand and operate successfully in the context of this 21st century global information age will be the real task for presidential leadership—no matter who wins the election.
This article was published in the October 9, 2012 issue of World Politics Review.