The past decade has seen much commentary about the perils of triumphalism—with good reason. That sentiment contributed not only to America’s decisions to invade Iraq and undertake a nation-building effort in Afghanistan, but also to the “irrational exuberance” of lenders and consumers that burst the housing bubble in 2007. It’s appropriate, then, to adopt a more realistic conception of U.S. power and influence:
- While absolute U.S. decline is a choice, relative decline isn’t, because it results from two phenomena that the U.S. neither can nor should attempt to slow: the rise of other countries and the growing empowerment of nonstate actors.
- China’s GDP is almost certain to overtake America’s in the near future. It’s better to accept that likelihood than to guess when exactly the transition will occur and debate whether aggregate economic size is more accurately measured at market exchange rates or purchasing power parity. Further along, some observers expect China’s military spending to eclipse America’s before the middle of the century. Given such projections, one of America’s foremost strategic imperatives is to plan for a world in which China’s comprehensive national power approximates its own.
- Americans should neither wax nostalgic for an illusory era of U.S. “hegemony” nor pressure their representatives to usher in an actual one. The growing impossibility of achieving dominance in international affairs is reason enough not to pursue it—leaving aside the moral objections to such an undertaking.
Propositions such as the above suggest the importance of sobriety; absent context, however, sobriety can devolve into the sort of declinism that has increasingly come to characterize discussions of America’s outlook since the global financial crisis. The reactions to the National Intelligence Council’s (NIC’s) new report, Global Trends 2030 (GT2030), are illustrative. Citing two of its judgments—Asia’s overall power will exceed that of the U.S. and Europe combined by 2030, and China’s economy will be the world’s largest before 2030—many assessments of the report seem to portray a U.S. that’s increasingly a witness to international trends rather than a participant in their evolution.
As for the first: Asia isn’t a monolith. As GT2030 notes, while China’s neighbors are cultivating their economic ties with China, they’re concurrently strengthening their security ties with the U.S. and with each other. At last month’s summit between India and the ten member countries of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), for example, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh stated that India attaches “the highest priority” to Indo-ASEAN relations; argued that “[t]he path to regional peace and stability is greater coordination, cooperation, and integration among our economies”; and urged the 11 countries to “intensify their engagement…for peaceful settlement of maritime disputes in accordance with international law.”
As for the second: economic power consists of many components, of which overall size is but one. If achieving the world’s largest GDP made one a global superpower, the U.S. should have become one in the 1880s. Thus did GT2030’s principal author, Mathew Burrows, conclude that “China is not going to replace the U.S. on a global level”: while “[b]eing the largest economic power is important,” he explained, “it is not necessarily the largest economic power that always is going to be the superpower.”
Paradoxically, while declinist sentiment has grown markedly since the NIC published its previous report, Global Trends 2025 (GT2025), in November 2008, its new report is actually more upbeat about America’s prospects in some respects:
- GT2030 asserts that, “[i]n a tectonic shift, energy independence is not unrealistic for the U.S. in as short a period as 10-20 years”—a development that could encourage companies to “locate or relocate to the U.S.” and “result in a significant reduction in U.S. net trade balance.” That GT2025 didn’t mention this possibility—indeed, it only envisioned two “energy kingpins” in 2025, Russia and Iran—testifies to how quickly and significantly developments in tight oil and shale gas have changed the geopolitics of energy.
- GT2025 estimated that China’s “global power” would equal America’s in 2030. Using a new index that “incorporates a broader array of elements relevant to 21st-century power,” GT2030 doesn’t see this calibration’s occurring until 2043 or so—giving the U.S. more time to adjust.
- More than GT2025, GT2030 stresses that the “diffusion of power” from North America and Europe to Asia “may be overshadowed by an even more fundamental shift in the nature of power,” whereby power increasingly proceeds from the ability to “operate in networks and coalitions in a multipolar world.” If that judgment’s correct, then the U.S. should be well-positioned going forward. As Hillary Clinton argued recently, it possesses an “unparalleled” “ability to convene and connect” those actors whose cooperation is essential to addressing global challenges: “governments, businesses, international and regional organizations, academic institutions, civil society groups, even individuals.”
- GT2025 assessed that “[b]y 2025, the U.S. will find itself as one of a number of important actors on the world stage, albeit still the most powerful one.” GT2030 emphasizes U.S. centrality to international order more strongly. While observing that its share in the global economy “has been dropping more rapidly since the early 2000s,” it concludes that “the U.S. most likely will remain the ‘first among equals’ alongside the other great powers in 2030 because of its preeminence across a range of power dimensions and legacies of its leadership.” It further observes that emerging powers “are more interested in continuing their economic development and political consolidation than contesting U.S. leadership.” Perhaps most interestingly, despite Ian Buruma’s important reminder—“all great powers” believe that “world order would collapse without” their leadership—the NIC found that “many [foreign] scholars and analysts have tended to assume even greater levels of chaos and disorder would ensue [as a result of decreasing U.S. power] than many U.S. experts” (emphasis mine).
The above comparisons aren’t intended to diminish the import of relative U.S. decline or the urgency of the challenges that the U.S. confronts. GT2030 expresses concern about America’s “falling educational standards, skyrocketing health-care costs, and widening fiscal deficits.” Furthermore, many of the outcomes that factor into optimistic forecasts of its long-term outlook are contingent, not guaranteed. The Economist reports, for example, that America’s demographic dividend relative to other developed countries has been diminishing since 2007 because of a declining fertility rate, declining net immigration, and a declining population share of working-age citizens. As for the “energy revolution” underway in the U.S., moving towards energy independence will require difficult and durable compromises between the federal government, state governments, energy companies, and environmental activists.
Clearly, then, the U.S. has its work cut out for it as it looks ahead to the world of 2030—a world in which, the NIC argues, one’s “position, enmeshment, diplomatic skill, and constructive demeanor” in “multifaceted and amorphous networks” will increasingly determine one’s leadership in international affairs; and in which no one country will single-handedly be able to drive geopolitics (a judgment that brings to mind Ian Bremmer’s proposition that we live in a G-0 world). The U.S. should be thankful, though, that it has plentiful power resources with which to address its domestic challenges and partner with other countries to shape a more inclusive, capable international order. Rather than succumbing to declinism—an equally misguided antithesis of triumphalism—the U.S. should strategize to harness those resources.
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