What Does It Mean to Argue that “America Is in Decline”?

A new report by the Pew Global Attitudes Project reinforces the widespread judgment that America is in decline.  It observes that “perceptions of China’s economic power continue to grow” among the 21 countries that Pew surveyed, particularly among the 14 that it has surveyed each of the past five years: “In 2008, before the onset of the global financial crisis, a median of 45% named the U.S. as the world’s leading economic power, while just 22% said China.  Today, only 36% say the U.S., while 42% believe China is in the top position.”  These judgments have sparked another round of comparisons between America and China’s economies, another set of forecasts as to when the latter’s GDP will outstrip the former’s, and another batch of recommendations for rejuvenating the U.S. economy. 

Oddly enough, though, the more that folks opine on the question of American decline, the more I wonder what the question means.  For starters, I’d deconstruct “Is America in decline?” into at least three sub-questions:

  • Is it in absolute decline?  Is it in relative decline?  Neither?    
  • What metric(s) are we using to measure decline?  Share of global GDP?  Share of global defense spending?  Ability to achieve desired geopolitical outcomes?
  • From what baseline are we measuring decline?  The end of World War II?  The end of the Cold War?  9/11?  The onset of the global financial crisis?
  • Breaking down the basic question more carefully isn’t some idle semantic exercise; it has important policy implications.  Take the first sub-question.  Absolute decline is akin to a terminal illness: the result—an America that’s essentially incapable of defending its national security and vital interests—is known in advance, and there’s little, if anything, that one can do to prevent it.  Relative decline, however, is better understood as a lifestyle condition, perhaps even a chronic condition: even if there isn’t a cure—the U.S. may be “reduced” to being first among equals or having to accommodate a peer competitor—there are actions that one can take to live a reasonably comfortably and productive life.        

    If, as the evidence suggests, the second diagnosis is more accurate than the first, the next question to ask is where relative decline will leave the U.S.  Assuming that countries in the Eastern and Southern Hemispheres continue to rise, while encountering daunting challenges of their own; that power and influence continue to shift from countries to nonstate actors; and that the U.S. makes a somewhat balanced combination of prudent and imprudent strategic choices in the decades ahead (cue a debate about “somewhat balanced,” “prudent,” and “imprudent”), it’s not implausible to suggest that it can remain the single-most important actor in the international system for some time to come—especially given its current military, economic, and political advantages.  

    One could go even further: relative U.S. decline has had the paradoxical impact of highlighting its singular, albeit increasingly strained, role in underwriting the international system—much as its economic woes in recent years have highlighted the dollar’s centrality in global markets.  Growing awareness of that strain has yet to yield a clear alternative to U.S. leadership.   

    What about China?  Despite its inspiring rise and extraordinary potential, it’s not clear that it would seek to displace the U.S. even if it could.  After all, it has benefited immensely from integrating itself into the U.S.-led postwar order—selectively withdrawing from that structure as it sees fit and gradually molding its rules and norms—and is unlikely to push for dramatic modifications to it so long as overarching geopolitical trends continue to facilitate its rise.  Furthermore, as Robert Keohane notes in the new issue of Foreign Affairs, “[p]laying a dominant role in world politics does not make for an easy life.  Even very powerful states encounter problems they cannot solve and situations they would prefer to avoid.”  China was cool to suggestions of a U.S.-China “G-2” in part because of the level of responsibility that such an arrangement, explicit or informal, would’ve conferred upon it.  On the flipside, it’s not clear that China could supplant the U.S. even if sought to do so.  Beyond the oft-discussed, increasingly serious challenges that it confronts at home, it has yet to figure out how to reassure neighbors who are wary of its rise, let alone how to nurture a Sino-U.S. equilibrium in the Asia-Pacific. 

    If not China, what about the BRIC countries or the members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization?  In short, what about the “rest” (as in the “rise of the rest”)?  As important as it has been as an explanatory framework, it hasn’t evolved into a coherent alternative geopoliticallyquite the opposite.  Thus do Ian Bremmer and David Gordon propose that we think about “the rise of the ‘different’”:

    For one, they are poor.  On every measure except total economic size,  today’s rising powers are more similar to their emerging market peers than to the developed countries that prospered after World War II….Second, today’s emerging powers are more politically varied than those that rose during the Cold War….Alongside this political variation is political instability.  The rising “different” are domestically volatile….Furthermore, the rising different simply don’t accept the legitimacy of the U.S.-led international system even as they seek greater power within it….Finally, the rising different are less experienced in global affairs—in diplomacy, in peacekeeping and in the rules and norms of international governance.

    Their analysis suggests that it’s not only the question of American decline that needs to be articulated more precisely; it’s also the context in which that supposed decline’s occurring.  Leaving aside nonstate actors, what is the central driver of geopolitics today?  Is it a transition between U.S. and China?  A transition between the West and the rest?  A transition between the West and the Asia-Pacific more narrowly?  A transition between the Northern and Southern Hemispheres?  Or, as Walter Russell Mead recently argued, is it a transition between the trilateral system (America, Western Europe, and Japan) and a “septagonal” one (America, Western Europe, Japan, China, India, Brazil, and Turkey)?   

    Looming large above such questions is another: what impact will relative U.S. decline have on international order?  That many American policymakers and commentators are nervous about this prospect is understandable.  What is surprising, however, is that such anxiety doesn’t end at America’s borders.  As the Pew Research Center’s Richard Wike summarized in an analysis last September, “in many nations where fears of American power have been so pervasive in the decade since Sept. 11, there are now concerns about the relative decline of American power....the rise of China and the uncertainty surrounding global economic leadership are creating new anxieties about a world where, many believe, American power is weakening.”

    Follow Ali Wyne on Twitter and Facebook.

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