Against the Idea of American Decline

Against the Idea of American Decline

Robert J. Lieber Summer 2013
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The concept of American decline at home and abroad is pervasive. Type the words “Decline of America” into Google and it produces 223 million “hits.” What began as speculation has become a chorus of voices and is now a widespread din. Authors, pundits, classical historians, international economists, European allies, Chinese generals, and the wider blogosphere pronounce and repeat the idea. Some of them welcome such a profound change, others express deep concern, but in any case, the notion is widely shared.

These descriptions are a response to America’s difficulties in recent years, both overseas and at home. The long wars in Afghanistan and until recently in Iraq, a continuing campaign against radical Islamist terrorism, the extraordinary rise of China and of other emerging powers, and the challenges of coping with globalization and relentless economic competition give rise to the idea that the United States has become overextended and is no longer capable of playing a leading role in world affairs. In domestic affairs, the collapse of the real estate bubble, followed by the financial crisis and a great recession, a lagging recovery, and destructive partisanship in the face of deepening problems of debt and deficit have occasioned pessimism about America’s economy, politics, and society.

The accompanying discourse is overwhelmingly negative. Among the voices assessing American decline, British author and public intellectual Timothy Garten Ash writes of American (and European) “competitive decadence.” Historian Paul Kennedy sees Britain’s imperial decline as foreshadowing that of America and asserts, “the long-term trajectory is roughly the same.” Political economist Clyde Prestowitz, a longtime critic of free trade policies, writes, “American decline becomes the new conventional wisdom.” Fareed Zakaria, a media commentator and public intellectual asks, “Are America’s Best Days Behind Us?” And David Brooks, an unusually thoughtful and original New York Times columnist, warns of “unsustainable levels of debt, an inability to generate middle-class incomes, a dysfunctional political system, the steady growth of special interest sinecures and the gradual loss of national vitality.”

An Exaggerated Narrative

To argue against the idea of American decline might seem a lonely if not futile task. After all, the problems are real and serious. Nevertheless, if one takes a longer view, the picture looks quite different and much of the decline narrative appears exaggerated, overwrought, and ahistorical. There are two broad reasons. The first is because of the deep underlying strengths of the United States. These include an economy that remains twice the size of China’s in terms of GDP at market exchange rates—the preferred indicator for international comparisons according to the International Monetary Fund. The U.S. also enjoys major advantages in the scale and importance of its financial markets, in scientific research and technology, and in competitiveness. America’s military technology, armed forces, and military power projection are unmatched by any other actor. Indeed, despite maintaining these capabilities and still maintaining 60,000 troops in Afghanistan, the cost of the defense budget at just over 4% of GDP remains well below the proportion during any of the Cold War decades. In addition, and despite its faults, the United States retains a unique attractiveness for talented immigrants and has an absorptive capacity unlike any other country. Nor should it be forgotten that America continues to have a relatively favorable birthrate, a growing population—the world’s third largest—and a demographic balance better not only than those of Europe, Russia, or Japan, but even of China, which thanks to its one child policy will grow old before it gets rich. And not to be forgotten are America’s immense natural resources including an extraordinary renaissance in the production and recoverable reserves of oil and natural gas.

The second reason is the weight of history and of American exceptionalism, or what social scientists like to call path dependency. Throughout its history, the United States has repeatedly faced and eventually overcome daunting challenges and crises, many of which gave rise to weighty and dire predictions. The most dangerous of these experiences have included the Civil War, repeated financial crises during the nineteenth century, the Great Depression of the 1930s, and the geopolitical and ideological threats posed by Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, and the Soviet Union.

A Slow Response

Yet isn’t the present predicament different, especially in its foreign challenges and underlying economic dimensions, and haven’t we delayed too long in responding to it? These and other factors, such as the scale of globalization, foreign competition, especially from China, and the rising costs of entitlement programs, do have to be taken into account. Nonetheless, in contrasting a recent past of unique American dominance and international primacy with a contemporary era of decline at home and abroad, the pessimists have exaggerated the scale of both past prominence and current peril. As evidence of this tendency toward hyperbole and the volatility of received opinion, note that from the end of the Cold War and the beginning of the 1990s through the middle of the last decade, and in the aftermath of initial American victories in Afghanistan and Iraq, descriptions of unique American dominance and “hyperpower” were commonplace. Some of this treatment was admiring, some critical, but almost all of it took U.S. primacy for granted and saw it as long lasting. Nevertheless, within just a few years, the narrative had altered radically. Instead, America was depicted as in deep trouble on both foreign and domestic fronts. Accompanying this shift in conventional wisdom, China is increasingly depicted—often in awed and uncritical terms—as the next great world power.

It is true that the United States has been slow to respond, as it often is, but here too some perspective on the past is useful. Winston Churchill famously remarked, “Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing…after they have exhausted all other possibilities.”

However, the idea can be traced back to Alexis de Tocqueville, commenting in his 1830s work, Democracy in America, that the virtue of Americans lay not in being more enlightened than others, “but in being able to repair the faults they commit.” These observations point to a fundamental characteristic of the United States—its unique flexibility and adaptability. It is this capacity that provides a basis for optimism in assessing America’s future. The ability to change and innovate, especially in response to crisis, is unusual for a large country and especially for a great power. In short, history and past experience matter.

The American Paradox

Of course, there can be no certainty about America’s ability to overcome current problems, and here contingency and human agency comes into play. Ultimately, elite and popular beliefs, policy choices, and leadership remain critical in shaping outcomes. In this sense, the challenges facing the United States are at least as much ideational as they are material. However, there may be a paradox working in America’s favor. It is that the worse the crisis, the greater the sense of urgency and the more likely that policy makers, regardless of their prior inhibitions and beliefs, will find themselves having to respond effectively.

The stakes are immense, and not only for America itself. Since World War II, the United States has been the world’s principal provider of collective goods. The leading international institutions of today and much of the existing international order have been a product of American leadership. Evidence from recent decades suggests that the alternative is not that some other institution or major power (the UN, the EU, China, India, Russia, or Japan) will take its place, but that none will. Some have argued that the effects of globalization are leading the world toward greater cooperation and even collective security. This may be a comforting view about the implications or even desirability of American disengagement, but practical experience suggests otherwise. In dealing with failed states, ethnic cleansing, human rights, the environment, trade liberalization, regional conflict, and nuclear proliferation, emerging powers such as the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) have been largely unhelpful, and others in Europe, Asia, Africa, or Latin America have more often than not lacked the will or capacity to act collectively on common tasks.

For the United States, the maintenance of its leading role matters greatly. The alternative would not only be a more disorderly and dangerous world in which its own economic and national security would be adversely affected, but also regional conflicts and the spread of nuclear weapons would be more likely. In addition, allies and those sharing common values, especially liberal democracy and the market economy, would increasingly be at risk. Ultimately, America’s ability to avoid long-term decline—and the significant international retrenchment that would be a result of severely reduced resources—becomes a matter of policy and political will. There is nothing inevitable or fated about decline. Both past experience and national attributes matter greatly. Flexibility, adaptability, and the capacity for course correction provide the United States with a resilience that has proved invaluable in the past and is likely to do so in the future.

Robert J. Lieber is Professor of Government and International Affairs at Georgetown University. This essay is adapted from his recent book, Power and Willpower in the American Future: Why The United States Is Not Destined To Decline (New York, Cambridge University Press, 2012).

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