Whether or not the U.S. is declining is the wrong question

Whether or not the U.S. is declining is the wrong question

As co-chair of the editorial board of the journal International Security, I couldn’t be more delighted by the attention that Michael Beckley’s article questioning China’s rise (and America’s supposed decline) is getting. See here, here, and here. But I fear that people who are seizing on Beckley’s article to pooh-pooh fears of U.S. decline — including our own Daniel Drezner — are mostly asking the wrong question.

As I’ve noted elsewhere, the issue isn’t whether the United States is about to fall the from the ranks of the great powers, or even be equaled (let alone surpassed) by a rising China. The world may be evolving toward a more multipolar structure, for example, but the United States is going to be one of those poles, and almost certainly the strongest of them, for many years to come.

Instead, the real issue is whether developments at home and overseas are making it harder for the United States to exercise the kind of dominant influence that it did for much of the latter half of the 20th century. The United States had a larger share of global GDP in the 1940s and 1950s, and it wasn’t running enormous budget deficits. The United States was seen as a reliable defender of human rights, and its support for decolonization after World War II had won it many friends in the developing world. It also had good relations with a variety of monarchies and dictatorships, which it justified as part of the struggle against communism. These features allowed the United States to create and lead combined economic, security and political orders in virtually every corner of the world, except for the portions directly controlled by our communist rivals. And the U.S. and its allies eventually won that struggle too, driving the USSR into exhaustion and watching the triumph of market economies and more participatory forms of government throughout the former communist world.

The United States remains very powerful — especially when compared with some putative opponents like Iran — but its capacity to lead security and economic orders in every corner of the world has been diminished by failures in Iraq (and eventually, Afghanistan), by the burden of debt accumulated over the past decade, by the economic melt-down in 2007-2008, and by the emergence of somewhat stronger and independent actors in Brazil, Turkey, India, and elsewhere. One might also point to eroding national infrastructure and an educational system that impresses hardly anyone. Moreover, five decades of misguided policies have badly tarnished America’s image in many parts of the world, and especially in the Middle East and Central Asia. The erosion of authoritarian rule in the Arab world will force new governments to pay more attention to popular sentiment — which is generally hostile to the broad thrust of U.S. policy in the region — and the United States will be less able to rely on close relations with tame monarchs or military dictators henceforth. If it the United States remains far and away the world’s strongest state, its ability to get its way in world affairs is declining.

All this may seem like a hair-splitting, but there’s an important issue at stake. Posing the question in the usual way ("Is the U.S. Still #1?", "Who’s bigger?", "Is China Catching Up?" etc.,) focuses attention primarily on bilateral comparisons and distracts us from thinking about the broader environment in which both the United States and China will have to operate. The danger, of course, is that repeated assurances that America is still on top will encourage foreign policy mandarins to believe that they can continue to make the same blunders they have in the recent past, and discourage them from making the strategic choices that will preserve U.S. primacy, enhance U.S. influence, and incidentally, produce a healthier society here at home.