Decline Just Doesn’t Translate

Decline Just Doesn’t Translate

Zbigniew Brzezinski (“After America,” January/February 2012) thinks the decline of the United States will pose huge risks to the world and seems to assume that it will occur suddenly, when other powers are unprepared. This is unlikely. The so-called “decline” of the United States, after all, is a relative concept. America is still at the forefront of technological development, and its national wealth is growing, as is its population, unlike in many European countries. The present economic crisis is temporary. The United States still has opportunities for adjustment.

The American sense of crisis comes from comparing the United States with emerging countries such as China and India in terms of the speed of development. However rapidly China develops, though, it will take at least half a century for it to surpass the United States. The rise of emerging powers will be closely connected with the shrinking of U.S. power, and the process will leave no power vacuum. Countries will easily be able to bear the psychological burden of adjustment.

In fact, it’s mainly Americans and some Europeans who talk about the decline of the United States. Most Chinese think real U.S. decline is not going to happen during their lifetimes.

What Chinese people really care about is China’s continued rise without U.S. or Western interference. They usually don’t imagine what China will look like after its rise (or, at least, the Chinese media don’t discuss this topic). They dimly think China will eventually boast a higher GDP than that of the United States, but won’t be as sophisticated, and that China’s average living standard might be a bit lower than America’s. They think such a China will not be bullied by the United States. It’s a picture of a world that, by the second half of the 21st century, has two superpowers.

Hu Xijin
Editor in Chief, Global Times
Beijing, China

Georgia, which appeared on Zbigniew Brzezinski’s list of “8 Geopolitically Endangered Species” (January/February 2012) whose security is jeopardized by American decline, might indeed be vulnerable to Russian political pressure and military force. But U.S. decline or lack thereof has nothing to do with it.

During most of George W. Bush’s administration, the United States offered strong but mostly rhetorical support to Georgia, encouraging its aspirations to join NATO at a 2008 summit in Bucharest. The United States provided weapons and training to the Georgian military and began to treat Georgia as a client state. There was no hint that the Bush administration was interested in reducing U.S. commitments around the globe. On the contrary, it seemed eager to add to them.

By most accounts, the Georgian government misinterpreted these gestures as signs of support for the Georgian policy of “reintegrating” Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Partly as a result of a forward-leaning U.S. policy in the Caucasus that promised more than it could ever deliver, Georgia launched an assault on South Ossetia that sparked a devastating and excessive Russian response. The result was that Georgia suffered far more politically and militarily when the United States was more actively engaged in the region than it had before and has since. It may very well be that in an era of reduced U.S. commitments abroad, Georgia will actually be less of a target for Moscow than it was in the previous decade.

Daniel Larison
Senior Editor
The American Conservative

Chicago, Ill.

Zbigniew Brzezinski replies:

Hu Xijin’s comments refer to the likely consequences of a significant decline of the United States and were based on excerpts from Part III of my new book, Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power. The circumstances with which his letter deals, however, pertain to Part IV of my book, which looks beyond 2025 to a “new geopolitical balance.” As I write in that section:

America’s geopolitical role in the new East will have to be fundamentally different from its direct involvement in the renewal of the West. There, America is the essential source of the needed stimulus for geopolitical renovation and even territorial outreach. In Asia, an America cooperatively engaged in multilateral structures, cautiously supportive of India’s development, solidly tied to Japan and South Korea, and patiently expanding both bilateral as well as global cooperation with China is the best source of the balancing leverage needed for sustaining stability in the globally rising new East.

Who You Calling Endangered?

Some countries were surprised to see themselves on Zbigniew Brzezinski’s list of eight “geopolitically endangered species” should America decline. Others were shocked they weren’t on the list.

Calling Brzezinski’s article “an interesting analysis as always,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Kostyantyn Gryshchenko (@Gryshchenko) tweeted that though the “end of the crisis in the United States is in our interests,” an “independent Ukraine will exist in any circumstances.” News outlets in Belarus, Estonia, and Latvia also covered Brzezinski’s predictions about Russia’s designs on Eastern Europe.

The Taipei Times cited anonymous U.S. experts disagreeing with Brzezinski’s analysis, with one claiming Brzezinski had contributed to Taiwan’s political endangerment when serving as President Jimmy Carter’s national security advisor, while others argued that China might collapse under its own weight before unification with Taiwan could occur.

An op-ed in the Philippine Star warned that with its military inferiority and political disunity, the Philippines could become the “9th geopolitically endangered species” if the dispute between China and the United States in the South China Sea escalates.