In an answer to all of the people who keep talking about the impending collapse of the US, at least as we know it, the Brookings Institute’s Robert Kagan has written a long essay on why the US is still number one and will be for quite some time.
With this broad perception of decline as the backdrop, every failure of the United States to get its way in the world tends to reinforce the impression. Arabs and Israelis refuse to make peace, despite American entreaties. Iran and North Korea defy American demands that they cease their nuclear weapons programs. China refuses to let its currency rise. Ferment in the Arab world spins out of America’s control. Every day, it seems, brings more evidence that the time has passed when the United States could lead the world and get others to do its bidding.
Powerful as this sense of decline may be, however, it deserves a more rigorous examination. Measuring changes in a nation’s relative power is a tricky business, but there are some basic indicators: the size and the influence of its economy relative to that of other powers; the magnitude of military power compared with that of potential adversaries; the degree of political influence it wields in the international system—all of which make up what the Chinese call “comprehensive national power.” And there is the matter of time. Judgments based on only a few years’ evidence are problematic. A great power’s decline is the product of fundamental changes in the international distribution of various forms of power that usually occur over longer stretches of time.
Kagan’s argument is that despite current hyperbole, the US has been through comparatively worse times and bounced back, and there is no current threat to US hegemony economically or militarily. It is worth reading the whole piece, where he points out how there have been economic crises in the past – such as the 1930s and the 1970s – in which every pundit became a doomsayer but all predictions of American decline turned out to be completely wrong. America still earns 1/4 of the world’s GDP and it is still four times richer than China per capita.
In economic terms, and even despite the current years of recession and slow growth, America’s position in the world has not changed. Its share of the world’s GDP has held remarkably steady, not only over the past decade but over the past four decades. In 1969, the United States produced roughly a quarter of the world’s economic output. Today it still produces roughly a quarter, and it remains not only the largest but also the richest economy in the world. People are rightly mesmerized by the rise of China, India, and other Asian nations whose share of the global economy has been climbing steadily, but this has so far come almost entirely at the expense of Europe and Japan, which have had a declining share of the global economy.
Optimists about China’s development predict that it will overtake the United States as the largest economy in the world sometime in the next two decades. This could mean that the United States will face an increasing challenge to its economic position in the future. But the sheer size of an economy is not by itself a good measure of overall power within the international system. If it were, then early nineteenth-century China, with what was then the world’s largest economy, would have been the predominant power instead of the prostrate victim of smaller European nations. Even if China does reach this pinnacle again—and Chinese leaders face significant obstacles to sustaining the country’s growth indefinitely—it will still remain far behind both the United States and Europe in terms of per capita GDP.
Another point he makes is that everyone seems to be looking at US history through rose coloured lenses – in actual fact, America has always had many successes in foreign policy, but even more failures. As one example, for all of their problems, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were not nearly as costly as Vietnam.
If the United States is not suffering decline in these basic measures of power, isn’t it true that its influence has diminished, that it is having a harder time getting its way in the world? The almost universal assumption is that the United States has indeed lost influence. Whatever the explanation may be—American decline, the “rise of the rest,” the apparent failure of the American capitalist model, the dysfunctional nature of American politics, the increasing complexity of the international system—it is broadly accepted that the United States can no longer shape the world to suit its interests and ideals as it once did. Every day seems to bring more proof, as things happen in the world that seem both contrary to American interests and beyond American control.
And of course it is true that the United States is not able to get what it wants much of the time. But then it never could. Much of today’s impressions about declining American influence are based on a nostalgic fallacy: that there was once a time when the United States could shape the whole world to suit its desires, and could get other nations to do what it wanted them to do, and, as the political scientist Stephen M. Walt put it, “manage the politics, economics and security arrangements for nearly the entire globe.”
If we are to gauge America’s relative position today, it is important to recognize that this image of the past is an illusion. There never was such a time. We tend to think back on the early years of the Cold War as a moment of complete American global dominance. They were nothing of the sort. The United States did accomplish extraordinary things in that era: the Marshall Plan, the NATO alliance, the United Nations, and the Bretton Woods economic system all shaped the world we know today. Yet for every great achievement in the early Cold War, there was at least one equally monumental setback.
On military superiority, Walter Russell Mead gave a great rundown a while ago in a post responding to Muammar Gaddafi’s death. He made one thing very clear: not only is America not threatened militarily by anyone, no country could even come close to the US in any combat situation. Remember that there is a huge difference between asymmetrical warfare fought by insurgents trying to drive the US out of a country that Americans don’t even want to be in and a skirmish with China over a Pacific oil field.
Additionally, the balance of military power has been steadily shifting in favor of the United States. This runs counter to all the loose talk about inevitable, inexorable US decline: a close look at the facts on the ground suggests that the US has considerably more power to impose its agenda on most “third world” countries than it did twenty years ago. This is partly because such countries can no longer realistically claim the protection of a rival superpower, but it is also because the American military is a much more formidable machine than it used to be. Our weapons are much smarter and much more devastatingly effective, and our professional military has blossomed into the most effective force in the history of the human race. We can still be made to take casualties in asymmetrical combat situations, and no amount of military power can overcome the absence of strategy, but between the battlefield advantages our high tech weapons and new methods of training and combat planning have given us, the revolution in force projection, and the range of cultural, diplomatic, humanitarian and developmental capacities our military has acquired in the last twenty years, America’s unprecedented military power has changed the way the world works.
This power is not a magic omnipotence pill; there are many things we cannot do. But the days when a third world tyrant could rely on conventional weapons to deter American intervention are gone. The US military swatted Saddam’s army, rated as one of the world’s better forces, like so many flies in the first Gulf War, and by the time of the second our conventional superiority was even greater. The Libyan intervention was done with the back of our hand, so to speak; President Obama and his top commanders did not interrupt their efforts in the rest of the Middle East and Central Asia to provide the backup for NATO’s attacks.
This power does not work as well in asymmetrical settings, but in general we are back to the kind of military superiority that European forces enjoyed over non-European rulers in Victorian times. Reinforcing that power is the fact that no other great power has the force projection capacities, or even the military resources overall, to come to the aid of a Libya or a Saddam. Drone strike diplomacy is not all that different from gunboat diplomacy, and until and unless the military balance changes, the US is going to have more options for dealing with “bad guys” than we have had for many years.
As for the geostrategic make-up of the Asia-Pacific region in the “Asian Century”, America has that down-pat as well. Mead again, this time on a new deal going through as you read this:
The Obama Administration may soon come to an agreement with Philippines to station U.S. troops or naval vessels on its territory. The talks are still in the early stages, but officials from both countries have said they are inclined to strike a deal within the next few months.
An agreement with Manila would come close on the heels of two other upcoming moves: American Marines soon to be stationed in Australia and several U.S. warships moving to Changi Naval Base in Singapore.
Asian nations are learning that the United States is prepared to offer a real balance against China’s new assertiveness in the region. In the Philippine case, this dovetails nicely with the country’s interests—especially with respect to the disputed Spratly and Paracel islands, geographically closer to the Philippines than China. Manila has occasionally stationed troops on the islands, and it operates a number of offshore oil fields in waters claimed by China. Having American ships docked in its ports, if not also American boots on Philippine soil, will no doubt be a confidence booster for Manila in these and other disputes.
The truth is that the new emerging powers in the world are not even close to threatening US hegemony. In fact, most of their rise is coming at Europe’s expense. It may upset some of you hardcore third worldists out there who seem to believe that America is an evil influence on the world, but you better face facts: Uncle Sam is still on top.