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Parker Robinson
Parker Robinson

American Power Is On The Wane

As the world stumbles from the truly horrible year of 2008 into the very scary year of 2009, there seems, on the face of it, many reasons for the foes of America to think that the world's number one power will take heavier hits than most other big nations. Those reasons will be outlined below. But let's start by noting that curious trait of human beings who, in pain themselves, seem to enjoy the fact that others are hurting even more badly. (One can almost hear some mournful Chekhovian aristocrat declare: "My estates may be damaged, Vasily, but yours are close to ruin!")

American Power Is on the Wane


But in truth, the United States is not foundering. The stark narrative of decline ignores deeper world-historical influences and circumstances that will continue to make the United States the dominant presence and organizer of world politics in the twenty-first century. To be sure, no one knows the future, and no one owns it. The coming world order will be shaped by complex, shifting, and difficult-to-grasp political forces and by choices made by people living in all parts of the world. Nonetheless, the deep sources of American power and influence in the world persist. Indeed, with the rise of the brazen illiberalism of China and Russia, these distinctive traits and capacities have come more clearly into view.

Realist thinkers claim that states exist in a fundamental condition of anarchy that sets limits on the possibilities for cooperation. No political authority exists above the state to enforce order or govern relations, and so states must fend for themselves. Liberal internationalists do not deny that states pursue their own interests, often through competitive means, but they believe that the anarchy of that competition can be limited. States, starting with liberal democracies, can use institutions as building blocks for cooperation and for the pursuit of joint gains. The twentieth century offers dramatic evidence of these sorts of liberal ordering arrangements. After World War II, in the shadow of the Cold War, the United States and its allies and partners established a complex and sprawling system of institutions that persist today, exemplified by the United Nations, the Bretton Woods institutions, and multilateral regimes in diverse areas of trade, development, public health, the environment, and human rights. Grand shifts in the global distribution of power have occurred in the decades since 1945, but cooperation remains a core feature of the global system.

The problems of hierarchy are the mirror opposite of the problems of anarchy. Hierarchy is political order maintained by the dominance of a leading state, and at the extreme, it is manifest as empire. The leading state worries about how it can stay on top, gain the cooperation of others, and exercise legitimate authority in shaping world politics. Weaker states and societies worry about being dominated, and they want to mitigate their disadvantages and the vulnerabilities of being powerless. In such circumstances, liberal internationalists argue that rules and institutions can simultaneously be protections for the weak and tools for the powerful. In a liberal order, the leading state consents to acting within an agreed-upon set of multilateral rules and institutions and not use its power to coerce other states. Rules and institutions allow it to signal restraint and commitment to weaker states that may fear its power. Weaker states also gain from this institutional bargain because it reduces the worst abuses of power that the hegemonic state might inflict on them, and it gives them some voice in how the order operates.

More prosaically, the vast natural resources of the continent gave the United States the capacity to grow. By the turn of the twentieth century, the United States had joined the world of the great powers, a peer of its European counterparts. But it had become powerful at great remove, unimpeded by the acts of counterbalancing so frequently evident in the relations between rival powers in Europe and East Asia.

In this bleak mid-twentieth-century setting, the United States was forced to contemplate what kind of order it wanted to bring into existence. The question that U.S. strategists grappled with, particularly during World War II, was whether the United States could operate as a great power in a world carved up by empires. If vast stretches of Eurasia were dominated by imperial blocs, could the United States be a great power while operating only within the Western Hemisphere? No, policymakers and analysts agreed, it could not. To be a global power, the United States would need to have access to markets and resources in all corners of the world. Economic and security imperatives, as much as lofty principles, drove this judgment. U.S. interests and ambitions pointed not to a world where the United States would simply join the other great powers in running an empire but to one where empires would be swept away and all regions would be opened up to multilateral access.

In this way, the United States was unique among its peers in using its power and position to undermine the imperial world system. It made alliances and bargains with imperial states at various moments and launched a short-lived career of empire at the turn of the twentieth century in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War. But the dominant impulse of U.S. strategy across these decades was to seek a postimperial system of great power relations, to build an international order that would be open, friendly, and stable: open in the sense that trade and exchange were possible across regions; friendly in the sense that none of these regions would be dominated by a rival illiberal great power that sought to close off its sphere of influence to the outside world; and stable in the sense that this postimperial order would be anchored in a set of multilateral rules and institutions that would give it some broad legitimacy, the capacity to adapt to change, and the staying power to persist well into the future.

The crises over Taiwan and Ukraine underline this fact. In both cases, China and Russia are seeking to draw unwilling open societies into their orbit. The people of Taiwan look at the plight of Hong Kong and, not surprisingly, are horrified at the prospect of being incorporated into a country ruled by a Chinese dictatorship. The people of an embattled democratic Ukraine see a brighter future in greater integration into the European Union and the West. That China is ramping up pressure on Taiwan and that Russia sought to yoke Ukraine to its sphere of influence does not suggest American decline or the collapse of liberal order. On the contrary, the crises exist because Taiwanese and Ukrainian societies want to be part of a global liberal system. Putin famously groused that the liberal idea is becoming obsolete. In reality, the liberal idea still has a long life ahead of it.

Ever since the Great Recession and financial meltdown of 2007-8, debate over the Kennedy thesis has taken on fresh life in new columns and books about the rise and fall of powers. And once again, even mentioning the possibility of decline, reversal, or undesired change is ridiculous in itself to some parties across the spectrum.

This has consequences for a superpower, as the United States loses a large base of well-paying jobs that sustained working communities. Ever greater concentration of wealth in the hands of a few, against the immiseration and breaking up of the working class, creates increasing burdens for the state in the long run, and makes it harder to persuade people to accept any allocation of scarce resources abroad at the expense of rebuilding at home. The greater this problem grows at home, the harder it will be to address while sustaining hegemony.

OECD analysts calculate that as of 1990, Japanese per capita GDP was only about 82% of that of the United States. The difference mainly reflects the superior quality of U.S. housing, distribution systems, and other nontradables. As for the leading European nations, they gained ground against the United States during the 1970s but failed to make significant headway in the 1980s. After adjusting for internal purchasing power, the most prosperous European nation at the time, West Germany, ended the decade with living standards about 85% that of the United States.

One point emphasized by Thurow is indisputable. After half a century of nearly single-handedly setting the rules for global economic competition, the United States now has to settle for more equal trade terms with other countries. We are fast moving into a tri-polar world in which Japan and the European Community will wield at least as much power as the United States.

America is, and likely always will be, and Indo-Pacific power. Over 370,000 U.S. military personnel and contractors are present in the Indo-Pacific, alongside 2,000 aircraft and 200 naval ships and submarines. Separate it from the rest of the U.S. military, and the U.S. Pacific Fleet alone is still the largest navy in the world. U.S. Pacific Air Forces, meanwhile, would constitute the second largest air force in the world.

If, as I have suggested, the West has far more global influence than many writers of late have suggested, how, then, do we explain what now seems self-evident to many analysts: that we are moving into a new Asian century in which the West as traditionally understood will have far less wealth and altogether less power?99 Is this merely a matter of ignorance, wishful thinking, or simply a misunderstanding? Or is it in fact true as writers like Paul Kennedy have insisted, 100 and the American public now seem to believe? According to at least one opinion poll, the majority of Americans now view Asia as being of much greater importance than Europe.101 This too would seem to be the view of many US policy-makers - the Obama administration in particular, which without ignoring Europe altogether, has shown a much greater degree of activism and interest in Asia than probably any other part of the world.

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