Not So Fast: Rethinking America’s Decline

Not So Fast: Rethinking America’s Decline

Have we really reached the end of American hegemony? For those who think so, the signs of America”s decline and the rise of emerging powers are everywhere. According to this line of argument, the world”s sole superpower succumbed to overstretch. U.S. failures in the “war on terror” revealed the limitations of American military power, while its role in provoking the global economic crisis revealed the shortcomings of American economic leadership.

As a result, rising powers around the world feel suddenly emboldened by America”s visible weakness. Brazil”s president blames the worldwide recession on “white-skinned people with blue eyes,” and Russia and China call for the creation of a new international currency reserve to replace the dollar. Even President Barack Obama concedes that “if there”s going to be renewed growth, it cannot just be the United States as the engine.” America”s obituary, it seems, has already been written, and the next great powers have already been crowned.

Not so fast. America”s decline is overstated, and the questions and assumptions about its imminent fall need to be revisited.

Does the financial crisis reveal America”s relative weakness?

Quite the opposite, actually. The worldwide economic turmoil underlines the importance of the United States — for better or worse — to the global market. As the U.S. goes, so goes the world. When the American bubble burst, the speed with which the contagion spread beyond its borders is an illustration.

Conventional wisdom holds that the recent period of high spending, lax regulations and an overheated housing market reveal the weaknesses of the U.S. economic model. Analysts are questioning the wisdom of open economies and liberalization, when the “Beijing Consensus” of greater government control and intervention seems more effective at promoting growth with less volatility.

While there are flaws in the American model, its basic tenets will not soon be replaced. The global marketplace and international norms will change slightly, but recovery relies on U.S. leadership. International financial institutions depend on U.S. support, the success of producers around the world is contingent on strong demand from American consumers and the dollar will continue to serve as the international currency reserve.

Is the world shifting from a unipolar to multipolar order?

It”s too early to tell. The emergence of developing countries, the re-emergence of former powers and the growing influence of Europe are all undeniable. Still, no one can match America”s universal reach and military muscle.

China continues to steadily expand and improve its armed forces and acquire new defense technologies, while Russia has begun to modernize its defense capabilities and rearm. According to figures from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, however, the United States still spends more on defense than the next 14 largest militaries combined. U.S. defense spending accounts for more than 40 percent of the world”s total.

After a period in which the U.S. deployed its hard power disproportionately, with a resulting a rise in anti-Americanism worldwide, it would be logical to assume that American soft power would have suffered dramatically. But a recent survey (.pdf) of public opinion in five Asian states — including China and Japan — conducted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs found that U.S. soft power and influence remains predominant in the region.

Finally, the “unipolar moment” was always exaggerated. The United States could never dictate international affairs to the extent that many presumed.

Will rising powers soon surpass the U.S. and reshape the global balance of power?

Hardly. The rise of the BRICs — Brazil, Russia, India and China — is not inevitable. Brazil is constrained by crime and inequality. Russia is straddled with a shrinking population and debilitating corruption. India is plagued by massive poverty, insecurity and a lack of infrastructure. And China”s widespread inequality and lack of political freedom make it impossible to rule out the potential for social upheaval.

Of the four, the most serious challenge to American supremacy is likely to come from China. But while it represents the world”s third largest economy — fourth if the EU is included — China is still a poor country. If current projections hold, the Chinese economy will indeed surpass the U.S. economy in 30 or 40 years. But on a per capita basis, China will lag far behind deep into the 21st century.

Are we at the dawn of a new world order? Not yet. The United States remains the world”s dominant power and will be for the foreseeable future. That”s not to say that existing powers and emerging giants will not be relevant. The U.S. cannot address transnational threats — including the Great Recession, climate change, nuclear proliferation, poverty and terrorism — alone, and will have to rely on the cooperation of others. Just as in recent years, global problems will require global solutions, but also a global leader. And that”s still the role the U.S. will play.

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