Robert Kagan considers if America can outwit decline and questions the constant commentary that the US can no longer do what it wants to do in the world. Well, compared to when?
The idea that America is in some kind of terminal decline has taken on such an element of conventional wisdom that that alone should make you suspicious. We’ve gone through this cycle of believing America is in decline many times in our history. Even Patrick Henry in 1788 lamented how America had fallen since its youth. Post-WW2, when the world was allegedly the US’s oyster and the US had 50 percent of global GDP, but Eastern Europe was under control of the Soviet Union and the US could do nothing about this. Nor could it influence what was going on in Asia—the US really didn’t want the Chinese Communist Revolution, one of the consequences leading the US into the Korean War, and then Vietnam, whilst the Soviet’s acquired atomic weapons.
Have there been periods in our history when we’ve been stronger and more capable than we are today? Absolutely. Have there been periods when we’ve been weaker and less capable? Absolutely.
The standard measures of power are worth looking at. The US has a great military power despite its difficulty extracting itself from two wars, its military power continues to dwarf that of any other military power in the world. Even with the growth of the Chinese military, it’s only a fraction of the US’s strength in capability terms. As a neutral statement, albeit a fact, the US is the only country in the world that can send huge forces to the opposite corner of the world.
A basic reality is that the US went from 50 percent of global GDP by end of WW2 to roughly 25 percent by the end of 1969. This was a dramatic fall. Since then, the US has maintained a quarter of the world’s GDP. There is an economic shift going on with China’s share of global GDP on the rise as well as India, the so-called “Rise of the Rest”.
"I find it very hard to believe that the rise of Brazil is a net negative for the US. It’s a win–win situation."
There is a new diffusion of power in the world. What does the rise of these specific countries do to the world order? I find it very hard to believe that the rise of Brazil is a net negative for the US. It’s a win–win situation, the same for the rise of Turkey, and even more so in the rise of India. If the US and China are competing then India is a natural partner and ally of the US, as their interests are congruent, so this rise, it’s a benefit for the US.
We’ve had more dramatic Rises of the Rest in the past. Germany and Japan’s global GDP increased when America’s share reduced. Did it hurt us? No. Both nations were powerful and important allies in building a world order that was fundamentally democratic and liberal in terms of economics. Some even argue this was America’s strategy, to strengthen potential rivals to it strengthen the international system.
A more tangible measure of US success is political influence. As measured in polls America’s world popularity was low under Bush, but all it required, apparently, was a change of President. It’s not the first time the US was not very popular in the world: the Vietnam War pulled millions of protestors across the streets of Europe; the assassination of JFK, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X; Watergate; Richard Nixon—had America won the hearts of the world during these periods?
Americans like to overstate their success but mostly what countries want to know is: are we there to help them, or are we not?
It’s human nature—someone can be extremely attractive and appealing, but if they’re harming you and not helping you, you don’t like them. Power is an attractive force.
"Americans like to overstate their success but mostly what countries want to know is: are we there to help them, or are we not?"
I’m not saying America’s never going to decline, what goes up must come down, but if you ask me, if it’s currently in decline or likely to be in coming decades, I believe the answer is no. I believe this so strongly because of a certain set of unique advantages that the US has as compared to other nations.
Firstly, it’s a simple issue of geography. The fact that the US is a world power not surrounded by, or even to have a near neighbour that is a threat, is an entirely unique situation. There is simply no military threat. Every other major power in the world lives in a busy neighbourhood. China’s rise is being watched closely by other substantial powers such as Japan, Korea, Australia, and India. It’s strategically messy.
Long before any major power can rise it will cause nerved reactions from its neighbours, and what do they do? They look to that distant superpower, the US, and asked for help. The advantage that the US has is not basic stability, but the ability to provide that assistance, and face no basic security challenges at home.
It’s strategic advantage that can’t be mimicked. America doesn’t outwit anything. We have never succeeded through a brilliant foreign policy we have succeeded through the natural advantages that we enjoy.
"We have never succeeded through a brilliant foreign policy we have succeeded through the natural advantages that we enjoy."
The US also benefits greatly from the remarkable degree of global acceptance of American power. History demonstrates that since WW2, when the US goes to war, it goes with multiple powers. When Russia goes to war, it goes alone. Take Libya for example. Here we are, less than a decade after the extreme unpopularity of the Iraq War and we have European powers and the Arab League essentially begging the US to use its military force in the Middle East again. It tells you something about the enduring capacity and influence.
There is also this idea is that the US is in an economic calamity and political gridlock but this isn’t as new as people think. It’s a product of the system that the founders explicitly designed. They made it very hard to make radical change in the American system, a system of checks and balances.
And the economic crisis—we’ve been there before. Capitalism is flawed and leads itself into destruction. We experienced economic depressions in the 1890s, 1930s, and the 1970s, there appears to be a pattern of economic calamity almost every 40 years which the US has repeatedly fallen into and repeatedly escaped. In fact, the US leads the world into deep recession and then is the first one out, perhaps because the US has a very adaptive economy.
Since WW2 America has been on the edge, nervous about what’s happening “out there”. America jumps the gun and is overly aggressive, but we have to accept that it has been this vigilance that has ultimately led to great successes.
They want a good America that does the right things, like win WW2, but then there’s the bad America that gets into Vietnam. We have to accept that it’s all the same America. It does all of these things, sometimes it does it good, and sometimes it doesn’t.
"We have to accept that it’s all the same America. It does all of these things, sometimes it does it good, and sometimes it doesn’t."
Since the predominance of the US the world has enjoyed three remarkable and unprecedented qualities:
- Enormous spread of democracy
- A wider dispersion of wealth
- Absence of a great power war.
It is assumed that because China has been a beneficiary of this liberal economic order that if the US moves into decline, China will step up and support this world order. I am sceptical about that. I think the Chinese could kill the “golden goose” because they don’t know how to keep it alive. Because they themselves don’t believe in a liberal economic system and all that comes with it.
We may not like certain aspects of the American world order, but you must ask yourself what is the actual, likely alternative. Some believe that it’s world harmony (for the first time in world history). Every historical bit of knowledge suggests that there is no world harmony out there to be had. We should not take for granted that this international economical liberal world order is self-sustaining.
The Legatum Institute Summer School is a place of fusion and fission bringing together up-and-coming global leaders and a world-class faculty across disciplines and generations. This year’s inaugural event took place in August at the Castiglion del Bosco estate in Tuscany, Italy, and explored the question “What makes civilizations flourish—and fail?”