The Decline of the West: Why America Must Prepare for the End of Dominance

The U.S. will remain powerful, yes, but the world is changing.

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A U.S. Navy officer points to a map / Reuters

Those of us who write about foreign policy--or any topic, for that matter--yearn for the day when the president of the United States lauds our work. That is exactly what happened in January to Robert Kagan, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and an adviser to the Romney campaign. Just before delivering the State of the Union address, President Obama told a collection of news anchors that his thinking had been influenced by Kagan's recent cover essay in The New Republic, "Not Fade Away: The Myth of American Decline." It is not often that a president running for reelection praises his chief rival's counselor.

Kagan's article, which draws on his new book, The World America Made, contests the emerging consensus in foreign-policy circles that American primacy is eroding thanks to the shift in global power from the West to the "rising rest." China and other nations are steadily ascending, this view holds, while the United States and its allies are stuck in an economic rut. The long era of Western hegemony seems to be coming to an end.

Kagan begs to differ. He contends that U.S. primacy is undiminished and that Americans, as long as they set their minds to it, are poised to sit atop the global pecking order for the indefinite future. The nation's share of global economic output has been holding steady, and its military strength "remains unmatched." China, India, Brazil, Turkey, and other emerging powers are certainly on the move, Kagan acknowledges, but he maintains that only China will compromise U.S. interests. The others will either align with the United States or remain on the geopolitical sidelines. The biggest threat to U.S. hegemony is that "Americans may convince themselves that decline is indeed inevitable"--and choose to let it happen. Kagan wants to persuade them otherwise and to call forth the political energies needed to ensure that the United States remains "the world's predominant power."

Although it sounds reassuring, Kagan's argument is, broadly, wrong. It's true that economic strength and military superiority will preserve U.S. influence over global affairs for decades to come, but power is undeniably flowing away from the West to developing nations. If history is any guide, the arrival of a world in which power is more widely distributed will mean a new round of jockeying for position and primacy. While it still enjoys the top rank, the United States should do its best to ensure that this transition occurs peacefully and productively. The worst thing to do is to pretend it's not happening.

By overselling the durability of U.S. primacy, Kagan's analysis breeds an illusory strategic complacency: There is no need to debate the management of change when one denies it is taking place. Even worse, the neoconservative brain trust to which Kagan belongs chronically overestimates U.S. power and its ability to shape the world. The last time that like-minded thinkers ran the show--George W. Bush's first term as president--they did much more to undermine American strength than to bolster it. Neoconservative thinking produced an assertive unilateralism that set the rest of the world on edge; led to an unnecessary and debilitating war in Iraq, the main results of which have been sectarian violence and regional instability; and encouraged fiscal profligacy that continues to threaten American solvency. Kagan would have us fritter away the nation's resources in pursuit of a hollow hegemony.

Instead, it is time for thrift: Washington should husband its many strengths, be more sparing with military force, and rely on judicious diplomacy to tame the onset of a multipolar world.

The Clock is Running

American primacy is not as resilient as Kagan thinks. His most serious error is his argument that Americans need not worry about the ascent of new powers because only Europe and Japan are losing ground to them; the United States is keeping pace. It's true that the U.S. share of global output has held at roughly 25 percent for several decades. It's also the case that "the rise of China, India, and other Asian nations ... has so far come almost entirely at the expense of Europe and Japan, which have had a declining share of the global economy." But this is not, as Kagan implies, good news for the United States.

The long run of Western hegemony has been the product of teamwork, not of America acting alone. Through the 19th century and up until World War II, Europe led the effort to spread liberal democracy and capitalism--and to guide Western nations to a position of global dominance. Not until the postwar era did the United States take over stewardship of the West. Pax Britannica set the stage for Pax Americana, and Washington inherited from its European allies a liberal international order that rested on solid commercial and strategic foundations. Moreover, America's many successes during the past 70 years would not have been possible without the power and purpose of Europe and Japan by its side. Whether defeating communism, liberalizing the global economy, combating nuclear proliferation, or delivering humanitarian assistance, Western allies formed a winning coalition that made effective action possible.

Presented by

Charles A. Kupchan is Professor of International Affairs at Georgetown University and Whitney Shepardson Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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