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

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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.

The collective strength of the West is, however, on the way down. During the Cold War, the Western allies often accounted for more than two-thirds of global output. Now they represent about half of output--and soon much less. As of 2010, four of the top five economies in the world were still from the developed world (the United States, Japan, Germany, and France). From the developing world, only China made the grade, coming in at No. 2. By 2050, according to Goldman Sachs, four of the top five economies will come from the developing world (China, India, Brazil, and Russia). Only the United States will make the cut; it will rank second, and its economy will be about half the size of China's. Moreover, the turnabout will be rapid: Goldman Sachs predicts that the collective economic output of the top four developing countries--Brazil, China, India, and Russia--will match that of the G-7 countries by 2032.

Kagan is right that the United States will hold its own amid this coming revolution. But he is certainly misguided to think that the relative decline of Europe and Japan won't matter. Their falling fortunes will compromise America's ability to maintain global sway. Indeed, Kagan seems to admit as much when he acknowledges, "Germany and Japan were and are close democratic allies, key pillars of the American world order."

Kagan is ready to gloss over the consequences of the West's diminishing clout because he thinks that most emerging nations will cast their lot with the United States rather than challenge American hegemony. "Only the growth of China's economy," he writes, "can be said to have implications for American power in the future." Kagan is confident that the rise of others--including Brazil, India, and Turkey--"is either irrelevant to America's strategic position or of benefit to it."

But Washington simply can't expect emerging powers other than China to line up on its side. History suggests that a more equal distribution of power will produce fluid alignments, not fixed alliances. During the late 19th century, for example, the onset of a multi­polar Europe produced a continually shifting network of pacts. Large and small powers alike jockeyed for advantage in an uncertain environment. Only after imperial Germany's military buildup threatened to overturn the equilibrium did Europe's nations group into the competing alliances that ultimately faced off in World War I. As the 21st century unfolds, China is more likely than other emerging nations to threaten U.S. interests. But unless or until the rest of the world is forced to choose sides, most developing countries will keep their options open, not obediently follow America's lead.

Already, rising powers are showing that they'll chart their own courses. Turkey for decades oriented its statecraft westward, focusing almost exclusively on its ties to the United States and Europe. Now, Ankara looks primarily east and south, seeking to extend its sway throughout the Middle East. Its secular bent has given way to Islamist leanings; its traditionally close connection with Israel is on the rocks; and its relations with Washington, although steadier of late, have never recovered from the rift over the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.

India is supposedly America's newest strategic partner. Relations have certainly improved since the 2005 agreement on civilian nuclear cooperation, and the two nations see eye to eye on checking China's regional intentions. But on many other fronts, Washington and New Delhi are miles apart. India frets, for instance, that the U.S. will give Pakistan too much sway in Afghanistan. On the most pressing national security issue of the day--Iran's nuclear program--India is more of a hindrance than a help, defying Washington's effort to isolate Iran through tighter economic sanctions. And the two democracies have long been at loggerheads over trade and market access.

Nations such as Turkey and India, which Kagan argues will be either geopolitically irrelevant or solid American supporters, are already pushing back against Washington. And they are doing so while the United States still wields a pronounced preponderance of power. Imagine how things will look when the playing field has truly leveled out.

Despite his faith that rising powers (save China) will be America's friends, Kagan at least recognizes that their ascent could come at America's expense. Will not the "increasing economic clout" of emerging powers, he asks, "cut into American power and influence?" He offers a few reasons not to worry, none of which satisfies.

For starters, he claims that the growing wealth of developing nations need not diminish U.S. sway because "there is no simple correlation between economic growth and international influence." He continues, "Just because a nation is an attractive investment opportunity does not mean it is a rising great power."

True enough. But one of the past's most indelible patterns is that rising nations eventually expect their influence to be commensurate with their power. The proposition that countries such as India and Brazil will sit quietly in the global shadows as they become economic titans flies in the face of history. Other than modern-day Germany and Japan--both of which have punched well below their weight due to constraints imposed on them after World War II--a country's geopolitical aspirations generally rise in step with its economic strength. During the 1890s, for instance, the United States tapped its industrial might to launch a blue-water navy, rapidly turning itself from an international lightweight into a world-class power. China is now in the midst of fashioning geopolitical aspirations that match its economic strength--as are other emerging powers. India is pouring resources into its navy; its fleet expansion includes 20 new warships and two aircraft carriers.

To support his thesis that emerging powers are not rising at the expense of U.S. influence, Kagan also argues that pushback against Washington is nothing new. He then cites numerous occasions, most of them during the Cold War, when adversaries and allies alike resisted U.S. pressure. The upshot is that other nations are no less compliant today than they used to be, and that the sporadic intransigence of emerging powers is par for the course.

But today's global landscape is new. By presuming that current circumstances are comparable with the Cold War, Kagan underestimates the centrifugal forces thwarting American influence. Bipolarity no longer constrains how far nations--even those aligned with Washington--will stray from the fold. And the United States no longer wields the economic influence that it once did. Its transition from creditor to debtor nation and from budget surpluses to massive deficits explains why it has been watching from the sidelines as its partners in Europe flirt with financial meltdown. The G-7, a grouping of like-minded democracies, used to oversee the global economy. Now that role is played by the G-20, a much more unwieldy group in which Washington has considerably less influence. And it is hardly business as usual when foreign countries lay claim to nearly 50 percent of publicly held U.S. government debt, with an emerging rival--China--holding about one-quarter of the American treasuries owned by foreigners.

Yes, U.S. leadership has always faced resistance, but the pushback grows in proportion to the diffusion of global power. China may prove to be America's most formidable competitor, but other emerging nations will also be finding their own orbits, not automatically aligning themselves with Washington. America's most reliable partners in the years ahead will remain its traditional allies, Europe and Japan. That's why it spells trouble for the United States that these allies are on the losing end of the ongoing redistribution of global power.

The Wrong Lesson

Finally, Kagan's timing is off. He is right that power shifts over decades, not years. But he underestimates the speed at which substantial changes can occur. He notes, for example, "The United States today is not remotely like Britain circa 1900, when that empire's relative decline began to become apparent. It is more like Britain circa 1870, when the empire was at the height of its power." After two draining wars, an economic crisis, and deepening defense cuts, this assertion seems doubtful. But let's assume that the United States is indeed "at the height of its power," comparable with Britain circa 1870.

In 1870, British hegemony rested on a combination of economic and naval supremacy that looked indefinitely durable. Two short decades later, however, that picture had completely changed. The simultaneous rise of the United States, Germany, and Japan altered the distribution of power, forcing Britain to revamp its grand strategy. Pax Britannica may have technically lasted until World War I, but London saw the writing on the wall much earlier--which is precisely why it was able to adjust its strategy by downsizing imperial commitments and countering Germany's rise.

In 1896, Britain began courting the United States and soon backed down on a number of disputes in order to advance Anglo-American amity. The British adopted a similar approach in the Pacific, fashioning a naval alliance with Japan in 1902. In both cases, London used diplomacy to clear the way for retrenchment--and it worked. Rapprochement with Washington and Tokyo freed up the fleet, enabling the Royal Navy to concentrate its battleships closer to home as the Anglo-German rivalry heated up.

It was precisely because Britain, while still enjoying preponderant strength, looked over the horizon that it was able to successfully adapt its grand strategy to a changing distribution of power. Just like Britain in 1870, the United States probably has another two decades before it finds itself in a truly multipolar world. But due to globalization and the spread of new manufacturing and information technologies, global power is shifting far more rapidly today than it did in the 19th century.

Now is the time for Washington to focus on managing the transition to a new geopolitical landscape. As the British experience makes clear, effective strategic adjustment means getting ahead of the curve. The alternative is to wait until it is too late--precisely what London did during the 1930s, with disastrous consequences for Britain and Europe. Despite the mounting threat posed by Nazi Germany, Britain clung to its overseas empire and postponed rearmament. After living in denial for the better part of a decade, it finally began to prepare for war in 1939, but by then it was way too late to stop the Nazi war machine.

Even Kagan seems to recognize that comparing the United States to Britain in 1870 may do his argument more harm than good. "Whether the United States begins to decline over the next two decades or not for another two centuries," he writes, "will matter a great deal, both to Americans and to the nature of the world they live in." The suggestion here is that the United States, as long as it marshals the willpower and makes the right choices, could still have a good 200 years of hegemony ahead of it. But two decades--more in line with the British analogy--is probably the better guess. It strains credibility to propose that, even as globalization speeds growth among developing nations, a country with less than 5 percent of the world's population will run the show for two more centuries.

Whether American primacy lasts another 20 years or another 200, Kagan's paramount worry is that Americans will commit "preemptive superpower suicide out of a misplaced fear of their own declining power." In fact, the greater danger is that the United States could head into an era of global change with its eyes tightly shut--in denial of the tectonic redistribution of power that is remaking the globe. The United States will remain one of the world's leading powers for the balance of the 21st century, but it must recognize the waning of the West's primacy and work to shepherd the transition to a world it no longer dominates. Pretending otherwise is the real "preemptive superpower suicide."

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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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