It’s Declinin’ Time Again

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Every ten years, it is decline time in the United States. In the late 1950s, it was the Sputnik shock, followed by the “missile gap” trumpeted by John F. Kennedy in the 1960 presidential campaign. A decade later, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger predicted a world of five, rather than two, global powers. At the end of the 1970s, Jimmy Carter’s “malaise” speech invoked “a crisis of confidence” that struck “at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will.” A decade later, academics such as the Yale historian Paul Kennedy predicted the ruin of the United States, driven by overextension abroad and profligacy at home.

Declinism took a break in the 1990s, but by the end of the Bush administration it had returned with a vengeance. Last year, inspired by the global financial crisis, Paul Kennedy revisited the arguments he had laid out twenty years earlier. “The biggest loser is understood to be Uncle Sam,” he wrote. Chronic fiscal deficits and military overstretch are finally doing in the United States, he argued, and the “global tectonic power shift, toward Asia and away from the West, seems hard to reverse.”

But the history of declinism shows that doom arrives in cycles, and what comes and goes does not a trend make. So today, as after past prophecies of imminent debility, the United States remains first on any scale of power that matters—economic, military, diplomatic, or cultural—despite being embroiled in two wars and beset by the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. The question, then, is how well can the current declinism stand up to this enduring reality?

The breathtaking rise of China is at the center of contemporary worries. This argument is not about the absolute decline of the United States now but about its relative loss vis-à-vis China later (the United States is supposedly doomed because China’s economy has been growing at three times the rate of America’s and therefore China will surpass the United States in terms of output sometime in the next several decades).

The United States is the default power because nobody else has the requisite power and purpose. The default power does what others cannot or will not do.

Life, however, is not linear. China’s uninterrupted double-digit growth rates are of recent vintage, essentially beginning in 2003. Estimates that China’s economy would grow by 6 percent in 2009 were a cautionary tale; China’s growth has dropped by half, from a historical high of almost 12 percent in 2007, which serves as a warning that its miraculous growth is foreign made. China is a place where the rest of the world essentially rents workers and workspace at deflated prices. The Chinese economy is extremely dependent on exports—they amount to around two-fifths of gross domestic product—and hence vulnerable to global downturns. In fact, China’s exports had plunged 26 percent by mid-2009.

But power is not just a matter of growth rates. What, then, makes a country great? A large population, a large economy, and a large military are necessary but not sufficient conditions. What puts the United States in a league of its own?

For one, the world’s most sophisticated military panoply, fed by a defense budget that dwarfs all comers and gives the United States the means to intervene anywhere on the planet. And current figures show the U.S. economy to be worth $14.3 trillion, three times as much as the second-biggest economy, that of Japan. The United States also comes out ahead in terms of per capita income, with $47,000 per inhabitant.

But there is even more: an unmatched research and higher-education establishment.

Another aspect of national power is a warrior culture. The United States still has one, as does Britain. But Europe—although it bests or equals the United States in terms of population, economic size, and military might—no longer has the mind-set that once made it the master of the world.

The United States is the default power because nobody else has the requisite power and purpose. The default power does what others cannot or will not do. It underwrites Europe’s security against a resurgent Russia. It reins in both India and Pakistan and protects each against the other. It chastises whoever reaches for mastery over the Middle East. Only the default power has the power to harness a coalition against Iran. It guarantees the survival of Israel, but, at the same time, the Palestinians and the Saudis look to the United States for leverage against Jerusalem. Can anyone imagine China, Europe, or Russia as a more persuasive mediator? No, only the United States can insure both the Arabs and the Israelis against the consequences of misplaced credulity.

Gainsayers will still dramatize China’s growth rates as a harbinger of a grand power shift. But, as the twenty-first century unfolds, the United States will be younger and more dynamic than its competitors and more geopolitically nimble: it can act abroad with fewer costs than yesterday’s behemoths, which depended on territorial possessions and conducting endless wars against natives and rivals.

A final point: who would actually want to live in a world dominated by China, India, Japan, Russia, or even Europe, which for all its enormous appeal cannot take care of its own backyard? Not even those who have been trading in gloom for decade after decade would prefer that any of them take over as housekeeper of the world.