The Buzz

The Fatal Flaw in the American Decline Debate

The fall of Mosul to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) has intensified the debate over the proper objective of America’s grand strategy.  Should it continue “the preservation of a very happy status quo” (Joshua Rovner)?  Adopt a posture of “restraint” (Barry Posen)?  Attempt to “forge a sustainable path ahead for American internationalism” (Michèle Flournoy and Richard Fontaine)?  Sustain “a liberal world order that [will] defend not only America’s interests but those of many other nations as well” (Robert Kagan)? 

This debate is healthy and essential, even if reaches no resolution.  Less clear, however, is the prescriptive value of the question that often attends discussions of America’s role in the world: “Is the United States in decline?”

For starters, it is highly ambiguous.  When we say “United States,” are we addressing its government?  Its military power?  Its economic power?  Its overall power?  Its influence in international affairs?  Some of the above?  All of the above?  How should we measure each of them?  “Decline” is further problematic.  From what baseline are we assessing America’s trajectory?  Are we discussing absolute or relative decline?  What are the criteria for each?  When does relative decline become absolute?    

It is not only definitional and methodological questions, however, that arise.  One’s take on the decline question also depends, for example, on how one ranks the importance of different forms of power.  One who places priority on power-projection capability and command of the commons is less likely to agree that the U.S. is in decline than someone who believes that geoeconomic instruments of power are increasingly important.  One’s verdict also depends on the strategic objectives one believes the U.S. should be pursuing.  One who believes the U.S. should focus primarily on maintaining its sovereignty, territorial integrity, and baseline power resources is less likely to agree that the U.S. is in decline than someone who believes the U.S. should attempt to preserve a liberal international order indefinitely.  Last but not least, one’s conclusion also depends on one’s appraisal of the challenges faced by other major powers.  One who concludes that China’s internal difficulties place an upper bound on its ascent is less likely to agree with the assessment of U.S. decline than someone who assumes China will be able to address them over time.

The discussion above only scratches the surface; there are many other considerations that could inform one’s answer to the decline question.  Indeed, given how many permutations of variables and metrics one can use to tackle the decline question, it is possible for folks on opposite sides to debate one another without engaging each other’s arguments in much depth—a possibility that helps explain why the debate has grown stagnant.  While the specific evidence that declinists and anti-declinists cite has necessarily changed over time, their theses have not.  The declinists conclude that this time is different, lamenting that the hastiness of previous predictions has lulled those who disagree with them into complacency.  The anti-declinists point to America’s formidable residual strengths and longstanding regenerative capacity, treating their sparring partners much like the boy who cried wolf.  Befitting a debate of such endurance and complexity, each side has persuasive proponents.  Reading Gideon Rachman or Edward Luce will leave most fair-minded observers more concerned about America’s prospects than they were before; reading Joseph Nye or Josef Joffe will leave most more reassured.  There is little evidence to suggest that either camp is changing the other’s views.  It is more likely, in fact, that those views will calcify over time.