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.
The decline debate is likely here to stay, in part because the fears it reflects seem to be integral to the American psyche. As Cullen Murphy explained to James Fallows in early 2010, “If you go back and pick any decade in American history, you are guaranteed to find the exact same worries we have now….Poke a stick into it, and you will get a gushing fount of commentary on the same subjects as now, in the same angry and despairing tone….Fifty years from now, Americans will be as worried as they are today.” While a perpetual fear of decline would seem to be a source of exhaustion, Americans have channeled it quite constructively in the postwar era; just consider the wave of American innovations that followed the launch of Sputnik. Reflecting on the declinist debate a quarter century ago in Foreign Affairs, Samuel Huntington reassured readers that the U.S. “is unlikely to decline so long as its public is periodically convinced that it is about to decline….the more Americans worry about the health of their society, the healthier they are”
Particularly since the global financial crisis, however, this concern has increasingly appeared to coincide with a mood of resignation. According to a report this past December by the Pew Research Center, 48% of Americans think China is “the world’s leading economic power” (31% think the U.S. is). According to another Pew report, this one released just last month, 49% think America’s “best years” are over (44% think they lie ahead). Only 35% think “it’s best for the future of the country to be active in world affairs.” The current wave of declinism reinforces—and is, in turn, amplified by—a familiar tendency in intellectual and political circles: adducing each new crisis abroad as evidence of U.S. impotence in international affairs.
Paradoxically, though, while this inclination stems from concern about declining U.S. influence, it also seems to reflect a belief in—or, at a minimum, a hope for—something approaching U.S. omnipotence: that is, the U.S. can generally prevent or reverse bad outcomes if it chooses to do so. In truth, though the U.S. may remain the world’s most powerful and influential single actor, the policies it implements are only one of an infinite number of phenomena that shape the day’s events. While it is natural to worry about U.S. influence abroad when fires seem to be burning all around, the intensity of alarm in certain quarters seems disproportionate in view of the past 70 years. Every administration of the postwar era has struggled—not only to reconcile crisis management with strategic vision, but also to address the charge that it was hapless as momentous strategic developments multiplied abroad.
Few would—or could—deny the magnitude of the foreign-policy challenges facing the U.S., whether the ascendancy of ISIS, the carnage in Syria, Russian efforts to destabilize Ukraine, China’s approach to solving its territorial disputes, or the latest North Korean provocation. These challenges are more a reflection of the world’s complexity, however, than of the failure of U.S. foreign policy. That policy should be graded less on the basis of how it responds to a given crisis than on the extent to which it shapes trends in the international system over time. Even if one believes that U.S. credibility suffers when it responds “weakly” to a given crisis, adopting a “do something now” doctrine is not a prudent alternative: much like thrashing around in quick sand only makes one sink faster, operating one’s foreign policy in perpetual crisis-management mode can only culminate in exhaustion and confusion—thereby, ironically, compounding the very weakness that proponents of that doctrine seek to reverse (Tom Toles’s April 20th cartoon “As the World Turns” makes the point well).
Foreign policy requires strategic vision because crises alone are insufficient to provide a coherent basis for approaching the world. They often occur at unexpected times and in unexpected places, bearing little relationship to one another. Even if they did provide such a foundation, U.S. foreign policy would not be strategic if it undertook to prioritize each crisis equally. As Francis Fukuyama explained recently, strategy “is about setting priorities, saying that some things are more important than others, and explaining why this is so. The notion that there is no place unworthy of U.S. attention is not a strategy.” One could go further: the existence of a crisis need not impel U.S. involvement. The doctor’s mantra—“first, do no harm”—is also a sound principle in foreign policy. The U.S. should concern itself primarily with those crises that affect its vital national interests or could do so if left unchecked. When a crisis affects important (but not vital) or secondary interests, it should think carefully before deciding to get involved; it if it does, it should either work in close partnership with allies or play a backbencher role, ensuring that its efforts at crisis management do not detract from its strategic priorities.
Fretting about decline does not contribute to making these distinctions; instead, it collapses the boundaries between them. Here we get to the major problem with the decline debate: it offers little, if any, prescriptive guidance. Whether or not the U.S. is in decline—however vaguely defined and imprecisely measured—it will have to contend with a range of crises across the globe, the emergence of more and more non-Western powers, and the shifting balance of power between states and nonstate actors. It would be more productive to explore how the U.S. can position itself in this emerging operating environment than to invest in a stale debate whose participants do not appear to be making much impression on each other. Ironically, one of the most compelling affirmations of this proposition comes from Paul Kennedy, perhaps the most influential declinist alive today: the “only serious threat to the real interests of the United States,” he explained over a quarter century ago in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, “can come from a failure to adjust sensibly to the newer world order. Given the considerable array of strengths still possessed by the United States, it ought not in theory to be beyond the talents of successive administrations to arrange the diplomacy and strategy of this readjustment.”
Ali Wyne is a contributing analyst at Wikistrat and a coauthor of Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States, and the World (2013). Follow him on Twitter: @Ali_Wyne.