Is America’s Mind-set the Greatest Threat to Its Future?

Overreacting to every perceived threat could make America's decline a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

After the Cold War, and particularly in the early part of the this century, the United States came to overestimate the extent to which its power—military power, especially—could produce strategic outcomes in its national interest. The pendulum has swung considerably in the intervening years. Respected commentators see a world in flames and fear that the United States is incapable of extinguishing them, let alone rejuvenating the liberal world order over which it has presided for the past seven decades. Perhaps the most notable aspect of those assessments is that they transcend partisan lines: consider the warnings of liberal thinkers such as Zbigniew Brzezinski and George Packer; those of their conservative counterparts, including Robert Kagan and Bret Stephens; and, finally, those of more centrist observers, including Richard Haass and Mathew Burrows.

Concerns about growing world disorder are especially compelling in view of the carnage engulfing an ever wider swathe of the Middle East and North Africa. Beyond the four principal foci of that violence—Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen—a broader struggle for regional influence is crystallizing between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The United States “finds itself,” The New York Times observed in late March, “trying to sustain an ever-growing patchwork of strained alliances and multiple battlefields in the aftermath of the Arab Spring four years ago. The momentary moral clarity of the demands for democracy across the region has been replaced by difficult choices among enemies and unappealing allies who have rushed to fill power vacuums.” Beyond the Middle East, Boko Haram and al-Shabab are destabilizing central Africa, Russia is pursuing the piecemeal dismemberment of eastern Ukraine, and China is using a combination of economic pressure and land reclamation to shape an Asian-Pacific order that weakens America’s alliance system over time.

Given these realities, it would seem difficult to dispute that the United States is increasingly a bystander to world affairs. In his new book Is the American Century Over?, however, Joseph Nye renders a more nuanced judgment: American preeminence “will continue in the sense of the centrality of the United States to the balance of power and American leadership in the production of public goods,” he explains, “but it will look different from how it did in the latter half of the last century.” A professor at the Harvard Kennedy School and one of the most esteemed analysts of world affairs, Nye has been countering declinism for a quarter century, beginning with his 1990 book Bound to Lead. The brevity of his latest text belies its sweep, and judging by the reception it has received, even among those who are considerably less optimistic about America’s prospects—Gideon Rachman and Amitav Acharya, for example—one suspects it will endure as a central text of the anti-declinist oeuvre (full disclosure: I read and critiqued a first draft of the book).

Before addressing the declinist charge that U.S. influence is receding—it is important to discuss some features of the emerging strategic context.

First, contrary to the zero-sum assessment in which relative U.S. decline translates neatly into relative Chinese ascent, many of the phenomena testing U.S. influence are also creating headaches for China. Indeed, protracted U.S. weakness would present it with a number of dilemmas. True, China bristles at the extent of U.S. influence, and it welcomes the long-term trend towards a more competitive world system. Still, as the late Lee Kuan Yew explained, “China knows that it needs access to U.S. markets, U.S. technology, [and] opportunities for Chinese students to study in the United States and bring back to China new ideas about new frontiers.” Relative U.S. decline risks those benefits; it also risks the security of the global commons upon which China increasingly relies for the vital commodities—energy, especially—that power its growth. On the flip side, China’s rise introduces many difficulties of its own, including coping with environmental degradation and demographic decline; addressing growing tensions between the political and economic aspects of its governance system; and reassuring its neighbors, some of whom fear the prospective resumption of a Sinocentric regional order.