Declinism Revisited

January 28, 2009 Topic: Great Powers Region: Americas Tags: Superpower

Declinism Revisited

Is America’s global hegemony finished? Robert Pape responds to critics of his recent National Interest article, “Empire Falls.”


Last week, in a post on his blog for Foreign Policy, Stephen Walt wrote a lively critique of my recent article in The National Interest on America's relative decline. But he disagrees with me less than his tone suggests.

Walt fairly summarizes my premise-that America is in relative decline-and, if anything, appears to concede my main points that the United States faces an overcommitment problem and should have a more modest grand strategy. But, he then goes on to frame my piece as contrary to President Obama's strategic initiatives (which it is not; I'm a supporter), as predicting the certainty of counterbalancing against the United States (again not), as sure the long-term trends will continue (again, again not), and as ignoring the possibility that others will suffer economic downturns (again, again, again not).


What my article does do is challenge the claim that American power is so dominant that it can pursue a revisionist grand strategy in Europe, Asia, the Middle East and other areas of the world without fear of serious international consequences.  As recently as six months ago, two prominent members of what can be called the "unipolar dominance school"-Stephen Brooks and William Wohlforth-argued that America's share of world economic strength towers so greatly above all other countries that

the United States can push hard and even unilaterally for revisions in the international system without sparking counter-balancing , risking the erosion of its ability to cooperate within international institutions, jeopardizing the gains of globalization, or undermining the overall legitimacy of its role. (World Out of Balance, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008)

My article challenges this worldview by showing that its underlying premise is fundamentally flawed. America's relative power has deteriorated substantially not just since October, but since almost the beginning of the Bush administration, with the result that efforts to revise the international system in America's image-whether by liberal internationalists or neoconservatives-are increasingly problematic.

Walt does, however, call attention to one important issue discussed in the article-whether America's relative decline has already gone so far that America should precipitously abandon our allies in Europe, Asia and elsewhere, leaving them vulnerable to potential rivals in their regions. Given the uncertainties ahead, my article calls for a slow and steady reduction in the U.S. military presence in Europe and Asia married with a strategy of "strategic trades"-for instance, Russia may well do more to discourage Iran's nuclear program in return for less U.S. pressure to expand NATO to its borders.

Since 2000, a systemic change has been occurring in the economic foundations of America's power, and U.S. relative power may fall further in the future. None of the dramatic consequences are likely to be immediate, but neither are they easily avoidable. With a more creative grand strategy, however, America can mitigate the consequences of its decline and possibly reverse it.


Robert A. Pape is a professor of political science at the University of Chicago.