Empire Falls

Empire Falls

Mini Teaser: The United States is in unprecedented decline. Future generations will look back at the past decade as the beginning of the end of American hegemony.

by Author(s): Robert A. Pape

Worse, America's decline was well under way before the economic downturn, which is likely to only further weaken U.S. power. As the most recent growth estimates (November 2008) by the IMF make clear, although all major countries are suffering economically, China and Russia are expected to continue growing at a substantially greater rate than the United States.

True, the United States has not lost its position as the most innovative country in the world, with more patents each year than in all other countries combined. However, the ability to diffuse new technology-to turn chalkboard ideas into mass-produced applications-has been spreading rapidly across many parts of the globe, and with it the ultimate sources of state power-productive capacities.



America is losing its overwhelming technological dominance in the leading industries of the knowledge economy. In past eras-the "age of iron" and the "age of steel"-leading states retained their technological advantages for many decades.4 As Fareed Zakaria describes in his recent book, The Post-American World, technology and knowledge diffuse more quickly today, and their rapid global diffusion is a profound factor driving down America's power compared to other countries. For instance, although the United States remains well ahead of China on many indicators of leading technology on a per capita basis, this grossly under-weights the size of the knowledge economy in China compared to America. Whereas in 2000, the United States had three times the computer sales, five times the internet users and forty times the broadband subscribers as China, in 2008, the Chinese have caught or nearly caught up with Americans in every category in the aggregate.5 The fact that the United States remains ahead of China on a per capita basis does matter-it means that China, with more than four times the U.S. population, can create many more knowledge workers in the future.

So, how much is U.S. decline due to the global diffusion of technology, U.S. economic weaknesses under Bush or China's superior economic performance?

Although precise answers are not possible, one can gain a rough weighting of the factors behind America's shrinking share of world production by asking a few simple counterfactual questions of the data. What would happen if we assumed that the United States grew during the Bush years at the same rate as during Clinton's? What would have happened had the world continued on its same trajectory, but we assume China did not grow at such an astounding rate? Of course, these are merely thought experiments, which leave out all manner of technical problems like "interaction effects." Still, these back-of-the-envelope approximations serve as useful starting points.

The answers are pretty straightforward. Had the American economy grown at the (Clinton) rate of 3.7 percent per year from 2000 to 2008 instead of the (Bush) rate of 2.2 percent, the United States would have had a bigger economy in absolute terms and would have lost less power relative to others. Assuming the rest of the world continued at its actual rate of growth, America's share of world product in 2008 would have risen to 25.2 percent instead of its actual 23.1 percent.6 When compared to the share of gross world product lost by the United States from 2000 to 2008-7.7 percent-the assumed marginal gain of 2.1 percent of world product amounts to some 27 percent of the U.S. decline.

How much does China matter? Imagine the extreme case-that China had not grown, and the United States and the rest of the world continued along their actual path of economic growth since 2000. If so, America's share of world product in 2008 would be 24.3 percent, or 1.2 percent more than today. When compared to the share of world product lost by the United States from 2000 to 2008-7.7 percent-the assumed marginal gain of 1.2 percent of world product accounts for about 15 percent of the U.S. decline.



These estimates suggest that roughly a quarter of America's relative decline is due to U.S. economic weaknesses (spending on the Iraq War, tax cuts, current-account deficits, etc.), a sixth to China's superior performance and just over half to the spread of technology to the rest of the world. In other words, self-inflicted wounds of the Bush years significantly exacerbated America's decline, both by making the decline steeper and faster and crowding out productive investment that could have stimulated innovation to improve matters.

All of this has led to one of the most significant declines of any state since the mid-nineteenth century. And when one examines past declines and their consequences, it becomes clear both that the U.S. fall is remarkable and that dangerous instability in the international system may lie ahead. If we end up believing in the wishful thinking of unipolar dominance forever, the costs could be far higher than a simple percentage drop in share of world product.


THE UNITED States has always prided itself on exceptionalism, and the U.S. downfall is indeed extraordinary. Something fundamental has changed. America's relative decline since 2000 of some 30 percent represents a far greater loss of relative power in a shorter time than any power shift among European great powers from roughly the end of the Napoleonic Wars to World War II. It is one of the largest relative declines in modern history. Indeed, in size, it is clearly surpassed by only one other great-power decline, the unexpected internal collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Most disturbing, whenever there are major changes in the balance of power, conflict routinely ensues. Examining the historical record reveals an important pattern: the states facing the largest declines in power compared to other major powers were apt to be the target of opportunistic aggression. And this is surely not the only possible danger from relative decline; states on the power wane also have a history of launching preventive wars to strengthen their positions. All of this suggests that major relative declines are often accompanied by highly dangerous international environments. So, these declines matter not just in terms of economics, but also because of their destabilizing consequences.

Tsarist Russia presents the first case in point. Compared to other great powers on the European continent, its power declined the most during the mid-nineteenth century. And, it became the target of opportunistic aggression by the state with the greatest rising power, Great Britain, during the Crimean War (1854-1856). Indeed, the consequences of Russia's decline were not fully recognizable until the war itself. Though Russia was still a great power and the war cost Britain and France more than expected, Russia emerged the clear loser. Russia's inability to defend the status quo in the Crimea confirmed its grand-strategic weaknesses, and ultimately left it worse-off than had it anticipated its vulnerabilities and sought to negotiate a reduction in its military commitments to the region peacefully. Considering that the Crimea conflict left Russia with fairly gaping wounds, and that even its slow 10 percent decline in relative power over twenty years left the country bruised and battered, one might wonder how our far more rapid descent might play out.


Meanwhile, similar destabilization occurred in the two decades before World War I and before World War II, when France and Great Britain were declining European powers. In both instances, France and Britain became targets of opportunistic aggression by one of the strongest rising powers in the region: Germany. And as a small cottage industry of scholarship suggests, Germany's fairly modest relative declines compared to Russia prior to World War I and the Soviet Union prior to World War II encouraged German leaders to wage preventive wars. Again, these declines occurred as another power was concomitantly rising (Germany in the case of France and Britain, and Russia-later the Soviet Union-relative to Germany). Of course, this only served to increase the danger. But again, these rises and falls were less precipitous than America's current losses, and our descent appears far trickier to navigate.

As we look to address our current fall from grace, lest we forget, the United States faced two major declines of its power during the cold war as well. Neither was without risk. The first occurred shortly after World War II, when the devastation of the Soviet, European and many Asian economies, combined with the increasingly productive American economy, left the United States with a far larger share of gross world product-41 percent in 1948-than it even possessed in the age of unipolar dominance beginning in 1991. As the war-torn economies recovered, U.S. share of world product fell 20 percent by 1961 while that of its main rival, the Soviet Union, grew by 167 percent. This relative American decline corresponds to the height of U.S.-Soviet cold-war rivalry in Europe and Asia. Eight of the nine U.S.-Soviet nuclear crises occurred from 1948-1962, all of which involved efforts by the Soviet Union or its allies to revise the political status quo in their favor7-that is, all could be reasonably interpreted as instances in which the United States or its allies became the targets of opportunistic aggression.

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