THE UNITED States has been the dominant world power since 1945, and U.S. leaders have long sought to preserve that privileged position. They understood, as did most Americans, that primacy brought important benefits. It made other states less likely to threaten America or its vital interests directly. By dampening great-power competition and giving Washington the capacity to shape regional balances of power, primacy contributed to a more tranquil international environment. That tranquility fostered global prosperity; investors and traders operate with greater confidence when there is less danger of war. Primacy also gave the United States the ability to work for positive ends: promoting human rights and slowing the spread of weapons of mass destruction. It may be lonely at the top, but Americans have found the view compelling.
When a state stands alone at the pinnacle of power, however, there is nowhere to go but down. And so Americans have repeatedly worried about the possibility of decline—even when the prospect was remote. Back in 1950, National Security Council Report 68 warned that Soviet acquisition of atomic weapons heralded an irreversible shift in geopolitical momentum in Moscow’s favor. A few years later, Sputnik’s launch led many to fear that Soviet premier Nikita S. Khrushchev’s pledge to “bury” Western capitalism might just come true. President John F. Kennedy reportedly believed the USSR would eventually be wealthier than the United States, and Richard Nixon famously opined that America was becoming a “pitiful, helpless giant.” Over the next decade or so, defeat in Indochina and persistent economic problems led prominent academics to produce books with titles like America as an Ordinary Country and After Hegemony. 1 Far-fetched concerns about Soviet dominance helped propel Ronald Reagan to the presidency and were used to justify a major military buildup in the early 1980s. The fear of imminent decline, it seems, has been with us ever since the United States reached the zenith of global power.
Debates about decline took on new life with the publication of Paul Kennedy’s best-selling Rise and Fall of the Great Powers , which famously argued that America was in danger of “imperial overstretch.” Kennedy believed Great Britain returned to the unseemly ranks of mediocrity because it spent too much money defending far-flung interests and fighting costly wars, and he warned that the United States was headed down a similar path. Joseph Nye challenged Kennedy’s pessimism in Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power, which sold fewer copies but offered a more accurate near-term forecast. Nye emphasized America’s unusual strengths, arguing it was destined to be the leading world power for many years to come.
Since then, a host of books and articles—from Charles Krauthammer’s “The Unipolar Moment,” G. John Ikenberry’s Liberal Leviathan and Niall Ferguson’s Colossus to Fareed Zakaria’s The Post-American World (to name but a few)—have debated how long American dominance could possibly last. Even Osama bin Laden eventually got in on the act, proclaiming the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan fatal blows to American power and a vindication of al-Qaeda’s campaign of terror.
Yet for all the ink that has been spilled on the durability of American primacy, the protagonists have mostly asked the wrong question. The issue has never been whether the United States was about to imitate Britain’s fall from the ranks of the great powers or suffer some other form of catastrophic decline. The real question was always whether what one might term the “American Era”was nearing its end. Specifically, might the United States remain the strongest global power but be unable to exercise the same influence it once enjoyed? If that is the case—and I believe it is—then Washington must devise a grand strategy that acknowledges this new reality but still uses America’s enduring assets to advance the national interest.
THE AMERICAN Era began immediately after World War II. Europe may have been the center of international politics for over three centuries, but two destructive world wars decimated these great powers. The State Department’s Policy Planning Staff declared in 1947 that “preponderant power must be the object of U.S. policy,” and its willingness to openly acknowledge this goal speaks volumes about the imbalance of power in America’s favor. International-relations scholars commonly speak of this moment as a transition from a multipolar to a bipolar world, but Cold War bipolarity was decidedly lopsided from the start.
In 1945, for example, the U.S. economy produced roughly half of gross world product, and the United States was a major creditor nation with a positive trade balance. It had the world’s largest navy and air force, an industrial base second to none, sole possession of atomic weapons and a globe-circling array of military bases. By supporting decolonization and backing European reconstruction through the Marshall Plan, Washington also enjoyed considerable goodwill in most of the developed and developing world.
Most importantly, the United States was in a remarkably favorable geopolitical position. There were no other great powers in the Western Hemisphere, so Americans did not have to worry about foreign invasion. Our Soviet rival had a much smaller and less efficient economy. Its military might, concentrated on ground forces, never approached the global reach of U.S. power-projection capabilities. The other major power centers were all located on or near the Eurasian landmass—close to the Soviet Union and far from the United States—which made even former rivals like Germany and Japan eager for U.S. protection from the Russian bear. Thus, as the Cold War proceeded, the United States amassed a strong and loyal set of allies while the USSR led an alliance of comparatively weak and reluctant partners. In short, even before the Soviet Union collapsed, America’s overall position was about as favorable as any great power’s in modern history.
What did the United States do with these impressive advantages? In the decades after World War II, it created and led a political, security and economic order in virtually every part of the globe, except for the sphere that was directly controlled by the Soviet Union and its Communist clients . Not only did the United States bring most of the world into institutions that were largely made in America (the UN, the World Bank, the IMF, and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade), for decades it retained the dominant influence in these arrangements.Image: Pullquote: Instead of trying to be the “indispensable nation” nearly everywhere, the United States will need to figure out how to be the decisive power in the places that matter.Essay Types: Essay