The End of the American Era

The End of the American Era

Mini Teaser: Two lost wars. Eroding infrastructure. A crippled economy. The time when the United States could create and lead a political, economic and security order in virtually every part of the world is over. The cure? A new American strategy.

by Author(s): Stephen M. Walt

One can only imagine how much policy makers in Beijing have enjoyed watching the United States bog itself down in these costly quagmires. Fortunately, there is an obvious solution: return to offshore balancing. The United States should get out of Iraq and Afghanistan as quickly as possible, treat Israel like a normal country instead of backing it unconditionally, and rely on local Middle Eastern, European and Asian allies to maintain the peace—with our help when necessary.

DON’T GET me wrong. The United States is not finished as a major power. Nor is it destined to become just one of several equals in a future multipolar world. To the contrary, the United States still has the world’s strongest military, and the U.S. economy remains diverse and technologically advanced. China’s economy may soon be larger in absolute terms, but its per capita income will be far smaller, which means its government will have less surplus to devote to expanding its reach (including of the military variety). American expenditures on higher education and industrial research and development still dwarf those of other countries, the dollar remains the world’s reserve currency and many states continue to clamor for U.S. protection.

Furthermore, long-term projections of U.S. latent power are reassuring. Populations in Russia, Japan and most European countries are declining and aging, which will limit their economic potential in the decades ahead. China’s median age is also rising rapidly (an unintended consequence of the one-child policy), and this will be a powerful drag on its economic vitality. By contrast, U.S. population growth is high compared with the rest of the developed world, and U.S. median age will be lower than any of the other serious players.

Indeed, in some ways America’s strategic position is actually more favorable than it used to be, which is why its bloated military budget is something of a mystery. In 1986, for example, the United States and its allies controlled about 49 percent of global military expenditures while our various adversaries combined for some 42 percent. Today, the United States and its allies are responsible for nearly 70 percent of military spending; all our adversaries put together total less than 15 percent. Barring additional self-inflicted wounds, the United States is not going to fall from the ranks of the great powers at any point in the next few decades. Whether the future world is unipolar, bipolar or multipolar, Washington is going to be one of those poles—and almost certainly the strongest of them.

And so, the biggest challenge the United States faces today is not a looming great-power rival; it is the triple whammy of accumulated debt, eroding infrastructure and a sluggish economy. The only way to have the world’s most capable military forces both now and into the future is to have the world’s most advanced economy, and that means having better schools, the best universities, a scientific establishment that is second to none, and a national infrastructure that enhances productivity and dazzles those who visit from abroad. These things all cost money, of course, but they would do far more to safeguard our long-term security than spending a lot of blood and treasure determining who should run Afghanistan, Kosovo, South Sudan, Libya, Yemen or any number of other strategic backwaters.

The twilight of the American Era is not an occasion to mourn or a time to cast blame. The period when the United States could manage the politics, economics and security arrangements for nearly the entire globe was never destined to endure forever, and its passing need not herald a new age of rising threats and economic hardship if we make intelligent adjustments.

Instead of looking backward with nostalgia, Americans should see the end of the American Era as an opportunity to rebalance our international burdens and focus on our domestic imperatives. Instead of building new Bagrams in faraway places of little consequence, it is time to devote more attention to that “shining city on a hill” of which our leaders often speak, but which still remains to be built.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renee Belfer Professor of International Affairs at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.

1 See Richard Rosecrance, ed., America as an Ordinary Country: U.S. Foreign Policy and the Future (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1976); and Robert O. Keohane, After Hegemony: Cooperation and Discord in the World Political Economy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984).

2 On “offshore balancing,” see Christopher Layne, “From Preponderance to Offshore Balancing: America’s Future Grand Strategy,” International Security 22, no. 1 (1997); John J. Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (New York: W. W. Norton, 2001); and Stephen M. Walt, Taming American Power: The Global Response to U.S. Primacy (New York: W. W. Norton, 2005), chap. 5.

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