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

June 1, 2015 Topic: Politics Region: United States Tags: AmericaForeign PolicySuperpower

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 The momentary moral clarity of the demands for democracy across the region has been replaced by difficult choices among enemies and unappealing allies who have rushed to fill power vacuums.”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.

Second, as Nye often observes, there are two major power shifts underway: a transition between states (principally from west to east, but also from north to south) and a diffusion away from states to nonstate actors. Those shifts are fundamentally realigning world order and regional orders, with consequences that affect all countries, not just the United States. Which of America’s competitors benefits from turbulence in the Levant? Which of them is not struggling to handle the growing power of nonstate actors—whether Internet hackers or terrorist outfits?  The same point can be made about global challenges: which country is immune to the threats posed by nuclear proliferation, climate change, and resource shortages?

Third, while a good case can be made that world affairs have never been more complicated—particularly owing to the multifaceted advance of technology and the growing power of nonstate actors—it is facile to equate greater complexity with greater danger. Indeed, most evidence suggests the world is becoming safer. Steven Pinker generated great controversy with his 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature, which argues that “violence has declined over long stretches of time, and today we may be living in the most peaceable era in our species’ existence.” Today, however, most observers agree that the long-term trends in both the number and lethality of wars and genocides are favorable. The prospect of an apocalyptic nuclear exchange has also gone down significantly since the end of the Cold War. Finally, there is no longer an overt contest in ideology and armaments between two antagonists. Meanwhile, real world GDP per capita is growing, the rate of extreme poverty is falling, life expectancy is increasing, and the rates of infant mortality and clinical malnourishment are decreasing. A world that is becoming safer, wealthier, and healthier in the aggregate should be more conducive to the advancement of U.S. interests.

What, then, of the increasingly commonplace conclusion that U.S. influence in world affairs is declining? For starters, the United States has scored some significant foreign-policy achievements, one whose transformative potential is sometimes obscured in our preoccupation with the day’s crises: consider the climate agreement with China (this past November), the opening to Cuba (this past December), and the tentative nuclear deal with Iran (in April). They demonstrate that patient, sustained diplomacy can make inroads, even in settings where historical animosities and strategic divergences would seem to have calcified to the point of immutability.  Should the United States successfully conclude negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, moreover, it would go a long way to countering the perception that it is ill-equipped to conduct geoeconomic statecraft.

The more important point, though, is a banal one: foreign policy has always been hard. The influence the United States has wielded in the postwar era has never scaled linearly with the power resources at its disposal. Declinists often note how much lower America’s shares of global military spending and economic output are today than they were seven decades earlier. Less observed is that that gap in power resources hardly allowed the United States to dictate the course of world affairs: Nye reminds us that “the United States often failed to get what it wanted [when it is said to have been a hegemon]—witness Soviet acquisition of nuclear weapons; communist takeover of China and half of Vietnam; stalemate in the Korean War; Soviet suppression of the revolts in Hungary and Czechoslovakia; [and] Castro’s control of Cuba.”

If one focuses on day-to-day developments and particular crises, the United States has often appeared hapless. If one takes a bird’s-eye view and considers a longer stretch of time, it has accumulated a remarkable amount of influence: it anchors a liberal world order whose contributions to human welfare exceed all those that occurred before 1945. While the challenges to that order are self-evident and ubiquitous, obituaries for it are premature. Indeed, Ryan Evans makes a compelling case that Russian revanchism might actually entrench it in the long run: “NATO allies are recognizing the importance of strengthening their defense capabilities; the states of Europe have drawn closer together; and countries elsewhere are seeing the need to offset regional powers by strengthening their own military forces and forging alliances.”

The declinist case also tends to downplay the facts and trends in America’s favor. Its military remains the world’s most formidable. Its economy is recovering. It stands to accrue considerable strategic benefits from trends in tight oil and shale gas. Its demographic outlook is arguably more favorable than that of any other major power. It retains an unmatched ability to integrate the world’s most promising students and entrepreneurs. Finally, if one accepts Stewart Patrick’s proposition that influence is increasingly exercised through “a bewildering array of issue-specific networks and partnerships whose membership varies based on situational interests, shared values, and relevant capabilities,” then America’s extant centrality in today’s liberal world order and its residual margin of preeminence should allow it to position itself smartly and widely in that patchwork.