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Myth of American Declinism

It's been popular to discuss the decline of the United States. Yale Ferguson wrote in 2008, "United States capabilities appear to be gravely waning today and its exercise of both hard and soft power has recently been so inept as to limit its current influence and possibly future role in global politics." Or Charles Kupchan concluded in 2007 that "American primacy is already past its peak." Many of the arguments are based on Paul Kennedy's 1987 argument in the Rise and Fall of Great Powers and accept the inevitability of American decline.

Aided by an unpopular war in Iraq, America was said to be losing its appeal or soft power. The creation of the term "BRIC" to indicate the emerging markets of Brazil, Russia, India, and China offered a multi-polar vision of a post-American world. And the European Union prospects seemed to offer an alternative to American power.

The U.S. National Intelligence Council (NIC) echoed a multipolar future in 2004 when it noted that the rise of China and India would be reminiscent of Germany's ascent in the 20th century, which will have profound implications on the geopolitical landscape. The NIC reiterated the end of unipolarity in 2008, when it reported that, "The whole international system--as constructed following WWII--will be revolutionized. Not only will new players--Brazil, Russia, India and China-- have a seat at the international high table, they will bring new stakes and rules of the game." And China optimistically agreed in its Defense White Paper, "a profound readjustment is brewing in the international system."

These ideas are not new.

Over 20 years ago, former Assistant Secretary of Defense Joseph Nye commented that, "Although the United States still has leverage over particular countries, it has far less leverage over the system as a whole." Nye observed that not only was the international system changing from bipolar to unipolar, but also power itself was changing, which is the ability to shape the outcomes you want and change the behavior of others. There are certainly indications that U.S. military and economic power does not directly translate into dominance, but it also is premature to predict American decline.

The world is still unipolar.

In a new study for the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Studies, retired Ambassador Eric Edelman challenges the declinist view of the United States and asks:

Will the undeniable relative decline of the United States, in fact, lead to the end of unipolarity? Do the BRIC countries really represent a bloc? What would multipolarity look like? How does one measure national power anyhow, and how can one measure the change in the power distribution globally? Is the rise of global competitors inevitable? What are some of the weaknesses that might hamper the would-be competitors from staying on their current favorable economic and political trajectory? Does the United States possess some underappreciated strengths that might serve as the basis for continued primacy in the international system and, if so, what steps would a prudent government take to extend that primacy into the future?

The study offers both an assessment of the emerging powers and the United States. Ambassador Edelman concludes that the European Union and Japan are marred by different demographic crises and dependent on the United States for security; Brazil is growing, but faces long-term social and economic limitations and is a good candidate for partnership with the United States; Russia will likely have serious political tensions with China in the Far East; India is beset by a daunting array of demographic, economic, social, political and security problems; and China is facing a perfect storm of economic, demographic, and social unrest that has led some observers to conjecture that China, far from being a rising power, is actually on the verge of collapse. With this assessment, Edelman concludes:

With all of the problems and uncertainties that the emerging economies face and the enormous challenges that bedevil the developed world in Europe and Japan, only one thing seems certain: events will drive international economics and politics in directions that no one now anticipates and the certainties about rising and falling powers are likely to be knocked askew by a fickle and unpredictable fate.

While American power is checked in the economic, diplomatic, and cultural spheres, its ideology still dominates the international system. Wealth is migrating to Asia, but many leading states of the world crave and demand continued U.S. leadership. Edelman does think

The period of unipolarity has been based on a singular fact: the United States is the first leading state in modern international history with decisive preponderance in all the underlying components of power: economic, military, technological and geopolitical. With the possible exception of Brazil, all the other powers face serious internal and external security challenges. Japan, with its economic and demographic challenges, must deal with a de facto nuclear-armed, failing state (the DPRK) nearby and must also cast an uneasy glance at a rising China. India has domestic violence, insurgencies in bordering countries (Nepal and Bangladesh) and a persistent security dilemma with respect to China. The demographic challenges will be particularly acute for Europe, Japan, and Russia in the areas of military man- power and economic growth. The results will either diminish overall military strength or, in the case of Russia, impose a greater reliance on nuclear weapons.

Edelman thinks that declinism is a choice and that the United States must get its political and economic house in order. However, he sees strong fundamentals, which are missing from potential rivals (except Brazil, which he sees a logical partner for the United States). These fundamentals include: strong food production, geographic position, energy reserves of coal and gas, culture of innovation, and healthy fertility rates. With a good strategy and strong leaders, American declinism is likely to remain a myth, albeit persistent.

These views are my own.

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