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American Decline: Is Perception Always Reality?

BY Jason Brooks, Master of Global Policy Studies student
This article originally appeared in National Intelligence Council's blog "Global Trends 2030" on July 23, 2012.

The only thing declining in America is our own faith in our capacity for hard work, innovation and entrepreneurship. America is relatively strong and poised for another surge in ascendancy. However, this is understandably a contested position, so let us consider the notion of American decline. For a nation to be in decline, it should first be assumed that it is in economic or military decline, or both. Second, it should be assumed that said nation is in decline either relative to the rest of the world or some other nation – usually China is held to be the prime contender. Let’s review each of these propositions in turn, beginning with military decline relative to the rest of the world and then relative to China.

America suffered a devastating homeland attack on Sept. 11, 2001. In response, we mobilized the U.S military, invaded Afghanistan, and rolled into the capital, Kabul, in just a few months cheered on by enthusiastic crowds of Afghans.

In 2003, America invaded Iraq and toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein in a matter of weeks. While many have criticized the George W. Bush administration and the US military for falling down on the job in Iraq and Afghanistan in the years after 2003, a very different story can also be told–one of organizational learning and tactical and technological innovation. Learning and innovation occurred on two fronts. First, the US military adapted to the changing nature of conflict in a few short years, adopting a counter insurgency strategy that turned the tide of the war in Iraq and has made marked improvements in the Afghan theatre as well.

Second, the US military and the CIA have made staggering progress in waging counterterrorism campaigns, led especially by innovations in intelligence and drone technology. With the help of these tactical and technological innovations, America has all but dismantled Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan and is eviscerating their network in Yemen. Most importantly, the CIA, in conjunction with the US military, succeeded in locating and eliminating Osama Bin Laden.

What about the American role in the Arab Spring and the broader Middle East? With US military leadership, an international coalition supported an indigenous rebel movement in ousting legendary Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi. An impressive aspect of this feat was America’s ability to garner support from regional Arab nations and organizations such as the Gulf Cooperation Council, Arab League, and African Union (not to mention getting European powers to play a leading military role).

The US also helped guide the Egyptian revolution to a peaceful conclusion culminating in the ousting and recent imprisonment of long time authoritarian President Hosni Mubarak. Now the US is working with another international coalition of partners (including regional players) to squeeze the Iranian regime in an effort to constrain its nuclear aspirations while at the same time fending off Israeli ambitions to address the problem unilaterally. Those are just a few highlights which, notably, skip over America’s diplomatic inroads in the Middle East and Asia.

Is China rising militarily relative to the US? Not likely. One aspect of US military exceptionalism is our well-funded, highly trained, all-volunteer force. China relies on a conscript military that is underpaid and poorly trained. China’s defense budget lags well behind America’s. Moreover, the Chinese military has not been seriously combat-tested since the Chinese Communist revolution (brief engagements in the Korean War and Vietnam notwithstanding). China’s technological capabilities are improving in some areas such as its Anti-Access/Area Denial strategy but, in others, they are far from impressive—not to mention unproven. For example, China now has its first operational aircraft carrier—a Soviet era hand-me-down—that will take China five to ten years to master the operation of.

Conversely, the US military is comprised of combat veterans hardened over a decade of combat in two theatres. During this time, the US military has developed and battle tested leading strategies, tactics and technologies. Joint operation capabilities are growing and deepening and American reserve units have become ever more integrated while repeatedly proving their salt on the battlefield.

What about economics? Surely the 2008 financial crisis signals America’s economic decline. Not so fast. Thanks to swift bi-partisan efforts, US government action staved off total economic meltdown, arguably preventing a spiral into depression. Those efforts were much more successful and effective than the political-economic debacle unfolding across the Euro zone.

Since 2008, high oil prices have been a drag on US economic recovery. Moreover, they buoyed vexatious middling petro-states like Venezuela and Iran while propelling others like Russia to the status of emerging economic power. However, high oil prices allowed American innovation and entrepreneurship to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. An American shale oil and gas boom is shaking up the global energy industry led by production innovations such as hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling. This development has reinvigorated the American economy and pushed global oil prices well below the mark needed to sustain the budgets of belligerent petro-states.

The American economy is slowly climbing out of recession only to peer over the precipice and see BRICs crumbling. The BRIC economies are slowing and fading from the limelight. The most important, of course, is China. China’s GDP is slowing; critically, this is a deliberate move on behalf of a Chinese Communist Party (CCP) coming to terms with the fact that prolific Chinese growth is edging toward volatility.

In relative terms, America has little to fret over. While China’s GDP is now the second largest in the world, it is still, per capita, a very poor country. CCP rule is tenuous and relies heavily on China’s future economic prospects. Overall, China is a long way from realizing economic strength that puts America in relative decline.

As has been demonstrated over the last decade, hard work, entrepreneurship, and innovative ideas allow Americans to transform our problems into “probletunities.”

Jason Brooks is a former US Marine Sergeant, Iraq veteran and graduate student in the Master of Global Policy Studies program at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at The University of Texas-Austin.