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Catching the Winds of Power

BY Adam Parker, Master of Global Policy Studies student
This article originally appeared in National Intelligence Council's blog "Global Trends 2030" on July 26, 2012.

In international relations, measures of power are usually relative. Depending on the measure or definition of power, however, this relativity can be quite different. This has important implications for any discussion of American decline. One way to think about this is to attempt to measure aggregate capabilities: what can a given state do? This is a relative measure because the answer to the question depends on the powers of other states (Liechtenstein can’t successfully invade Germany, for instance). The second way to think about power would be to compare these aggregate capabilities: what can a state do that another state can’t? These two measures are distinct, but discussions about American decline often fail to adequately separate them.

Thinking about the aggregate capabilities of the US, it can be easily argued that American power is declining. Rising powers such as China, India, and Brazil are expanding their spheres of influence, thereby shrinking the area where the US can exert its influence with impunity. Additionally, the rising influence of non-state actors—be they corporations, NGOs, or transnational terrorist or criminal networks—is further restricting the ability of the US to unilaterally pursue its interests. Simply put, the US does not (and will not) have the same clout it had in the unipolar moment after the Cold War.

Now, before the declinists declare victory and quit the field, let’s examine the relative aggregate capabilities in the international community. Here, it is far less clear that the US is in decline. The decline of the importance of the state (which many gifted individuals have already said a great deal about) is not restricted to the US. It is a universal problem that all states are confronting. More importantly, all states are confronting a full suite of problems—both domestic and transnational—relating to demography, resource management, and economics that will tax even the most capable among them. These challenges, particularly in their domestic manifestations, will sap the ability of states to act beyond their own borders.

In facing these challenges, the US possesses many unique advantages. Regarding demography, the US occupies an important middle ground. US population growth has reached the replacement rate.[1] Many other developed countries in Europe have dropped below this rate, while many developing countries such as India are struggling to meet the needs of their growing populations. Also, the US is not aging as rapidly as Japan, Europe or even China (despite all our concern about the retiring baby boomers). Demographically, the US is well off compared to its near-peer competitors.

The US is similarly blessed in the area of resources. Unlike China or India, the US does not struggle to provide its citizens with energy. In terms of shale gas, the US possesses near-limitless reserves and could conceivably become a net exporter of energy again. The American West and Southwest face impending water problems, but these too pale in comparison to China, whose leaders have conceived of the gargantuan South-North Water Transfer Project to address this issue.

Related to these points, the American economy is relatively strong in the long term. The Eurozone union, technically the largest economy in the world, may not be long for this world. At the very least, the feasibility of a monetary union without a fiscal union is in serious doubt. As evidence of the continued relative strength of the dollar, it has remained the world’s safe haven despite the inability of Congress to responsibly tackle the debt problem. China, while currently more fiscally secure, confronts a population of impoverished people numbering some 250 million. This places significant pressure on the Chinese budget as the government struggles to maintain stability. Finally, the US continues to lead the world in creativity, research, and technological innovation.

For these reasons, it seems probable that the US will see its aggregate capabilities decrease over the next 18 years while those of its peers and competitors decrease even faster. As the states of the world scramble to catch the fading winds of international power, the US has the biggest sail. This raises an important question for discussion: should the US content itself with being the fastest in a slowing fleet of ships, or should we try to maintain our present speed? The answer to this question will be of great consequence to the future of US foreign policy.

[1] Roughly 2.2 children/woman on average, a rate which stabilizes the population

Adam Parker is a second-year Master’s candidate at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas-Austin.