Exploring the Question of American Decline
Following last week’s fascinating contributions from Drew Erdmann and his colleagues on urbanization, I will be moderating this week’s blog discussion and its focus on the question of “American decline.” The current draft of Global Trends 2030 describes three possible future scenarios for the state of the world in 2030. As varied as the scenarios are from each other, what all share in common is the assumption that the power of the United States will decline relative to the rest of the globe. These diverse declinist scenarios project a reduction in American power across several domains, including economic and military strength, and diplomatic and cultural influence. They also posit an array of potential actors accruing a greater share of the global power distribution at the expense of the United States, whether from a new superpower hegemon such as China, or the diffusion of power across a broader spectrum of middle powers around the world, or even the transformation of power as non-state and transnational actors take on greater influence in the international arena.
These assumptions of American decline may well turn out to be true. The contemporary world provides ample grist for declinist narratives, as challenges to American primacy are abundant and diverse, both external and internal. The rise of new great powers such as China and India looks likely to be a sustained reality, as is the ascension of influential middle powers such as Turkey, Vietnam, South Africa and Indonesia. Each rising power will in different ways be demanding a bigger seat and larger plate at the high table of international politics – and perhaps in some cases will even be setting new tables of their own. When these external factors couple with the internal challenges in the US such as current fiscal straits and reduced budgets for an overstretched military, a presumption of American decline becomes very plausible, perhaps even inevitable.
Yet other analysts and some political leaders contest this view. They point to factors such as America’s continued economic resilience, military prowess, vast natural resources, and adaptive political system capable of self-correction and renewal, and contend that predictions of American decline are overwrought. Additionally these voices take a comparative approach and argue that while America’s problems are manifest, these problems pale in relation to the systemic challenges plaguing every other aspiring superpower in the world. America decline, it is argued, is much less likely than American renewal and continued hegemony.
A diverse group of contributors will be taking up numerous dimensions of these questions this week. Some may argue that American decline is inevitable, and the only realistic policy option is to acknowledge and manage it. Others might hold that American decline is exaggerated or even fictitious, and that the United States will continue to dominate the international order, albeit with a potentially new set of alliance partners and friends and eventually a new set of international institutions. And still others may suggest new angles from which to consider the very question, in light of evolving measures of power and shifts in the international system, or through the lens of history and the insights of the past. Our contributors this week will also span the spectrums of age and experience, from young graduate students to retired policymakers and eminent scholars, and will bring diverse professional and academic perspectives. Together they will attempt to deepen our understanding of what America’s power and international role might look like over the next two decades, and what it might mean for a changing world.
William Inboden is a Distinguished Scholar at the Strauss Center for International Security and Law and Assistant Professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas-Austin.