Analysis & Opinions - DoD Buzz

US Less Dominant But So What

| November 25, 2009

Here we go again.

America, we are told, is losing its strategic dominance, and that the balance of power is shifting from the Western hemisphere (home to the wealthiest, most technologically advanced military alliance in all of human history) to the East, a hemisphere that manages to combine advanced intercontinental ballistic nuclear weaponry with the basically inability to deliver food and clean water to tens, even hundreds, of millions of human beings. It is a familiar story: Our technological achievements are about to be eclipsed, and our military forces—already mired down in a sideshow in Central Asia—will be dwarfed by the shining new militaries of the East. All that is missing is some Soviet Politburo functionary confidently declaring that "the correlation of forces has shifted away from America's favor" while standing in front of a television reporting the fall of Saigon.

To paraphrase an exasperated Henry Kissinger from those dark days: "What in the name of God is strategic dominance, and what do you do with it?"

The problem is not that America is in decline. It is. But it is relative decline, and this in itself is neither unnatural nor cause for worry. Other countries are growing stronger, in both military and economic terms: the globalization of money, knowledge and technology have ended the days when the United States, through sheer size and power, could control either the international economy or the spread of weapons. Unchallengeable hegemony, which apparently some see as the standard by which American foreign policy success should be measured, is a far more difficult goal today than when Rome ruled the world or Britannia ruled the waves.

But even if America is in relative decline…so what? What does it mean to say that "power is moving East?" After World War II, power moved both East and West—out of Europe and toward North America and Eurasia—and after the Cold War, power was concentrated solely in the U.S. and NATO, at a level beyond all possible reckoning. This was unnatural and unsustainable, and even undesirable, as it meant that the United States became by default the only power that was expected to solve the world's problems, especially as hideous dictatorships ran amuck in hidden corners of the world once the USSR collapsed and former U.S. and Soviet clients were left without adult supervision.

Saying that power is shifting away from the United States is true but misleading: it is another way of saying that America was once vastly more powerful than any possible coalition of states it faced, but now it is only immensely more powerful than other states, and is likely to remain so for decades to come. (The Soviets, in their day, did have a chance to defeat us, but only because of their huge nuclear arsenal, and their "victory" would have lasted for about 28 minutes.) Recognition of that relative difference has been reflected in recent years in military posture statements seeking, for example, space dominance rather than the space superiority of the past. But nobody has been able to explain what space dominance really means or how to achieve it without perpetuating a constant arms race—either with real competitors or, in the absence of actual challenges, with ourselves.

Our military strength, we are warned, is declining. But is it? In the end, it is important to remember that there is no objective limit to the size or power of the U.S. armed forces; they are as strong as Americans are willing to pay for. And in a country where personal spending exceeds 4 billion dollars a year on cat food and another 6 billion or so on potato chips, that is a huge amount of military potential. America is a land of choice, and right now Americans are worrying more about their homes, schools, health care and jobs than whether the U.S. government spends more on its military than the next fifteen countries, or just the next ten (including multiples of the Chinese military budget), even considering the well-earned personnel and health care costs that makes our military budget seem so much larger than so many others. If "Support the Troops" bumper stickers cost $100, with proceeds donated directly to the Pentagon, it would be interesting to see sales if went up or down.

Is our intellectual base declining? Perhaps, although it is a question that Chinese researchers might want to explore using their American-designed personal computers, running American software, to access an American-owned search engine, to find that the United States holds nearly all the world's patents and three times as many Nobel Prizes as its nearest competitor. The best and the brightest worldwide, regardless of their politics, strive to study at American universities. Protesters show up at U.S. embassies around the world with a rock in one hand and a visa application in the other.

And so the question remains: what, exactly, do "declinists" fear? That the once-huge gaps in military power and standards of living between East and West are finally closing? Again, this is demonstrably true, but is it a danger to Western security?

What no one ever seems able to answer in all the hand-wringing about "decline" and "competition" is whether any of this can lead to military conflict that threatens the United States or its overall well-being. (This may sound odd at a time when America is engaged in two regional conflicts, but it is easy to forget that these were wars of choice, and that many of the complications in them were the results of our own poor planning, and particularly in the bizarre and already-outmoded belief that small numbers of high-tech soldiers can, like a cadre of Jedi Knights, do better in small numbers what ordinary soldiers have done so well in larger numbers for centuries.)

In short, we need to ask those who fear that decline means war: what would this war be about? Until the declinists can come up with a scenario in which China, or India, or anyone else, actually thinks it is to their advantage to launch a war against the richest, most advanced, and most militarily powerful country in the world (and thereby slash their own throats economically and physically in the process), Americans should accept that a certain amount of prosperity is going to spread to places we've become accustomed to thinking of as backward.

Rather than answer this question, declinists instead seek to instill fear and generate a reaction—and any reaction, apparently, will do. An October 2009 cover of The Weekly Standard, for example, featured cover artwork of President Obama wearing academic robes, holding his Nobel medal, and, like Hamlet, contemplating a a bust of Jimmy Carter. "Decline," the editors wrote, "is a Choice." Using declinist images and rhetoric is perhaps to be expected in partisan politics. When used in conjunction with the military budget, it can be a ploy for higher budgets. In both cases, however, it is both hackneyed and hyperbolic and each cycle of declinism (and there have been several since 1945) eventually gives way to reality.

Rather than panic, Americans should do what they do best: go to work every day (U.S. workers are still the most productive in the world), invent new things, sell products of exceptional quality and innovation to our partners around the world, explore the sciences from the depths of the oceans to the reaches of space, and train a military force that is committed to peace but whose steadfastness, courage, equipment, and political support from the population make it an exceptionally powerful, effective—and lethal—force that cannot be matched by weapons alone.

"Decline" does not necessarily mean the corrosion of American prosperity or power. When America finally begins to collapse, it will be when we have lost faith in our basic institutions and principles at home, and not because some other country has figured out how to build an aircraft carrier. The greatest investment we can make in our national security is to ensure we retain our commitment to our own way of life and the principles that support it; without that, no amount of military or technological investment will save us if we are faced with an enemy who believes in the possibilities of oppression more than we believe in the massive creative and military potential of freedom.

America is in relative decline. True enough. But we’ve heard it before. Just ask a Soviet…if you can find one.

Joan Johnson-Freese is chair of the Naval War College's National Security Decision Making program and a top scholar on China's space program, and Tom Nichols is professor at the Naval War College and a fellow at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Johnson-Freese, Joan and Tom Nichols.“US Less Dominant But So What.” DoD Buzz, November 25, 2009.

The Authors