Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

How to Ruin a Superpower

| July 23, 2020

Washington's status as a superpower has been declining for years. Trump's handling of the pandemic is killing it off.

Over the past 35 years or so, warnings of imminent American decline have fared poorly. Paul Kennedy's bestselling The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers suggested that "imperial overstretch" might cause the United States to follow Great Britain's downward path, a gloomy forecast that proved to be at best premature. Other prominent scholars suggested that America was becoming an "ordinary country," heading for a world "after hegemony," only to be surprised when it was the Soviet Union that collapsed and the United States emerged as the sole remaining superpower. Ideal conditions, it turned out, for a dangerous combination of hubris and complacency.

By the mid-1990s, the United States found itself in a position of primacy unmatched in modern history. Its combination of economic, military, and soft power dwarfed all others, and scholars such as William Wohlforth and Stephen Brooks offered sophisticated and well-reasoned arguments for why the unipolar era might last as long or longer than the bipolar era that preceded it. What these optimists did not anticipate, alas, was the series of self-inflicted wounds that the United States would suffer in the years that followed, a train wreck of recurring blunders that has accelerated and worsened under Donald Trump. In particular, Trump's egregious mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic is producing debilitating long-term effects that will further accelerate America's decline. Even if he is defeated in November and a Joe Biden administration does nearly everything right, the consequences of Trump's reign of error will be with us for many years to come.

Before Trump, the mistakes of the unipolar era fell under three main headings. The first error was adopting a grand strategy of liberal hegemony, which sought to spread democracy, markets, and other liberal values far and wide and to bring the whole world into a liberal order that was designed and led by the United States. This vastly ambitious strategy provoked a strong backlash from a variety of quarters, led to unnecessary and costly wars that squandered trillions of dollars, and undermined key sectors of the U.S. economy.

The second mistake was to allow public institutions to deteriorate, by starving them of resources and then blaming them for all our problems. Republican leaders pushed tax cuts with scant regard for the fiscal consequences, while the IRS was defunded to the point that it could no longer deter or detect widespread evasion and fraud. Like the Prussian Junkers or the pre-revolutionary French aristocrats, wealthy Americans—including Trump—found countless new ways to avoid contributing enough to public coffers and with less and less fear that they might get caught. Instead of creating and funding robust, competent, and respected public institutions—the sort of administrative and managerial capacity that would be invaluable in a pandemic and that some other countries have—Americans decided they didn't need them....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Walt, Stephen M.“How to Ruin a Superpower.” Foreign Policy, July 23, 2020.

The Author

Stephen Walt