Analysis & Opinions - Toronto Star

Rumours of U.S. Decline are Greatly Exaggerated

| January 2, 2011

Is America in "decline"? The answer is yes — but it doesn't matter.

This may seem a puzzling assertion at a time when China's economy is booming, its military power growing, and India and other nations are rising fast while the United States seems economically and militarily sidelined. To many, the eclipse of the West by the rising East seems inevitable. But America and her allies are as strong as they ever were. It's the rest of the world that's getting stronger, a trend that is neither a surprise nor an immediate threat.

Indeed, the whole notion of "decline" only shows how short memories can be when thinking about international affairs. In the wake of the global financial meltdown, the rise of terrorism and one of the angriest elections in recent U.S. history, it would be understandable to mark the first 10 years of the millennium as characterized by a fast-growing East, a failing model of Western capitalism, and an America struggling in the endgame of a grinding foreign war, all of which could be the ingredients of "decline."

The problem is that this could just as well be a description of the United States in 1974.

It is easy to forget that by the mid-1970s many Western observers agreed with Soviet spokesmen who crowed that the "correlation of forces" had turned against the United States and its allies. America had been defeated in Vietnam. High unemployment, low growth, and high inflation improbably coexisted, a condition described by the now-forgotten term "stagflation." The United States had not only endured the resignation of a president, but for a time was led by both a president and a vice-president who had not been elected by the American people. In the 1974 midterm election, reform candidates exiled scores of incumbents as they pledged to take Washington back (sound familiar?) from the forces of corruption in the wake of the Watergate scandal. Overseas, the Americans were pleading with NATO to stay together in the face of a massive Soviet military buildup.

Ten years later, Western economies were humming, NATO was vital and strong, and it was the East's turn to face a military buildup, fuelled by superior technology and a seemingly endless supply of cash. Soviet leaders who once gloated over American weakness were soon turned out of power, and only 15 years after the worst predictions of "decline," the United States and its allies dominated the globe as the strongest military and economic alliance in the history of mankind. Like the many premature epitaphs written for Canadian federalism, the predictions for America were not only wrong, but embarrassingly so.

And yet, here we are again. For some time now, it has become conventional wisdom that power is shifting from West to East, and that the United States in particular has been so distracted by its own troubles that it is unaware of the dawning of a new world marked by a Chinese-dominated Asia and a Russian-dominated Europe. America and Canada, in this dystopic future, will be left to trade with each other, to hope that Mexico does not dissolve into further instability, and to watch as the era of Pan-Atlantic supremacy comes to a close.

This is a fantasy. It is not only alarmism, it is in some cases a disingenuous complaint that unless the United States is effectively omnipotent, it is therefore in "decline."

First, what does "decline" mean? If we mean absolute decline, then the whole argument collapses in the face of the obvious. The United States and the Western alliance have never been more powerful or more prosperous than they are today. Of course, people are products of the time in which they live, and the wealth and power of the United States did not stop over half of American respondents in a recent poll from declaring that the first 10 years of the new millennium were the "worst" in U.S. history. (One can only wonder how many of those who answered had lived through the 1930s; certainly, none of them had lived through the U.S. Civil War.) Indeed, my younger students are almost in disbelief when I tell them that the economy of the late 1970s was far worse than it is today; they have become so used to prolonged periods of economic stability and cheap credit that they cannot imagine anything worse than the recent recession.

However, if the issue is relative decline, then yes, the nations of the West, including the U.S. and Canada, are in "decline." But to say this is not to say very much. It means that the staggeringly inefficient economies in countries like China and India are becoming more productive and more modern. This was to be expected, and it would become a crisis for the regimes in these nations if their economies could not continue to modernize. It is here that the "decline" argument at times seems to ignore basic logic.

Much has been made, for example, of the fact that the Chinese economy is now the second largest in the world, and could surpass the U.S. economy in size by 2020. But let us pause for a moment: China has 1.3 billion people and access to the same advanced technologies, from space travel to computing, that are available in the West. And yet its export-dependent economy is dwarfed by a post-industrial nation one-fourth its size, its worker productivity far below that of American workers who, contrary to this conventional wisdom, are still the most productive in the world. Or consider a comparison with Canada: China has nearly 40 times Canada's population, but an economy only roughly five times larger. If the Chinese economy grows — as it must, for the regime to provide even a lower-middle-income life for its people — is it "decline" if already-matured Western economies do not grow as fast?

Another concern is that a richer China could throw its weight around. Again, this is a story we've heard before. In the 1980s, the Japanese were going to repossess New York's landmark buildings, and in the 1970s Arab petrodollars were going to buy southern California. What, exactly, the Chinese will do with this new-found power is rarely explained, perhaps because common sense dictates that the greater China's economic involvement with the world, the greater the stake the Chinese have in the health of the international economic system, including the American economy. As Henry Kissinger observed last year, never in history have all the major powers of the world been so dependent on the same global system of cooperation.

For many "declinists," the real issue is military security, not economy: "decline" means "danger."

There is no denying that other nations, relative to the United States and NATO, are becoming more powerful. Advances in military technology are rapidly becoming more diffuse and widespread, and the qualitative and quantitative gap between Western military hardware and that in China, India, Russia and elsewhere will narrow, although how fast is unclear. (The Chinese, for all their efforts at modernization, still cannot manufacture a reliable engine for jet fighters, and have to buy them from the Russians.) But in practical terms, this only means that the nearly unchallengeable supremacy of the United States — an unnatural situation that could not have lasted — will "decline" to a huge margin of superiority. Later this year, for example, China is scheduled to launch a refurbished Soviet aircraft carrier. Is this one ship a match for U.S. supercarriers like the George Washington? If pushing a retooled Soviet carrier into the Pacific is "decline," then it is decline Americans can live with.

More to the point, all of this concern about military decline takes place in a strategic vacuum. What scenarios, exactly, present such danger to the West that we must remedy "decline"? Does a major war loom in Asia or Europe in which the U.S. or NATO will be outclassed and outgunned? Ironically, the only truly existential threat to North America is the one most people don't think much about: strategic nuclear weapons. Without progress on reducing the stocks of these arms, arguments about "decline" seem almost petty by comparison.

The obvious objection is that all this is far too optimistic. Economic and military decline, the argument goes, are inevitable if for no other reason than because the Western nations, and the United States in particular, are out of money. As long ago as 1989, the first president Bush warned in his inaugural address that "we have more will than wallet." But this is nonsense: we have plenty of wallet. Where we choose to spend it, of course, is another matter. The continuing warnings about American decline represent a kind of atavistic Cold War mindset, in which every military advance in another nation is by definition a threat to the United States and its allies. Have we become so accustomed to our great fortune that economic or military developments in countries that have not yet completely mastered basic human services like clean water, literacy and roads represent our own "decline"?

Over 35 years ago, Soviet propagandists celebrated the coming collapse of the West. America seemed to be a failed experiment, its confidence lost, its economy paralyzed, its political system teetering on the edge of a constitutional crisis, and its alliance system about to unravel. Today, I keep a bust of Lenin on my bookshelf, a souvenir from a country that no longer exists, led by men who predicted the "decline" of the United States even as their own nation was disintegrating beneath their feet. Perhaps it is time, once again, to hold back the eulogies for the West just a bit longer.

Tom Nichols is professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College and a fellow of the International Security Program and the Project on Managing the Atom at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. The views expressed are his own.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Nichols, Tom.“Rumours of U.S. Decline are Greatly Exaggerated.” Toronto Star, January 2, 2011.

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