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January 26, 2012

America: Not Declining, and A Helluva Lot Less Powerful

by Mike M

It’s time to recognize the growth of a critically important corrective line of thinking, now driven home by what could be a defining article; and at the same time, to pull apart two lines of important strategic analysis that are being unhelpfully conflated.

The correction is reflected in the rising set of evidence and arguments that China has a mess of social, political, demographic, economic, environmental challenges, hurdles and problems that will keep it from inheriting the world quite as completely as we’ve been led to believe.  As just once example, many economists think it will soon run headlong into some version of its own housing bubble with serious implications for growth.  (Can’t anybody keep their housing ambitions in check around here?)  Meantime as we know, the US has a raft of intrinsic strengths, from its education sector to the overall size of its economy to innovation to a relatively younger population.  We have big problems to solve—debt, entitlements, energy—but they are solvable if we can hack our way out of political gridlock.

Now there’s a very fine generally summary essay on this score from the scholar Michael Beckley, which traces a range of variables over the last decade or so and argues that the US is not becoming less powerful, all things considered, relative to China; more like the other way around, he suggests.

So let’s lay the false narrative to rest:  America is not “declining” along any simple set of measures; and with a few major leaps toward reform could be stepping ahead quite nicely.

At the same time, though, many—especially international relations types—who have come this far then begin nodding furiously, and make what seems like a logical next step:  “A persistently buoyant America domestically will be an America that continues to wield dominant power abroad.”  But this is the mistake; it just doesn’t follow, not any more.  Developments in American and world politics now mean that even a vibrant America cannot maintain the same global posture.  Domestic vibrancy doesn’t equate to international power the way it once did.

The reasons are several, and interconnected.  Despite persistent strength, after a half-century of global obligations and a decade of foreign wars, the American people appear ready—not for anything close to isolationism—but for a natural correction to a less onerous world burden.  Many of the issues that confront the makers of US security and foreign policy just aren’t as amenable to “power” as in the past:  you can’t “coerce” the environment into better behavior, or a disease back into a test tube.

Despite claims that “elites” and “leaders” covet US power as much as ever, there is abundant evidence that populations in many parts of the world want and expect the US to promote stability with a lighter hand than it has done.  Most fundamentally of all, US power is, of course, relatively declining in an increasingly multipolar global context (not just vis-à-vis China):  As two dozen or more other major power centers gain economic, cultural, military and political clout, they clamor for a voice in resolving issues, leaving less room for US dominance or even, sometimes, influence.

The issue here is not a simple, linear trend, but paradox, the defining theme of the emerging strategic era.  An American role remains significant, important, desired; at the same time, it is becoming more anachronistic, resented, unaffordable, unappreciated.  Many contradictory trends are speeding ahead, running neck and neck.  And one of those paradoxes may well be a combination of recovering American social and economic power on the one hand, even as we see, on the other, the emerging strategic moment continue to squeeze, constrain, and redefine the US global role.

One of the great risks of such a moment, of course, is that we’ll be unable to live with paradox.  There’s not much chance we’ll abandon the world, Ron Paul’s appeals notwithstanding.  The real danger is of a failure to appreciate the requirements for restraint; the risk is that, being American and powerful and coming off a half-century of self-importance, we’ll once again feel our oats if a domestic revival indeed sets in.  And we’ll rush out once again into the world in search of monsters to destroy—only to find a world bereft of monsters, holding up a mirror.

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