IS THIS time for real? Is the United States truly in the throes of decline, as so many suggest? In a hard-hitting Foreign Affairs essay entitled “The Self-Destruction of American Power,” Fareed Zakaria argues that, yes, U.S. power is waning—a consequence of not just the election of Donald Trump, but two decades of foreign policy failures coupled with the inability of the United States to respond to a rising China. The “unipolar moment” that had existed for the past thirty years has been replaced by the return of great power competition marking the end of America’s dominance of the international system. UC Berkeley economist Brad DeLong agrees, even suggesting that this realization has sparked a “superpower panic” among America’s leaders, who are fearful that China is closing the gap between the two nations. James Fallows of The Atlantic has even suggested that the fall of the “American Empire” might not be a bad thing.
Many now argue that Trump’s failure to organize a global response to the COVID-19 pandemic further demonstrates the decline of the United States and the emergence of China as not only a rival, but even a replacement. International affairs journals are routinely publishing articles purporting that China is exploiting the coronavirus to prove its ability to lead the international system, though the implications of the pandemic may not be clear for years to come. Nonetheless, the general mood in the United States seems to be one of hopelessness and grim resignation.
This is not the first—nor the second, nor even the third—time that “declinism” has so firmly taken root within the minds of the U.S. cognoscenti. Americans have been obsessed about their decline from the very moment the United States became the world’s dominant power following World War II. In fact, one of the first references to America’s dissipating power occurred only months after the war’s end, when John Dos Passos toured a ruined Europe for Life magazine to gauge Europe’s feelings towards their new American protectors. Instead of an appreciation for American sacrifices and an acknowledgement of American assistance, he found a Europe that would look you “accusingly in the face and tell you how bitterly they are disappointed in you as an American.” After six months of listening to resentful Europeans complaining about America’s failing policies, Dos Passos concluded that “[n]ever has American prestige in Europe been lower”—an astonishing comment given how dismissively the Europeans held the United States in the wake of the Great Depression, which many blamed on the 1929 stock market crash and America’s failed liberal economic model.
Decades later, the late Harvard professor Samuel Huntington observed that in the post-World War II era there had been five occasions when U.S. leaders were convinced the end was nigh—each time to be proven wrong, each instance promptly forgotten. The most important episode of American declinism came in 1957, a period now considered the peak of American power, following the launch of the satellite Sputnik by the Soviet Union. The world back then was legitimately shocked that, despite all of its technological marvels, America had been bested in the race for outer space by the Soviet Union. In a mere twelve years, the ussr had risen from the ashes of World War II to be the first to place a satellite in orbit around the earth. Science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke best articulated the stunning nature of this achievement by declaring, “the United States has become a second-rank power.”
These were legitimate concerns. If the Soviet Union could put a satellite into orbit, how long before they could launch nuclear-armed missiles at America? Panic gripped the country, since Sputnik meant that the Soviet Union could soon launch a nuclear attack requiring just half an hour to reach the continental United States. But this was not all; further shaking America’s global standing were Soviet claims, deemed legitimate by American economists, that the Soviet economy was growing at a rate three times than that of the United States, and that the ussr would overtake America as the world’s leading economic power by the early 1970s. Coming during the fiercest moments of the Cold War, as both nations hoped to convince the world that their economic model was the right model to follow, the Soviet achievement represented a major blow to the American pretense of superiority.
WHY ARE Americans so quick to fear for their own demise—and at periods when, in retrospect, U.S. primacy remained intact? Largely, it is out of fear that other nations would—and will—do what the United States did to Great Britain: replace it at the apex of world power. The upstart Americans took a page from their venerable British cousins, who would fret about their inevitable decline and fall following their defeat in the American Revolution and throughout the nineteenth century—even when British power was unparalleled. British aristocrats considered themselves the heirs to the Romans, and studied the classics in part to learn how to avoid imperial Rome’s fate.
Great Britain would, eventually, go belly-up in the great power sweepstakes. However, Britain’s decline was of a different sort from that made famous in Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, where Roman power grew weaker and weaker until it collapsed under external pressure from Germanic barbarians in the fifth century. While a remnant of the empire survived until conquered by the Ottomans in the fifteenth century, Enlightenment historians rejected its Roman pretenses and renamed it “Byzantine.” For them, the Roman Empire had died centuries earlier.
Britain, of course, would not just simply “die.” Nor would it be defeated, having served on the winning side of two world wars. However, it was exhausted by the efforts and would be surpassed by its former colony, providing us with a new conception of decline: relative decline. While Britain’s economy continued to grow and its military continued to modernize, it could no longer keep pace with the United States. The vast costs of World War II sealed Britain’s fate, shattering the empire financially and militarily while forcing the United States to fully mobilize its vast economic power and, for the first time in its history, build a truly global military capability. Americans fear that their decline will follow this same “relative” path, being usurped by a rising power, such as the Soviet Union, Japan, and now China, eventually suffering the same fate as Great Britain: watching a new power take its place at the center of the world.
It was Paul Kennedy’s 1987 international bestseller, The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, as well as his jugendwerk, The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery, which best explained the implications of relative decline. Kennedy postulated that relative economic decline combined with “imperial overstretch”—i.e. too many foreign commitments matched against too few resources—had doomed past great powers. He concluded that the United States had repeated the same mistakes during the Cold War and now faced challenges from other powers, particularly a rising Japan poised to take its place. Kennedy, though, never claimed a U.S. fall inevitable.
Ironically, within a few years those concerns gave way to a radically different fear: that the United States had grown so powerful that it had become an unrivaled unipolar power—the first of its kind since the early days of the Roman Empire. Yet, three decades later, many are pointing to the rise of China and proclaiming that the United States is facing another “end of an era” moment. However, if Kennedy and others got it “wrong” then, are we getting it wrong today? The answer is, unequivocally, yes.
WHILE KENNEDY might have been right about Britain’s overextended commitments—late nineteenth-century British leaders expressed similar concerns—American overstretch was, and remains, exaggerated. Kennedy documented that previous great powers spent upwards of 40 percent of their GDP on imperial expansion. America’s own defense spending by the end of the Cold War totaled a mere 6 percent of U.S. GDP. During the early years of the Cold War, defense spending soared to as high as 15 percent—still but a fraction of what previous great powers expended. For the past thirty years, the U.S. defense budget has ranged from three to five percent of GDP. This is a considerable amount, but does not match the gargantuan levels of expenditure by previous great powers.
Second, proponents of relative decline focus primarily on diverging rates of GDP growth at the expense of other forms of international power, be it military, commercial, financial, technological, and/or cultural. While other countries may have caught up with British GDP at the turn of the century, Britain was so advanced in other measures of power that rising challengers could hardly exploit their supposed gains. The same is true for the United States today.
Economists debate whether the decline of British manufacturing was as great as is often stated or whether Britain had regained its leadership position by the eve of World War I. However, productivity had never been the key pillar of the British Empire. Instead, it was Britain’s financial system that drove its rise to power. Prior to the nineteenth century, British production totaled only a fraction of its European rivals, particularly compared to France, whose eighteenth-century population totaled nearly three times that of Britain’s and with twice Britain’s GDP. Only in the 1830s, with the advent of the industrial revolution, would the British economy surpass France to become the world’s largest economy. It would lose that advantage in the 1870s when it was outstripped by the more populous and rapidly industrializing United States.
However, late seventeenth-century Britain’s advanced banking and taxation system meant that it could afford to build a navy and merchant fleet that would dominate the world’s oceans and provide the financial support to continental allies that would time and again defeat French attempts to dominate Europe. During the nineteenth century, this same financial prowess helped Britain maintain a significant naval advantage over its French, German, and American rivals while its adoption of free trade vastly expanded its commercial activity around the world. By World War I, British merchant ships accounted for half the tonnage of the world’s merchant fleets, four times as much as Germany and ten times that of the United States. To maintain its dominance in global trade, Britain constructed a global network of ports and harbors that the whole world would soon come to depend on, particularly after the switch from sail to coal-burning steam engines. By the turn of the twentieth century, 80 percent of the world’s ships would burn British coal, widely recognized as the best in the world. In the mid-1800s, Britain would also lead a telecommunications revolution as it laid the undersea telegraph cables connecting the world. By World War I, the Earth’s navies and merchant fleets were powered by British coal supplied by British bases and communicated using British telegraph cables.
Ironically, Britain would play a key role in America’s rise; British support was essential for a U.S. victory in the Spanish–American War, which marked America’s emergence as a world power. London warned off the French and Germans from entering the conflict in support of Spain, and then allowed the United States to use its imperial network to supply U.S. naval forces.
Following the destruction of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor, then-Assistant Secretary of Navy Theodore Roosevelt ordered Commodore George Dewey to take the Asiatic Squadron to Hong Kong where it would refuel its reserves with as much British coal as possible. However, when the squadron reached Hong Kong, all of the city’s stores of coal had been purchased by European navies concerned that war might break out over China. Low on both coal and ammunition, Dewey needed to contact Washington to arrange for their delivery.
The only means possible was through Britain’s cable network. Though knowing war with Spain was imminent, British authorities ignored neutrality laws and allowed Dewey to contact Washington, which then purchased a British collier to supply Dewey with coal and sent another ship with the needed munitions. Britain, as Japan did, could have closed its harbors to Dewey’s ships, refused his use of its telegraph lines, and declined to sell the needed coal to power Dewey’s ships. Dewey would have been stuck in Asia helpless, and the Battle of Manila Bay might never have happened.
Whatever relative decline Britain’s rivals might have enjoyed was tempered by the realization that they traded, deployed their naval power, and communicated across the world only with Britain’s blessing. It would take far more than uneven economic growth rates to topple Britain’s global dominance. In fact, it took two world wars to exhaust the nation financially and force the United States to fully mobilize its resources to defeat the Third Reich. Britain began World War II a world power and finished nearly bankrupt, with its survival dependent on American largess in the form of Lend-Lease and later the Marshall Plan.
TODAY, AMERICA enjoys even greater military and institutional advantages than did Great Britain a century before. America’s global military networks, power projection capabilities, and financial strengths are far beyond those of any of its current rivals, including China. America also has powerful, decades-long alliances with European and Asian powers that Britain never possessed, nor China can match. Furthermore, the global extent of America’s cultural penetration is unprecedented in history: nearly every corner of the globe is influenced by American social, cultural, and political ideals. These social and cultural networks weren’t built overnight, but were the result of decades of American efforts begun decades before it could even contemplate supplanting British power. Indeed, when Henry Luce first coined the term “American Century” in 1941, it was not a statement about America’s future, but a reflection on the growth and spread of American influence over the previous seventy years.
With its rapid economic growth and increasing presence around the world, China has elicited concerns in the United States via its many international initiatives, including its Belt and Road Initiative, the promotion of Huawei’s 5G cellular system, and an undersea cable program. Nevertheless, given the entrenched power of the United States and the enormous effort required to overthrow a dominant power, it is wholly premature, short of a devastating major event, to claim that we are witnessing the end of America’s global dominance. This is especially true as Chinese growth forecasts are dropping significantly; prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the financial news service Morningstar predicted a then-unheard-of 3 percent level of growth. Now, after a months-long economic shutdown, many analysts believe China’s economy to have sunk to depression-era levels.
The pandemic only fuels controversy over Chinese statistics making predictions that China will one day control 40 percent of the global economy—such views seem exceedingly far-fetched. As it stands now, U.S. GDP remains significantly ahead of China’s, even factoring in GDP reductions due to the effects of COVID-19. Clearly, the nation that recovers most effectively from the crisis will have a greater claim to world leadership. That Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan recovered from the Great Depression faster than their democratic rivals convinced nations around the world of the superiority of their model. So far, the Chinese government has failed to exploit what would seem an insurmountable advantage: the incompetence of the Trump administration. China’s international response to the crisis has mixed contempt (in the form of worthless medical aid) with bullying (as when China threatened Australia and the European Union to halt efforts to study the virus’s origin), resulting in growing calls in the United States, Europe, and Asia to decouple from China, defeating what hopes they might have had of replacing the United States as the world’s leader.
These failures only compound one of China’s longstanding foreign policy dilemmas: That it offers no vision of a new global order that appeals to anyone other than corrupt autocrats. In contrast, by the late nineteenth century, America’s political, economic, and cultural ideals had so penetrated the world that many felt the world was becoming “Americanized.”
There can be no doubting that America’s international standing has been undermined by ill-considered wars and the deadly failures of Trump’s pandemic response. However, the intrinsic strength of the United States will, like that of Britain a century ago, enable America to retain its dominance. Like Britain, it will require a far more dramatic series of shocks than what it has recently experienced for Washington to lose its central position in the international system.
Gregory Mitrovich is a Research Scholar at the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University. His current book project is entitled Uncommon Challenger: The Epic Story of the Rise of the United States from the War of 1812 to the Second World War.