A glance at the current affairs titles at any bookstore would suggest that the United States is on the verge of an irreversible decline. Not only are commentators exaggerating our current struggles, but they’re also romanticizing our recent past, argues Robert Kagan, a senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution and the author of the new book The World America Made.
Pessimists liken the United States today to the British Empire around the time its influence began to wane, in the late 19th century. That decline was reflected in the “clear-cut, measurable, and steady” deterioration over half a century of “two of the most important measures of power”: the size of the empire’s economy and the power of its military.
America’s performance in these areas is still strong, Kagan contends. The U.S. share of global economic output has held steady at 25 percent since the 1970s, even with the burgeoning prosperity of emerging economies such as Brazil and India. The growth of these countries has taken a bite out of Europe and Japan’s share of global wealth, not the United States’. Furthermore, these rising powers are not nemeses reminiscent of the Cold War, but strategic partners eager to cooperate with America. The U.S. military, after all, remains far and away the most powerful in the world.
China presents a real challenge, Kagan admits. But even if it does eclipse the United States as the world’s largest economy, Chinese world dominance will not automatically follow. China boasted the world’s biggest economy in the 19th century, yet it was still a “prostrate victim” of smaller European powers. GDP per capita and military capability are also important indicators of a country’s strength, Kagan argues, and China has a very long way to go to compete with the United States in these categories.
Commentators also blunder when they assess America’s power by measuring it against past glories, Kagan notes. “For every great achievement in the early Cold War, there was at least one equally monumental setback.” The losses were significant: The Soviet Union developed an atomic bomb; the United States launched a costly intervention on the Korean Peninsula. Allies ignored the wishes of Washington on issues ranging from diplomatic recognition of Communist China to the invasion of Egypt over control of the Suez Canal. Nor was the embrace of American soft power uncritical: Young people around the world gravitated toward jeans and rock music, but they and their elders were put off by American domestic politics, consumerism, and foreign policy.
The Great Recession has unduly darkened the outlooks of some pundits, Kagan adds. In 2004, commentator Fareed Zakaria proclaimed that the United States was experiencing a moment of “comprehensive unipolarity”; just four years later, he was churning out pieces about the “post-American world.”
The United States has experienced difficult times before (see the 1970s), only to see its fortunes revive in a few years. Yes, the challenges facing the country are daunting. But decline “is a choice,” Kagan asserts, echoing columnist Charles Krauthammer. If the United States wants to maintain its stature, it can start by ensuring the health of its top-notch military and thus the present world order, which, “with its widespread freedoms, its general prosperity, and its absence of great-power conflict, is as fragile as it is unique.”