In the mid 1980s a genre of international relations literature emerged which was described broadly as “declinist” since it looked forward, not necessarily with great enthusiasm, to the decline of the United States from its position of global pre-eminence.
Notable among the contributors was the Yale historian, Paul Kennedy, with his book The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. It was an impressive piece of scholarship, a compelling global narrative covering 500 years of great power history that ended with some sombre warnings on the dangers of American “imperial overstretch” and a forecast that it could lead inexorably to America’s decline.
International relations being no respecter of historians’ reputations, within five years of Kennedy’s book being published, the Soviet Union had collapsed, the Cold War had ended and the US emerged as the world’s one remaining superpower. At least in the short term, Kennedy’s prognostications appeared spectacularly errant.
Nearly two decades on, a plausible case could be made that perhaps Kennedy was right after all. The great republic appears besieged on all sides. America’s standing in the world appears to be in free fall. Where anti-Americanism was once the preserve of Washington’s Cold War adversaries, the left in France and miscellaneous malcontents largely from the Third World, in 2005 it seems more widespread.
A deepening ideological chasm between the United States and parts of the Muslim world is evident, but equally alarming, the anti-American contagion appears to have spread more widely, severely affecting relations between Washington and some of its allies and close friends in Europe.
Nor has the American economy done well in recent years: sluggish domestic growth (now picking up), high current account and budget deficits, a declining dollar and an economy with slow job creation and significant losses in the manufacturing sector, are all a cause for concern. Then, of course, there is Iraq, where despite the deployment of massive military and other resources, Washington is struggling to support a challenging experiment in democracy and to guarantee Iraqis long-term peace, prosperity and security.
As bleak as this picture may be, however, it would be exceedingly unwise to see within it the seeds of American decline. Eventually, like all great powers, America’s period of pre-eminence will come to an end, but this is a very long way off. Most of the discontents currently troubling the American body politic, both at home and abroad, reflect short-term policy challenges. They require attention to be sure, and they could lead to more serious problems, but at the moment the foundations of America’s global position remain firmly in place, providing a durable basis for its continuing pre-eminence.
Underpinning the United States’ primacy is its massive structural power relative to its global competitors. This strength starts with the extraordinary size and energy of the American economy which, with a GDP of US$10,500 billion is nearly twice that of the next ranked country - Japan. With a quarter of global GDP, the American economy underwrites much of the world’s trading, finance and investment activity, maintains a remarkable entrepreneurialism and is adapting to and benefiting from the challenges of globalisation.
Perhaps most importantly for the future, the dollar is stable as the world’s main reserve currency and continues to underwrite global liquidity, while American business continues to lead innovation, especially in the areas which are the modern drivers of growth and wealth - information and communications technology.
In relation to military capability America’s strength is even more impressive. With an annual defence expenditure greater than that of the next eight countries combined, an arsenal of both conventional and nuclear weapons, armed forces of all services deployed around the world and an active commitment to the continued exploration of space, America possesses a security capability with a truly global reach and many times that of its nearest rival.
At the same time, the United States’ massive continuing investment in military research and development will underwrite its commanding military strength well into the future. Beyond defence, a large, growing and well educated population, and a stable political system, reinforce these structural strengths.
American primacy is also founded on its “soft power”. As Joseph Nye has argued, this is the ability to get others to “want what you want” - it co-opts rather than coerces, and rests on people in other countries admiring and respecting American values and being willing to embrace them. Despite the apparently widespread anti-Americanism that suggests a rejection of these values, to many around the world the US remains an inspiration and a beacon of hope for a better life. The reality may be different to the image, and in some places around the world, the pull of soft power is undoubtedly viewed as a threat; but for millions of people, especially among the young, American values and culture, its science and technology and its educational opportunity, have a seductive appeal.