Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Resurgent Declinism in International Relations

Robert Lieber, at World Affairs, offers an essential rebuttal to the resurgent thesis of American decline in international relations theory.

Lieber notes that claims of America's relative international decline have ideological foundations, usually gaining popularity amid periods of robust assertions of power in American foreign affairs. As with past episodes, today's arguments of American decline ignore the realities of the balance of world power, and thus undestimate the endurance of U.S. preponderance:

Is America finished? Respected public intellectuals, think tank theorists, and members of the media elite seem to think so. The scare headline in a recent New York Times Magazine cover story by Parag Khanna titled “Waving Goodbye to Hegemony” asks, “Who Shrunk the Superpower?” Almost daily, learned authors proclaim The End of the American Era, as the title of a 2002 book by Charles Kupchan put it, and instruct us that the rise of China and India, the reawakening of Putin’s Russia, and the expansion of the European Union signal a profound shift in geopolitical power that will retire once and for all the burden of American Exceptionalism. America has become an “enfeebled” superpower, according to Fareed Zakaria in his book, The Post-American World, which concedes that, while the U.S. will not recede from the world stage anytime soon, “Just as the rest of the world is opening up, America is closing down.” With barely contained satisfaction, a French foreign minister says of America’s standing, “The magic is over . . . It will never be as it was before.”

The United States does contend with serious problems at home and abroad, but these prophecies of doom, which spread like a computer virus, hardly reflect a rational appraisal of where we stand. Moreover, it is not too difficult to see the ghosts of declinism past in the current rush to pen America’s epitaph. Gloomsayers have been with us, after all, since this country’s founding....

It was in the 1970s that declinism began to take on its modern features, following America’s buffeting by oil shocks and deep recessions, a humiliating withdrawal from Vietnam, victories by Soviet-backed regimes or insurgent movements in Africa, Central America, and Southeast Asia, and revolution in Iran along with the seizure of the U.S. embassy there. A 1970 book by Andrew Hacker also announced The End of the American Era. At the end of the decade, Jimmy Carter seemed to give a presidential stamp of approval to Hacker’s diagnosis when he used concerns about a flagging American economy, inflation, recession, and unemployment as talking points in his famous “malaise” speech calling for diminished national expectations.

By the early 1980s, declinism had become a form of historical chic. In 1987, David Calleo’s Beyond American Hegemony summoned the U.S. to come to terms with a more pluralistic world. In the same year, Paul Kennedy published what at the time was greeted as the summa theologica of the declinist movement—The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, in which the author implied that the cycle of rise and decline experienced in the past by the empires of Spain and Great Britain could now be discerned in the “imperial overstretch” of the United States. But Kennedy had bought in at the top: within two years of his pessimistic prediction, the Cold War ended with the Soviet Union in collapse, the Japanese economic miracle entering a trough of its own, and U.S. competitiveness and job creation far outpacing its European and Asian competitors.

Theories of America’s obsolescence aspire to the status of science. But cycles of declinism tend to have a political subtext and, however impeccable the historical methodology that generates them seems to be, they often function as ideology by other means. During the 1980s, for instance, these critiques mostly emanated from the left and focused on Reaganomics and the defense buildup. By contrast, in the Clinton era, right-of-center and realist warnings were directed against the notion of America as an “indispensable nation” whose writ required it to nation-build and spread human rights. Likewise, much of today’s resurgent declinism is propelled not only by arguments over real-world events, but also by a fierce reaction against the Bush presidency—a reaction tainted by partisanship, hyperbole, ahistoricism, and a misunderstanding of the fundamentals that underpin the robustness and staying power of the United States.
Lieber continues with a discussion of the elements of America's continued international preeminence.

The U.S. military, despite the strains of current deployments, is not likely to be surpassed in capabilities or readiness by any other major Western power, and America's autocratic peer competitors in Moscow and Beijing face internal challenges (Russia) or regional balancing (China) that will limit the ability of those states to pose a major challenge to continued American dominance.

Economically, the U.S. remains the engine of world economic prosperity. Beijing, which holds trillions in U.S. treasury securities, won't risk a run on the United States for risk of appreciating its own currency, and pricing its exports out of the American market.

In Europe, nationalist tendencies in the major continental states will continue to prohibit the emergence of a centralized European superpower rivaling America's global presence.

Read the whole thing, here.

Lieber also discusses threats internal to the United States, like cultural decline or unrestrained ethnic diversity, but none of these provide a compelling alternative to the basic history of assimilation and social regeneration supporting America's unrivaled world leadership:

Other countries understand the unique nature of American power—if not wholly selfless, not entirely selfish, either—and its role in underpinning global stability and maintaining a decent world order. This helps to explain why Europe, India, Japan and much of East Asia, and important countries of the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America have no use for schemes to balance against the United States. Most would rather do business with America or be shielded by it.

In the end, then, this country’s structural advantages matter much more than economic cycles, trade imbalances, or surging and receding tides of anti-Americanism. These advantages include America’s size, wealth, human and material resources, military strength, competitiveness, and liberal political and economic traditions, but also a remarkable flexibility, dynamism, and capacity for reinvention. Neither the rise of important regional powers, nor a globalized world economy, nor “imperial overstretch,” nor domestic weaknesses seem likely to negate these advantages in ways the declinists anticipate, often with a fervor that makes their diagnoses and prescriptions resemble a species of wish fulfillment.
See also, Stephen Brooks and William Wohlforth, World Out of Balance:International Relations and the Challenge of American Primacy.