Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Predictions of American Decline are Overrated

The Washington Post reports on the new U.S. intelligence assessment of America's international standing in the decades ahead.

It turns out that Thomas Fingar, who is said to be the "U.S. intelligence community's top analyst," argues that the United States is looking to a near-term erosion in its international standing, with the most significant decline taking place outside the military realm:

An intelligence forecast being prepared for the next president on future global risks envisions a steady decline in U.S. dominance in the coming decades, as the world is reshaped by globalization, battered by climate change, and destabilized by regional upheavals over shortages of food, water and energy.

The report, previewed in a speech by Thomas Fingar, the U.S. intelligence community's top analyst, also concludes that the one key area of continued U.S. superiority -- military power -- will "be the least significant" asset in the increasingly competitive world of the future, because "nobody is going to attack us with massive conventional force."

Fingar's remarks last week were based on a partially completed "Global Trends 2025" report that assesses how international events could affect the United States in the next 15 to 17 years. Speaking at a conference of intelligence professionals in Orlando, Fingar gave an overview of key findings that he said will be presented to the next occupant of the White House early in the new year.

"The U.S. will remain the preeminent power, but that American dominance will be much diminished," Fingar said, according to a transcript of the Thursday speech. He saw U.S. leadership eroding "at an accelerating pace" in "political, economic and arguably, cultural arenas."
Fingar's thesis is the official governmental version of the academic theory of American international decline in world politics, dubbed "declinism."

This debate's been around a long time, for example, during the 1980s and the Reagan aministration, and the predictions have proved wrong time and time again.

Fingar, as noted in the Post's essay, sees a bright spot in how demographic trends will favor the United States (national strength will be propped up by high rates of immigration), as he should. Indeed, America's openness to people and ideas will continue to buoy American dynamism throughout the 21st century. Not only that, there's really no indication in Fingar's preliminary comments as to why we should see the collapse of American power relative to the other nation-states in the international system (other than the fissiparous effects of "globalization").

Robert Lieber,
at World Affairs, has a penetrating analysis of why no great power will rise to topple American preponderance in the period predicted by Fingar's analysis. Lieber, after reviewing the prospects for balance-of-power equlibrium, concludes:

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.

Over the years, America’s staying power has been regularly and chronically underestimated—by condescending French and British statesmen in the nineteenth century, by German, Japanese, and Soviet militarists in the twentieth, and by homegrown prophets of doom today. The critiques come and go. The object of their contempt never does.
Predictions of America's relative economic and military decline have long been overrated. I'm sure Fingar's got good company in that respect