Memories are short. Barely a year ago, the Western media was awash with stories of us decline, symbolized by the chaotic retreat from Kabul in August 2021. By April this year, the same commentators were exulting that hitherto neutral countries were queueing up for nato entry, one of the beneficial side-effects for Washington of the war in Ukraine. As inflation revs up, however, and interest rates rise, we can safely predict declinism’s return. With every economic crisis (oil in 1973; finance in 2008), as well as every military defeat, partial or conclusive (Korea 1951; Vietnam 1974; Afghanistan 2021), the prophets of American twilight awaken. Chomsky has traced America’s decline to the ‘loss’ of China after Maoism’s victory in 1949.footnote1 ‘Decline has the same fascination for historians that love has for lyric poets’, ironized the New Yorker. ‘Yet the coming catastrophe is always coming, and never quite getting here, so the first job of the new declinist book is to explain why previous declinist books were wrong’—‘that the previous era was actually a peak rather than the valley that the previous declinists thought they were looking at’.footnote2
American decline theorists have pointed above all to the ‘overstretch’ of us power—too many military bases, theatres of war, tutelary commitments, obligations as planetary policeman—beyond the country’s economic means. This line of thought originated in 1943, at the very start of the us bid for world leadership. ‘Without the controlling principle that the nation must maintain its objectives and its power in equilibrium, its purposes within its means and its means equal to its purposes, its commitments related to its resources and its resources adequate to its commitments, it is impossible to think at all about foreign affairs’, Walter Lippmann argued.footnote3 The ‘imperial overstretch’ argument was canonized forty years later by Paul Kennedy in The Rise and Fall of Great Powers (1987). To remain ‘great’, big powers had to balance their wealth and economic base with their military might and strategic commitments; failure to get this right risked over-extension. Other luminaries joined the declinist chorus: Walter Russell Mead with Mortal Splendour (1987), David Calleo’s Beyond American Hegemony (1987).
For Samuel Huntington, in a sceptical review of Kennedy’s book, the problems confronting the us in the 1980s—relative economic decline compared to Japan, Germany and the newly industrializing countries, worsened by high military spending—were after all ‘similar to those of previous imperial or hegemonic powers’, such as Britain, France and Spain.footnote4 From the left, Giovanni Arrighi’s Long Twentieth Century (1994) proposed a political-economic explanation of capitalist-hegemonic cycles, according to which decline became manifest in each succeeding hegemon (Genoa, the Dutch Republic, Britain, the us) when a material primacy—commercial for Genoa and the Netherlands; industrial for Britain and the us—became a financial one. The Dutch ceased to trade in the spice monopoly and became bankers, financing the nascent English industrial revolution; a century later, the British would be surpassed as the lead manufacturing power and begin bankrolling American industries. Just as the fall of the Berlin Wall two years after the appearance of Kennedy’s Rise and Fall of Great Powers had showed what real decline looked like, so the Tokyo property bubble burst in 1992, just as Arrighi was predicting the Japanese hegemon’s ascent.footnote5
Naturally, the 2008 financial crisis gave declinism a new lease of life. To Thomas Barnett in 2009, for instance, the us appeared ‘militarily overextended, financially overdrawn and ideologically overwrought’.footnote6 Fareed Zakaria’s The Post-American World (2008), Kishore Mahbubani’s The New Asian Hemisphere (2009), Edward Luce’s Time to Start Thinking: America in the Age of Descent (2012) and Charles Kupchan’s No One’s World (2012) were complemented by treatments of China’s ascent as both inexorable and inevitable; a tale taken up by Niall Ferguson in his Civilization: The West and the Rest (2011). In response to this bombardment, anti-declinists have returned a lively barrage of fire, with works such as Bruce Berkowitz’s Strategic Advantage (2008) and Josef Joffe’s The Myth of America’s Decline (2014). The two most authoritative anti-declinists returned to the fray, Joseph Nye with a slim volume entitled Is the American Century Over? (2015) and Robert Kagan with The World America Made (2013).footnote7 Trumpism supplied fresh fuel to the declinist motor, as did the us retreat from Afghanistan, inspiring the Economist to mount a special series on ‘America’s changing geopolitical standing’, with interventions from Henry Kissinger, Niall Ferguson, Anne-Marie Slaughter et al.footnote8
The declinist position is by no means determinate, however. As Victoria de Grazia has remarked, declinism nearly always offers an alternative: ‘if you don’t want to decline, you must do—or not do—this’. Chomsky: stop being imperialist; Huntington: stop being rationalist-technicist; Barber: start being more small-d democratic; Kennedy: stop spending on armaments, revamp your industrial base, be more competitive; Nye (in Bound to Lead): use your soft power more strategically, alongside your ‘hard’—military and economic—might.footnote9 And while most of this work is by Americans, declinist narratives from overseas scholars sometimes fail to conceal their Schadenfreude. Forced by inexorable uk decline to teach in the United States, certain British historians like Kennedy and Ferguson display an unmistakable satisfaction when detecting the symptoms of a similar destiny for their hubristic cousins. A good part of European public opinion—or at least that of its two former great powers, France and Germany—shares this rancour, as consolation for faded prestige. The theme of American decline is permanently popular in the Old World.
To take the measure of any fall-off in American power, we need first to ascertain its modalities. Here we confront several novel features. First, while declinists and anti-declinists debate ‘primacy’, ‘hegemony’ and ‘imperial reach’, plain-speaking in the corridors of power is complemented by tight-lipped discretion in the public sphere.footnote10 ‘Most Americans do not recognize—or do not want to recognize—that the United States dominates the world through its military power’, wrote Chalmers Johnson. ‘They are often ignorant of the fact that their government garrisons the globe. They do not realize that a vast network of American military bases on every continent except Antarctica actually constitutes a new form of empire.’footnote11 This is the first novelty of us world power: it is an empire that refuses to acknowledge itself as such to its own citizens. Previously, when a state maintained military forces in other countries, it was said to ‘occupy’ them. The us, however, claims to be ‘defending’ them—a euphemizing phrase reminiscent of the nineteenth-century European ‘protectorates’. Today’s subject states are instead known as ‘allies’.footnote12
The usual grounds given for this self-denial of imperial status is that us power in the world does not depend on direct territorial rule. Instead, it deploys a pyramidal structure, a hierarchy of willing subjection and diminishing sovereignty beneath its own apex position. A first rank is constituted by the ‘white Commonwealth’ of Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand—the ‘Five Eyes’, as the signatories of the multilateral ukusa Agreement are known, who not only share a common culture, language and economic norms, but enjoy privileged intelligence exchange. A recent iteration of this inner circle is the aukus Pact between the us, Britain and Australia, aimed at control of the Malacca Straits, a chokehold on trade to China.footnote13 Further layers are formed by the larger states of continental Europe, the main nato members and, in descending order, the industrialized nations of the Pacific—Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia—who barter their sovereignty in foreign policy for varying degrees of domestic autonomy. Beyond them lies the third circle, the frontier states, to be tamed, sanctioned, neutralized or otherwise punished, whose sovereignty is subject to arbitrary and sudden confiscation: Venezuela, Iran, Libya, Panama (one of the sins of post-1991 Russia is that it has stubbornly refused to follow the rules appropriate to a country of the third circle). This concentric structure renders territorial conquest, in the manner of the nineteenth-century European empires, superfluous.