The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Cutting Through the Chaff on US Declne

November 30, 2011

Phil Arena does it very effectively.

Personally, I don’t see how the claim that the US is not in decline follows logically from the observation of changes in Australian policy, Japanese policy, and Burmese policy. What is the logic behind assuming that the US would be less likely to push for all the changes highlighted by Mead if the US was not in relative decline? Is it not at least plausible that states try harder to assemble counter-balancing coalitions in the face of a rising threat?

Read the rest.

My quick take: There’s simply no question that the US is in relative decline on at least some dimensions used to measure national power. But such decline leaves the United States in an extremely strong position. It is hard to understate the degree to which the arguments tend to jump from the observation that China (or India, or Brazil) are rising, or that China’s economy is on target to become larger than that of the United States, to the idea that the US will soon be a frail, weak, and impotent shadow of its former self.* The only way that makes sense is if we radically overestimate US military and economic power at the start of the decade or radically underestimate the implications of being a close number two in PPP adjusted terms.

Things seem bad in the US right now. The unemployment situation is grave. Growth is less robust than anyone would like. But that shouldn’t color our judgments about the US international position. By the same token, framing the question of decline in stark terms skews it in unproductive ways.

*Never mind that the size of the EU’s market has been neck-and-neck with the US for years (sometimes smaller, sometimes larger). Sure, that doesn’t translate into the ability to run a coordinated foreign policy, but its still calls into question important parts of the “doom-and-gloom decline” scenario.

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.