Monday, August 11, 2008

Rome, Babylon, Scarsdale: Does U.S. decline (or the debate about it) matter?

"...Niall Ferguson has observed that American IR scholars and analysts tend to choose alternative words for what is arguably the same imperial behavior, words such as 'unipolarity,' 'great power,' 'superpower,' or 'hegemon.' In contrast to the American empire debate, there has been little political and scholarly debate over whether it is appropriate to characterize the United States as a 'power' both during and after the Cold War. Instead much of the debate about the 'power' label has revolved around its qualifiers. Is the United States a 'great' or 'super' or the 'only' power relative to others? Could it be...a 'hyper' power? Or is it a (gasp!) 'declining' power?"
-- Jennifer Sterling-Folker, in International Studies Perspectives 9:3 (August 2008), p.321

"The great wars of history...are the outcome, direct or indirect, of the unequal growth of nations," declared the British geographer Halford Mackinder in 1919. The principle of uneven development, as Lenin called it, means that one should expect the material power of nation-states to ebb and flow as they seize upon (or, as the case may be, fail to exploit) economic, technological, and military innovations. Leading or hegemonic states that have benefited from such innovations must expend large resources to maintain their position, producing economic strains that over time undercut them. As Immanuel Wallerstein put it in a 1994 essay ("Peace, Stability, and Legitimacy, 1990-2025/2050"): "The rise and decline of great powers has been more or less the same kind of process as the rise and decline of enterprises: The monopolies hold for a long while, but they are ultimately undermined by the very measures taken to sustain them. The subsequent 'bankruptcies' have been cleansing mechanisms, ridding the system of those powers whose dynamism is spent and replacing them with fresher blood."

In the United States, however, a significant current of opinion has never accepted that this principle applies to the U.S. On this view, the U.S. is not a "normal" country and is therefore not subject to the historical forces that govern the fates of other societies and nations. The strength of this "exceptionalist" belief accounts for much of the intensity that has accompanied the long-running debate about U.S. "decline".

Roughly two decades ago, Paul Kennedy's The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers helped bring concerns about the erosion of U.S. power into public consciousness. Kennedy asserted that:

[I]t has been a common dilemma facing previous "number-one" countries that even as their relative economic strength is ebbing, the growing foreign challenges to their position have compelled them to allocate more and more of their resources into the military sector, which in turn squeezes out productive investment and leads to the downward spiral of slower growth, heavier taxes, deepening domestic splits over spending priorities, and a weakening capacity to bear the burdens of defense. If this, indeed, is the pattern of history, one is tempted to paraphrase Shaw's deadly serious quip [in Misalliance] and say: "Rome fell; Babylon fell; Scarsdale's turn will come." (p.533)
Kennedy emphasized that U.S. decline would be relative and that the changing power balances probably would affect the USSR, as it then was, more than the U.S. He called for American policy makers to "recognize that broad trends are under way and that there is a need to 'manage' affairs so that the relative erosion of the United States' position takes place slowly and smoothly, and is not accelerated by policies which bring merely short-term advantage but longer-term disadvantage."

Not terribly long after Kennedy wrote these words, the USSR dissolved, the Cold War ended, and the first Gulf War took place, all of which appeared to many (though not all) analysts to signal a period of unipolar U.S. dominance, if not the "end of history." Decline was out; triumphalism was in.

But since 9/11, decline has been "in" again. Observers have discerned an "end of the American era" (Charles Kupchan) or what Fareed Zakaria more recently called a "post-American world." Parag Khanna sees the emergence of a tripolar world (China, EU, U.S.). Whether U.S. relative decline is thought to have begun around 1970, as Immanuel Wallerstein has argued, or more recently, the prescriptions tend to be similar, and very close to Kennedy's two-decades-old prescription: in a nutshell, graceful management of an inevitable reduction in power and influence.

This does not go down well in certain quarters: witness, for example, this article by Robert Lieber in the current issue of the journal World Affairs. Rooted as it is in an exceptionalist worldview, Lieber's article not surprisingly dismisses those he calls the 'new declinists'. He argues that China is "America's most serious, and in many respects only true, competitor," but says its emergence as a genuine great power rival "seems very, very unlikely in the near or medium term." This is a questionable judgment, as is Lieber's view that the EU will not be able to arrive at a cohesive foreign and security policy.

Let's step back a bit, however, from the volley of charge and counter-charge. In a review of Parag Khanna's book The Second World ("Guess Who's Coming to Power," New York Times Book Review, 3/30/08), Raymond Bonner writes that "the notion that the United States will not be the world's only superpower, that it will have to share power with Europe and China, will horrify many Americans." It shouldn't. As Paul Kennedy pointed out 20 years ago, the size, population, and resources of the U.S. suggest that its "natural" share of global wealth and power (however "power" is defined -- an issue I defer here), is somewhere around 16 or 18 percent (a figure that might be lower today). A reversion to this "natural" share, Kennedy observed, will still leave the U.S. as a major actor. Moreover, as Wallerstein notes (here), "erstwhile hegemonic powers have not suffered that much in their declining years. They have lived off their accumulated fat, provided they have adjusted to new realities."

Seen in this light, "decline" is perhaps an unnecessarily emotive word for what has been occurring. In a world where the leading powers compete in ways that do not involve war, Mackinder's "unequal growth of nations" is not cause for undue alarm. The notion of "the rise and fall of great powers," suggesting as it does a quasi-apocalyptic fate to be avoided or a titanic struggle to be engaged, is somewhat misleading. This imagery obscures the messy, prosaic daily bargaining that occupies those who run the machinery of the current world order. The needed reforms of this machinery (expansion of the UN Security Council, to take one of many possible examples) will not be advanced by worrying about or debating U.S. "decline." If "hegemonic decline" is part of a cyclical rhythm driven at bottom by economic forces, then it will occur regardless of who says what about it; if it is not, then perhaps it does not merit the ink being spilled over it.

The weight of the evidence suggests that, contra Lieber, a slow erosion of the U.S. position is occurring, but whether this represents a pressing problem is doubtful. If a new administration reorients U.S. foreign policy in a way that now seems likely, many of the issues surrounding the decline debate may begin to appear somewhat less urgent.

p.s. added Aug. 15: For somewhat different perspectives on U.S. decline (though not ones I especially endorse), see Gary Becker and Richard Posner at their blog. Becker posted on the topic Aug.3, Posner then added his own post. (N.B. Chicago School economics rules there.)


bro said...

nice essay!

LFC said...


El Jefe Maximo said...

Very good essay and I agree with what I believe is your position, and not Lieber's.

Paul Kennedy's excellent book is still one of my favorites, I devoured both Rise and Fall and his work on the Royal Navy (Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery. I was less taken by Preparing for the Twenty First Century but perhaps I need to read it again.

You write: ". . .In a world where the leading powers compete in ways that do not involve war. . ." Do they really? Or, to bastardize Clausewitz, is peace now war by other means? Are we in the struggle of all against all -- both that of states, and of non-state actors?

LFC said...

el jefe,
Thanks for the comment.
On Paul Kennedy: I've read parts of 'Preparing for the 21st Century' -- it's not bad, as I recall, but it did not have the impact of 'Rise and Fall of the GPs'.
Have not read 'Rise and Fall of Br. Naval Mastery,' but i'm aware it's still cited a lot -- Kennedy was trained as a military and diplomatic historian of course, and it's not surprising that when he's in his element he's good.

Your last comment raises big questions, but briefly I would be a bit less Clausewitzian -- more accurately, perhaps, less Hobbesian -- than you. Studies such as the Human Security Report have shown that the overall amt of violence in the world -- interstate war, civil war, terrorism, genocide, etc --has actually gone down in the last 15/20 years, hard as this may be to believe. Interstate war is less frequent than civil war, and when it does occur -- as in the Caucasus just now -- is often over fairly quickly. Of course there is still too much armed violence, large defense budgets, we are not on the cusp of a peaceful utopia by any means. But competition among the leading powers often centers on status issues, and where there is more traditional 'security competition' among them, it tends not to involve war. (A US-China conflict over, e.g., Taiwan, is possible but doesn't seem likely in near to medium term.)
And yes,non-state actors are more important now than before -- see e.g. Richard Haass on "age of nonpolarity" in recent For. Affairs on this. Lieber brushes this issue off too quickly.

LFC said...

p.s. Having just looked at your most recent post on the Caucasus, i see perhaps i am a bit too hasty in saying that the Georgia-Russia war is 'over'.

peter said...

very well put. I think your point on exceptionalism is quite insightful--many students of 19th century great power relations note the way Great Britain accommodated the new reality of the rise of the USA in a way that the USA could not do to a modern rising power today.

There is an undercurrent of exceptionalism in much of this debate-- perhaps I'll see if I can work this into my class somehow.

LFC said...

if you do work it into your class, let me know how it goes.

El Jefe Maximo said...

In the 19th Century, Britain accomodated the rising power of the United States, but it conspiciously did not so accomodate Wilheimine Germany, which had its own exceptionalism issues (you could argue that most continental European states did as well. China and Japan possibly fall into this category also.

As for your arguments on violence and the question of whether the world is more or less Hobbesian, I think you're probably right about general reduction in the amount of violence, although I wonder if the modern reduction in violence still does not reflect a sort of hangover from the two World Wars and their grisly and prolonged aftermath (Korea, Vietnam, de-colonization, etc.). (Certainly European attitudes, for one, to the use for force might support my contention that such a "hangover" exists).

Count me as someone with little faith that the world is getting less violent. I wish I thought it were otherwise. There are too many resource, population and economic issues for this to happen, to say nothing of plain old nationalism. Moreover, the power to inflict mass death and destruction has moved more and more away from states, and has effectively been democratized downwards.

LFC said...

On question of amount of violence in world: I tend to agree w those IR types who talk about "zones of peace" and/or "security communities" -- i.e. there are certain parts of the world, notably W Europe and parts of the W hemisphere, where (interstate) war seems to have become unthinkable as a means of settling disputes. The hangover effect of the world wars contributed to this but now it's become more rooted and institutionalized; some of it has to do w shared values, common sorts of relatively democratic political structures, close economic ties, shared ideas (in the constructivist sense) etc. Issue is how to expand these "zones of peace" to rest of world.

LFC said...

p.s. one way not to do it is to spread democracy at gunpoint (or to form a league of democracies, which i've inveighed against before - sorry).

El Jefe Maximo said...

Oh, I'd agree with you, in general, about spreading "democracy" at gunpoint and "Leagues of Democracies" etc. I tend to dismiss most of that as political puffing for domestic consumption, which sometimes becomes extraordinarly dangerous not least because the puffers began to believe their own happy talk, or box themselves in corners domestically with it.

Anonymous said...

Re: Zones of Peace vs. Zones of Conflict

IR types tend to draw a distinction between zones of peace and zones of conflict/violence (Wildavsky, Keane, Kaldor). They draw this distinction not to point towards just the fact that inter-state war has become unthinkable in certain parts of the world, but rather to draw a clear distinction between civilized and not so civilized/threatening parts of the world. This can take two forms: 1) the idea is that unless something is done, the anarchy that characterizes the zones of violence could spread to the zones of peace; 2) the problem with the zone of violence lies in its illiberal tendencies. L, do you think that this distinction between the zones of peace/conflict is useful analytically?

LFC said...

Well, what is your own answer to your question? I would be interested to know.
I'm going to cop-out on fully giving my views right now because (a) I happen to be completely zonked at the moment; and (b) I need time to formulate a thoughtful answer.
I am not generally happy with the use of "civilized" and "less civilized" as a distinction -- I can say that immediately. The other thing i would say is that points of immediate geographic contact between "zones of peace" and "zones of conflict" are relatively few. And the third thing is that the overall level of violence in the whole world has been declining for some time. And the fourth thing, there's a critique of Kaldor and some other "new war" theorists in Intl Pol Sociology a couple issues back, and i keep meaning to write something about it but haven't gotten to it yet.

Anonymous said...

Before we give answers, we need to unpack a lot of the assumptions that underpin the zones of peace/zones of violence dichotomy. One of the assumptions seem to be that the causes/condition of possibility for one zone to be violent is internal. I.e. that these zones are self-contained, if not hermetically sealed. This to me is a big problem. Check these maps out: one concerns arms exports (2003) and the other war deaths (2002)... I don't think the figures changed drastically in a year.


LFC said...

Thanks, I'll take a look.