American Declinism Debated


Joseph S. Nye Jr, Is the American Century Over? (Polity, 2015)


In Washington at least, no pastime is more common and American than the debate over whether the United States is in decline. It is fitting that America’s most prominent scholar of international power should chime in. In this concise and soothing little booklet, Joseph Nye attempts to convince an increasingly pessimistic world that its reluctant protector, the United States, is not in decline. I doubt readers will be convinced. Instead, this reviewer found Nye’s complacency understandable but startling.

Nye’s book is the latest in this subgenre. Edward Luce writes about America in what he calls the age of descent. Fareed Zakaria speaks of the post-American world. Charles Kupchan penned a book titled No One’s World. In keeping with the tradition of British expatriates living in the United States, Harvard’s Niall Ferguson opines on the demise of the West overall and American decline more specifically. Amitav Acharya does not care about the decline of the United States itself but argues that the world order established and underpinned by the primacy of the United States is slowly but surely dissolving. What replaces the United States and many existing global institutions in a pluralistic world is unclear, but of greater concern to Acharya.

While declinists have multiplied over the last decade, they are not without opposition. Bruce Berkowitz’s Strategic Advantage was the initial counterpunch to arguments about decline. He was joined by Josef Joffe in his The Myth of America’s Decline. Robert Kagan was said to have earned a fan in President Obama with his anti-declinist, The World America Made. Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandlebaum have also tried to be objective and constructive in their book, That Used to Be Us. Nye therefore enters a field well-plowed.

Despite the crowded market, Nye’s book manages to be unique. He unpacks the declinist argument into its international and domestic dimensions. He realizes that these are inter-related but not necessarily inter-dependent. A country’s relative external power may decline without domestic decay or deterioration. To explore these dimensions, Nye evaluates American external power directly against numerous rivals in one chapter. He then devotes an entire chapter to the presumed archrival China. And he concludes with a discussion of the internal or domestic basis of American power.

Nye’s assessment of China is predicated upon a series of assertions. He believes that China has incentives for restraint, namely the advantages it derives from today’s international economic system. He argues that China benefits greatly from and is not eager to destroy, existing institutions that comprise that system. Thus it is not “a full-fledged revisionist state,” he argues. Nye suggests that the only opportunity for conflict will come from miscalculation or from our fear of China’s aggressive rise becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. He fails to discuss what accommodations China may ask for or assert in its regional or from global institutions as its relative power increases. Nor does he evaluate the chances that the existing international organization or U.S. policy elites will make those adjustments.

Nye’s thinking and conclusions recall the arguments promoted recently by Chris Coker of the London School of Economics. In The Improbable War, Coker agrees with Nye that conflict between America and China is not inevitable, but he warns that placing excessive faith in rationalism and our own interpretations of what defines the best interests of our opponents can make the improbable more probable. In his conclusion, he reminds us “it is important to remember that the prevailing complacency regarding the obsolescence of great power war contributed to the outbreak of war in 1914.”

Nye’s domestic chapter is built around a comparison to Rome, which was an imperial system built on its military power and was ultimately subject to internal ruin by internecine political warfare. He recognizes this is not a useful analogy, largely because American economic vitality is well founded in an entrepreneurial system that manages the allocation of capital far better than in ancient Rome. Yet he is optimistic to a fault, claiming that “several serious problems, ranging from deficits to energy to health care costs, have improved rather than deteriorated in recent years.”

Is the American Century over? Nye contends not. However, if one defines the American Century as the United States holding on to an exceptional position as the preponderant power, then the answer is certainly yes. We may be the strongest power in military terms or perhaps our economy will outlast the Chinese, but the world is surely multipolar and no longer even Western much less “American.” Even by Nye’s own definition, it is not our century.

The answer to this book’s title is still no if the American Century means having the capacity to convert our power routinely to generate levels of influence and to alter events to our liking. Even at the height of our unipolar moment, we hardly got our way vis-à-vis North Korea, Syria, Georgia, Iran, Afghanistan or Iraq. As power continues to diffuse, notions of a G-2 world or a stable bipolar world seem far-fetched. In the emerging multi-polar world (or multi-modal to recognize the role of actors beyond states), we will have to be more discriminate in judging what our core interests are and more disciplined and measured in applying our resources to secure them.

Former intelligence official Matt Burrows has written a longer-term perspective of trends in The Future, Declassified. Burrows is more of a realist when it comes to America’s need for a wakeup call:

For the U.S. to be in a position to reinvent the international systems, it would have to reinvent itself. A divided U.S. would have a more difficult time of shaping a new role. A strong political consensus is a necessary condition for establishing the basis for greater U.S. economic competiveness. And equally, the revitalization of U.S. economic strength is the irreplaceable foundation of any sustainable international strategy.

Perhaps the reason I am more pessimistic than Nye is that I do not see the prospects for a strong consensus for political change. Where is the leadership to galvanize the consensus Burrows rightly says is needed? Who is generating the compromises needed to reinvent ourselves and reinvest in a sound economic foundation that would make us both commercially competitive and solvent.

In many respects, we have disinherited our children. We are leaving them in a messier world. This is not entirely of our own making, but it is our fault that we leave them saddled in debt, with outdated infrastructure, a degraded environment, and less natural resources than we were bequeathed. Declinist deniers can point to many positive attributes of the American enterprise. It is incontestable that we have a large, vibrant, and creative country, blessed with many natural resources and a business model that incentivizes productive risk taking. Our hard power in the Defense Department provides us with a huge lead over rivals. But all of these reflect past investments: they were given to us. They are not of our making and certainly not something we carefully preserved for our offspring. The Pentagon’s power base is increasingly less relevant and lacks agility. The cuts imposed mindlessly by sequestration will eat into its capacity each and every year. It’s exactly that sort of complacency and triumphalism that made the unipolar moment into a brief point of history.

What Nye overlooks reinforces an argument made by Bridge Colby and Paul Lettow. We have to be more honest with ourselves. We should spend less time crowing about our exceptionalism, and put more effort into extending it. It is not a self-perpetuating birthright. Should we continue to remain divided and coast on the prior generation’s contributions, we will continue to see American power, influence and opportunity decline.

This is a little book about big and important ideas. Nye succinctly summarizes numerous complex and competing schools of thought. It is not triumphalist but just as surely it is not wary enough of external trends and the internal sclerosis that impedes what passes for U.S. strategic planning. It’s safe to say that America’s numerous advantages will continue to make it a significant player in almost any depiction of the future. But we should drop the hubris about another American Century.


F. G. Hoffman is a Senior Research Fellow at the National Defense University, a member of the Board of Advisors at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, and a Contributing Editor at War on the Rocks. He is also a graduate student in the War Studies Department at King’s College, London. These remarks are his own and do not reflect official DOD or US government positions or policy.