The Declinist Rebuttal

Bob Kagan in a piece , Not Fade Away: The Myth of American Decline, in the New Republic forcefully rebuts the current declinist fad.

He argues that it has been American power that has built, more or less, the current world order and that this order “reflects American principles and preferences, and was built and preserved by American power in all its political, economic, and military dimensions. If American power declines, this world order will decline with it”. Kagan adds that “perhaps it will simply collapse, as the European world order collapsed in the first half of the twentieth century”. He dismisses John Ikenberry’s argument of a post US world order as a “pleasant illusion”.

He argues that the perception of decline is understandable, given the world financial crisis and the “rise” of China and the Asian economies generally. He cleverly adds that “With this broad perception of decline as the backdrop, every failure of the United States to get its way in the world tends to reinforce the impression”.

Interestingly he adds that “Measuring changes in a nation’s relative power is a tricky business, but there are some basic indicators: the size and the influence of its economy relative to that of other powers; the magnitude of military power compared with that of potential adversaries; the degree of political influence it wields in the international system”.

Being a historian by training Kagan gives context mentioning that “The decline of the British Empire, for instance, occurred over several decades. In 1870, the British share of global manufacturing was over 30 percent. In 1900, it was 20 percent. By 1910, it was under 15 percent—well below the rising United States, which had climbed over the same period from more than 20 percent to more than 25 percent”. He makes the excellent point that “In 1883, Britain possessed more battleships than all the other powers combined. By 1897, its dominance had been eclipsed”. On the impact of the financial crisis he adds that “The United States suffered deep and prolonged economic crises in the 1890s, the 1930s, and the 1970s. In each case, it rebounded in the following decade and actually ended up in a stronger position relative to other powers than before the crisis”.

Kagan adds that economically the United States “despite the current years of recession and slow growth, America’s position in the world has not changed. Its share of the world’s GDP has held remarkably steady, not only over the past decade but over the past four decades. In 1969, the United States produced roughly a quarter of the world’s economic output. Today it still produces roughly a quarter, and it remains not only the largest but also the richest economy in the world”. Kagan argues that if China does overtake the United States as the largest economy in the world “Chinese leaders face significant obstacles to sustaining the country’s growth indefinitely—it will still remain far behind both the United States and Europe in terms of per capita GDP”.

Kagan rightly reasserts American global military power mentioning that “while consuming a little less than 4 percent of GDP annually—a higher percentage than the other great powers, but in historical terms lower than the 10 percent of GDP that the United States spent on defense in the mid-1950s and the 7 percent it spent in the late 1980s” he reassuringly adds that “American naval power remains predominant in every region of the world”. He continues with the historical analogy saying America “is more like Britain circa 1870, when the empire was at the height of its power”.

Kagan then addresses the rest. He mentions that “The fact that other nations in the world are enjoying periods of high growth does not mean that America’s position as the predominant power is declining, or even that ‘the rest’ are catching up in terms of overall power and influence”, to lend further credence to this Kagan adds that “share of global GDP was a little over 2 percent in 1990 and remains a little over 2 percent today. Turkey’s share was under 1 percent in 1990 and is still under 1 percent today”. He mentions that “matters in international politics, but there is no simple correlation between economic growth and international influence”.  Kagan adds that “In the case of the United States, the dramatic and rapid rise of the German and Japanese economies during the Cold War reduced American primacy in the world much more than the more recent ‘rise of the rest.’ America’s share of the world’s GDP, nearly 50 percent after World War II, fell to roughly 25 percent by the early 1970s, where it has remained ever since”.

Kagan cleverly argues against the declinists like Dr Walt when he argues that “Much of today’s impressions about declining American influence are based on a nostalgic fallacy: that there was once a time when the United States could shape the whole world to suit its desires, and could get other nations to do what it wanted them to do”. He mentions how “NSC-68, the famous strategy document, warned of the growing gap between America’s military strength and its global strategic commitments. If current trends continued, it declared, the result would be ‘a serious decline in the strength of the free world relative to the Soviet Union and its satellites.'” To re-inforce his point he makes the interesting argument that “Douglas MacArthur, giving the keynote address at the Republican National Convention in 1952, lamented the ‘alarming change in the balance of world power,'”. He goes on to make the point that America has not always had things go its way from the British invasion of Suez, “losing” China, lack of British involvment in Vietnam to a host of other issues. Neither, he says was American soft power unviersal, Mosseadegh, Watergate, Vietnam, bombing Cambodia, in addition to the fact that “After the death of Stalin, moreover, both the Soviet Union and China engaged in hot competition to win over the Third World, taking ‘goodwill tours’ and providing aid programs of their own”. Crucially he adds that “Today people point to America’s failure to bring Israelis and Palestinians to a negotiated settlement, or to manage the tumultuous Arab Awakening, as a sign of weakness and decline. But in 1973 the United States could not even prevent the major powers in the Middle East from engaging in all-out war”. He mentions that the 1970s was perhaps the best time for American decline coupled with the rise of Japan.

He concludes that “the United States has been more successful in Iraq than it was in Vietnam. It has been just as incapable of containing Iranian nuclear ambitions as it was in the 1990s, but it has, through the efforts of two administrations, established a more effective global counter-proliferation network. Its efforts to root out and destroy Al Qaeda have been remarkably successful, especially when compared with the failures to destroy terrorist networks and stop terrorist attacks in the 1990s”. He reassuringly adds that “will have a hard time becoming a regional hegemon so long as Taiwan remains independent and strategically tied to the United States, and so long as strong regional powers such as Japan, Korea, and Australia continue to host American troops and bases. China would need at least a few allies to have any chance of pushing the United States out of its strongholds in the western Pacific”.

He discusses the “overstrech” and mentions how “In 1953, the United States had almost one million troops deployed overseas—325,000 in combat in Korea and more than 600,000 stationed in Europe, Asia, and elsewhere. In 1968, it had over one million troops on foreign soil—537,000 in Vietnam and another half million stationed elsewhere. By contrast, in the summer of 2011, at the height of America’s deployments in its two wars, there were about 200,000 troops deployed in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan combined, and another roughly 160,000 troops stationed in Europe and East Asia. Altogether, and including other forces stationed around the world, there were about 500,000 troops deployed overseas. This was lower even than the peacetime deployments of the Cold War”.

He finishes on a  more sombre note arguing that “There have been many times over the past two centuries when the political system was dysfunctional, hopelessly gridlocked, and seemingly unable to find solutions to crushing national problems—from slavery and then Reconstruction, to the dislocations of industrialization at the end of the nineteenth century and the crisis of social welfare during the Great Depression, to the confusions and paranoia of the early Cold War years” he does thankfully add however that “on many big issues throughout their history, Americans have found a way of achieving and implementing a national consensus”.

He closes arguing that “while the nation continues to struggle, Americans may convince themselves that decline is indeed inevitable, or that the United States can take a time-out from its global responsibilities while it gets its own house in order”. Indeed more than any other danger this is perhaps, the biggest threat the United States faces today.

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19 Responses to “The Declinist Rebuttal”

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