Is the United States in decline? Many Americans think so, and they are not alone. A recent Pew poll showed that pluralities in 13 of 25 countries believe that China will replace the U.S. as the world's leading superpower. But describing the future of power as inevitable American decline is both misleading and dangerous if it encourages China to engage in adventurous policies or the U.S. to overreact out of fear.
How would we know if the declinists are correct or not? First, one must beware of misleading metaphors of organic decline. Nations are not like humans with predictable life spans.
After Britain lost its American colonies at the end of the 18th century, Horace Walpole lamented Britain's reduction to "as insignificant a country as Denmark or Sardinia." He failed to foresee that the industrial revolution would give Britain a second century of even greater ascendancy. Rome remained dominant for more than three centuries after the apogee of Roman power.
It is also chastening to remember how wildly exaggerated were American estimates of Soviet power in the 1970s and of Japanese power in the 1980s. Today some confidently predict the 21st century will see China replace the U.S. as the world's leading state, while others equally confidently argue that the 21st century will be the American century. A fair assessment is difficult because there is always a range of possible futures.
On American power relative to China, much will depend on the often underestimated uncertainties of future political change in China. China's size and high rate of economic growth will almost certainly increase its relative strength vis-a-vis the U.S. This will bring it closer to the U.S. in power resources, but doesn't necessarily mean that it will surpass the U.S. as the most powerful country.
Even if China suffers no major domestic political setback, many current projections are based simply on GDP growth. They ignore U.S. military and soft-power advantages, as well as China's geopolitical disadvantages in Asia. America is more likely to enjoy favorable relations with its neighbors, allies like Europe and Japan, as well as India and others.
My best estimate is that, among the range of possible futures, the more likely is one described by Lee Kuan Yew as China giving the U.S. "a run for its money," but not passing it in overall power in the first half of this century.
Looking back at history, the British strategist Lawrence Freedman notes two features that distinguish the U.S. from the dominant great powers of the past: American power is based on alliances rather than colonies, and it is associated with an ideology that is flexible and to which America can return even after it has overextended itself. Looking to the future, Anne-Marie Slaughter of Princeton argues that America's culture of openness and innovation will keep it central in an information age when networks supplement, if not fully replace, hierarchical power.
On the question of absolute rather than relative American decline, the U.S. faces serious problems in areas like debt, secondary education and political gridlock. But solutions exist. Among the possible negative futures are ones in which the U.S. overreacts to terrorist attacks by closing inwards and thus cuts itself off from the strength that it obtains from openness.
But there are answers to major American problems that preoccupy us today, such as long-term debt (see the recommendations of recent deficit commissions) and political gridlock (for example, changes in redistricting procedures to reduce gerrymandering). Such solutions may remain forever out of reach, but it is important to distinguish situations where there are no solutions from those that could in principle be solved.
America is likely to remain more powerful than any single state in the coming decades. At the same time, we will certainly face a rise in the power resources of many others - both states and nonstate actors. We will also face an increasing number of issues to which solutions will require power with others as well as power over others. Our capacity to maintain alliances and create networks will be an important dimension of our hard and soft power.
Rather than succumb to self-fulfilling prophecies of inevitable decline, we need a vision that combines domestic reforms with smart strategies for the international deployment of our power in an information age.