Feb 7, 2010
Center for Democracy and Civil Society

Rumors of America’s death are exaggerated

Joshua Kurlantzick makes a solid argument for why Asia’s rise and America’s decline has been vastly overstated.

Militarily, no other countries comes close to the US in its ability to project power:

America’s decline has been vastly overstated. To become a global superpower requires economic, political, and military might, and on the last two counts, the United States remains leagues ahead of any Asian rival. Despite boosting defense budgets by 20 percent annually, Asian powers like India, China, or Indonesia will not rival the US military for decades, if ever – only the Pentagon could launch a war in a place like Afghanistan, so far from its homeland. When a tsunami struck South and Southeast Asia five years ago, the region’s nations, including Indonesia, Thailand, and India, had to rely on the US Navy to coordinate relief efforts…

The US is the only country that others see as a powerful, neutral power-broker:

America also has other advantages that will be nearly impossible to remove. With Asian nations still squabbling amongst themselves, many look to the United States as a neutral power broker, a role America plays around the world. German writer and scholar Joseph Joffe calls the United States today the “default power”: No one in the world trusts anyone else to play the global hegemon, so it still falls to Washington…

Rumors of economic decline are vastly overstated:

Even in the economic realm, the United States remains strong…the United States accounted for 32 percent of global output in 1913, 26 percent in 1960, and 26 percent in 2007, remarkably consistent figures. The United States remains atop nearly every ranking of economies according to openness and innovation. While Asia’s centrally planned economies can build infrastructure without worrying about public opposition…they are less successful at nurturing world-beating companies, which thrive on risk-taking and hands-off government. Compared to Intel, Google, or Apple, China’s major companies still are state-linked behemoths that do little innovation of their own. The leading corporations in most other Asian nations (with the exception of Japan and South Korea) also are either giant state-linked firms or trading companies that invest little in innovation. And censorship or tight government controls alienate the most innovative firms – Google is now threatening to pull out of China entirely…

While people may admire the economic growth in Asia, the moral authority of the US is vastly stronger.

Most important, the United States is a champion of an idea that has global appeal, and Asia is not. During the opposition protests in Iran, demonstrators look to the United States, not China or Indonesia or even India, to make a statement. In a reversal of the Iranian regime’s rhetoric, some protestors even chant “Death to China” because of Beijing’s support for the repressive government in Tehran. As long as protestors in places like Iran, or Burma or Ukraine, call out for the American president, and not China’s leader or India’s prime minister, the United States will remain the preeminent power…

I have rarely met anyone, in any country, who wanted to move to China, or India, or even Japan, rather than the United States…Perhaps one day China or Indonesia or India will draw these migrants, who would come seeking the same dreams and openness as they do today in the United States. But it won’t be soon – and it might not even be this century.

Solid argument.

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2 Comments

  • I always believed the idea of America’s decline was misleading and something that sounds scarier than the reality. It’s probably true that America’s relative power will decline, but I don’t see how that inevitably hurts us. Maybe we tend to associate the word “decline” with falling back or losing something, but I would think that whatever the state of the Chinese economy fifty years from now, or however many aircraft carriers they have – the standard of living in the United States will only be better than it is right now. Perhaps we will lose the ability to project our power unchallenged in quite so many places, but those interventions aren’t always in our best interest anyway. Likewise, losing relative economic bargaining power, and being less able to push our oil and agricultural interests on the rest of the world, may hurt special interests in the United States, but it would actually be beneficial to the average citizen. The idea of America’s “death” brings up images of the Roman Empire reverting to tribal society after being sacked by weaker civilizations, but I don’t know of any modern, industrial society that hasn’t seen a consistent increase in living standards despite fluctuations in its relative power. Germany and Japan were both flattened, and both have citizens living better off today than they were sixty years ago. So when we talk about America’s decline, we should ask “which Americans’ decline?” and, should we really care?

  • These are good points. I also think that the economic competition would be good for the US. The worst reaction would be to turn inwards and protect ourselves from outside economic challenges.

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