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Second Mates

Yes, the United States will remain one of the world’s most influential nations. But let’s stop pretending it will dominate forever.

Force projection: The U.S. Navy is an unrivaled power in the Pacific—for now.(AP Photo/US Navy, Rebecca J. Moat)

March 15, 2012

Those of us who write about foreign policy—or any topic, for that matter—yearn for the day when the president of the United States lauds our work. That is exactly what happened in January to Robert Kagan, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and an adviser to the Romney campaign. Just before delivering the State of the Union address, President Obama told a collection of news anchors that his thinking had been influenced by Kagan’s recent cover essay in The New Republic, “Not Fade Away: The Myth of American Decline.” It is not often that a president running for reelection praises his chief rival’s counselor.

Kagan’s article, which draws on his new book, The World America Made, contests the emerging consensus in foreign-policy circles that American primacy is eroding thanks to the shift in global power from the West to the “rising rest.” China and other nations are steadily ascending, this view holds, while the United States and its allies are stuck in an economic rut. The long era of Western hegemony seems to be coming to an end.

Kagan begs to differ. He contends that U.S. primacy is undiminished and that Americans, as long as they set their minds to it, are poised to sit atop the global pecking order for the indefinite future. The nation’s share of global economic output has been holding steady, and its military strength “remains unmatched.” China, India, Brazil, Turkey, and other emerging powers are certainly on the move, Kagan acknowledges, but he maintains that only China will compromise U.S. interests. The others will either align with the United States or remain on the geopolitical sidelines. The biggest threat to U.S. hegemony is that “Americans may convince themselves that decline is indeed inevitable”—and choose to let it happen. Kagan wants to persuade them otherwise and to call forth the political energies needed to ensure that the United States remains “the world’s predominant power.”


Although it sounds reassuring, Kagan’s argument is, broadly, wrong. It’s true that economic strength and military superiority will preserve U.S. influence over global affairs for decades to come, but power is undeniably flowing away from the West to developing nations. If history is any guide, the arrival of a world in which power is more widely distributed will mean a new round of jockeying for position and primacy. While it still enjoys the top rank, the United States should do its best to ensure that this transition occurs peacefully and productively. The worst thing to do is to pretend it’s not happening.

By overselling the durability of U.S. primacy, Kagan’s analysis breeds an illusory strategic complacency: There is no need to debate the management of change when one denies it is taking place. Even worse, the neoconservative brain trust to which Kagan belongs chronically overestimates U.S. power and its ability to shape the world. The last time that like-minded thinkers ran the show—George W. Bush’s first term as president—they did much more to undermine American strength than to bolster it. Neoconservative thinking produced an assertive unilateralism that set the rest of the world on edge; led to an unnecessary and debilitating war in Iraq, the main results of which have been sectarian violence and regional instability; and encouraged fiscal profligacy that continues to threaten American solvency. Kagan would have us fritter away the nation’s resources in pursuit of a hollow hegemony.

Instead, it is time for thrift: Washington should husband its many strengths, be more sparing with military force, and rely on judicious diplomacy to tame the onset of a multipolar world.


American primacy is not as resilient as Kagan thinks. His most serious error is his argument that Americans need not worry about the ascent of new powers because only Europe and Japan are losing ground to them; the United States is keeping pace. It’s true that the U.S. share of global output has held at roughly 25 percent for several decades. It’s also the case that “the rise of China, India, and other Asian nations … has so far come almost entirely at the expense of Europe and Japan, which have had a declining share of the global economy.” But this is not, as Kagan implies, good news for the United States.

The long run of Western hegemony has been the product of teamwork, not of America acting alone. Through the 19th century and up until World War II, Europe led the effort to spread liberal democracy and capitalism—and to guide Western nations to a position of global dominance. Not until the postwar era did the United States take over stewardship of the West. Pax Britannica set the stage for Pax Americana, and Washington inherited from its European allies a liberal international order that rested on solid commercial and strategic foundations. Moreover, America’s many successes during the past 70 years would not have been possible without the power and purpose of Europe and Japan by its side. Whether defeating communism, liberalizing the global economy, combating nuclear proliferation, or delivering humanitarian assistance, Western allies formed a winning coalition that made effective action possible.

The collective strength of the West is, however, on the way down. During the Cold War, the Western allies often accounted for more than two-thirds of global output. Now they represent about half of output—and soon much less. As of 2010, four of the top five economies in the world were still from the developed world (the United States, Japan, Germany, and France). From the developing world, only China made the grade, coming in at No. 2. By 2050, according to Goldman Sachs, four of the top five economies will come from the developing world (China, India, Brazil, and Russia). Only the United States will make the cut; it will rank second, and its economy will be about half the size of China’s. Moreover, the turnabout will be rapid: Goldman Sachs predicts that the collective economic output of the top four developing countries—Brazil, China, India, and Russia—will match that of the G-7 countries by 2032.

Kagan is right that the United States will hold its own amid this coming revolution. But he is certainly misguided to think that the relative decline of Europe and Japan won’t matter. Their falling fortunes will compromise America’s ability to maintain global sway. Indeed, Kagan seems to admit as much when he acknowledges, “Germany and Japan were and are close democratic allies, key pillars of the American world order.”

Kagan is ready to gloss over the consequences of the West’s diminishing clout because he thinks that most emerging nations will cast their lot with the United States rather than challenge American hegemony. “Only the growth of China’s economy,” he writes, “can be said to have implications for American power in the future.” Kagan is confident that the rise of others—including Brazil, India, and Turkey—“is either irrelevant to America’s strategic position or of benefit to it.”


But Washington simply can’t expect emerging powers other than China to line up on its side. History suggests that a more equal distribution of power will produce fluid alignments, not fixed alliances. During the late 19th century, for example, the onset of a multi­polar Europe produced a continually shifting network of pacts. Large and small powers alike jockeyed for advantage in an uncertain environment. Only after imperial Germany’s military buildup threatened to overturn the equilibrium did Europe’s nations group into the competing alliances that ultimately faced off in World War I. As the 21st century unfolds, China is more likely than other emerging nations to threaten U.S. interests. But unless or until the rest of the world is forced to choose sides, most developing countries will keep their options open, not obediently follow America’s lead.

Already, rising powers are showing that they’ll chart their own courses. Turkey for decades oriented its statecraft westward, focusing almost exclusively on its ties to the United States and Europe. Now, Ankara looks primarily east and south, seeking to extend its sway throughout the Middle East. Its secular bent has given way to Islamist leanings; its traditionally close connection with Israel is on the rocks; and its relations with Washington, although steadier of late, have never recovered from the rift over the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.

India is supposedly America’s newest strategic partner. Relations have certainly improved since the 2005 agreement on civilian nuclear cooperation, and the two nations see eye to eye on checking China’s regional intentions. But on many other fronts, Washington and New Delhi are miles apart. India frets, for instance, that the U.S. will give Pakistan too much sway in Afghanistan. On the most pressing national security issue of the day—Iran’s nuclear program—India is more of a hindrance than a help, defying Washington’s effort to isolate Iran through tighter economic sanctions. And the two democracies have long been at loggerheads over trade and market access.

Nations such as Turkey and India, which Kagan argues will be either geopolitically irrelevant or solid American supporters, are already pushing back against Washington. And they are doing so while the United States still wields a pronounced preponderance of power. Imagine how things will look when the playing field has truly leveled out.

Despite his faith that rising powers (save China) will be America’s friends, Kagan at least recognizes that their ascent could come at America’s expense. Will not the “increasing economic clout” of emerging powers, he asks, “cut into American power and influence?” He offers a few reasons not to worry, none of which satisfies.

For starters, he claims that the growing wealth of developing nations need not diminish U.S. sway because “there is no simple correlation between economic growth and international influence.” He continues, “Just because a nation is an attractive investment opportunity does not mean it is a rising great power.”

True enough. But one of the past’s most indelible patterns is that rising nations eventually expect their influence to be commensurate with their power. The proposition that countries such as India and Brazil will sit quietly in the global shadows as they become economic titans flies in the face of history. Other than modern-day Germany and Japan—both of which have punched well below their weight due to constraints imposed on them after World War II—a country’s geopolitical aspirations generally rise in step with its economic strength. During the 1890s, for instance, the United States tapped its industrial might to launch a blue-water navy, rapidly turning itself from an international lightweight into a world-class power. China is now in the midst of fashioning geopolitical aspirations that match its economic strength—as are other emerging powers. India is pouring resources into its navy; its fleet expansion includes 20 new warships and two aircraft carriers.

To support his thesis that emerging powers are not rising at the expense of U.S. influence, Kagan also argues that pushback against Washington is nothing new. He then cites numerous occasions, most of them during the Cold War, when adversaries and allies alike resisted U.S. pressure. The upshot is that other nations are no less compliant today than they used to be, and that the sporadic intransigence of emerging powers is par for the course.

But today’s global landscape is new. By presuming that current circumstances are comparable with the Cold War, Kagan underestimates the centrifugal forces thwarting American influence. Bipolarity no longer constrains how far nations—even those aligned with Washington—will stray from the fold. And the United States no longer wields the economic influence that it once did. Its transition from creditor to debtor nation and from budget surpluses to massive deficits explains why it has been watching from the sidelines as its partners in Europe flirt with financial meltdown. The G-7, a grouping of like-minded democracies, used to oversee the global economy. Now that role is played by the G-20, a much more unwieldy group in which Washington has considerably less influence. And it is hardly business as usual when foreign countries lay claim to nearly 50 percent of publicly held U.S. government debt, with an emerging rival—China—holding about one-quarter of the American treasuries owned by foreigners.

Yes, U.S. leadership has always faced resistance, but the pushback grows in proportion to the diffusion of global power. China may prove to be America’s most formidable competitor, but other emerging nations will also be finding their own orbits, not automatically aligning themselves with Washington. America’s most reliable partners in the years ahead will remain its traditional allies, Europe and Japan. That’s why it spells trouble for the United States that these allies are on the losing end of the ongoing redistribution of global power.


Finally, Kagan’s timing is off. He is right that power shifts over decades, not years. But he underestimates the speed at which substantial changes can occur. He notes, for example, “The United States today is not remotely like Britain circa 1900, when that empire’s relative decline began to become apparent. It is more like Britain circa 1870, when the empire was at the height of its power.” After two draining wars, an economic crisis, and deepening defense cuts, this assertion seems doubtful. But let’s assume that the United States is indeed “at the height of its power,” comparable with Britain circa 1870.

In 1870, British hegemony rested on a combination of economic and naval supremacy that looked indefinitely durable. Two short decades later, however, that picture had completely changed. The simultaneous rise of the United States, Germany, and Japan altered the distribution of power, forcing Britain to revamp its grand strategy. Pax Britannica may have technically lasted until World War I, but London saw the writing on the wall much earlier—which is precisely why it was able to adjust its strategy by downsizing imperial commitments and countering Germany’s rise.

In 1896, Britain began courting the United States and soon backed down on a number of disputes in order to advance Anglo-American amity. The British adopted a similar approach in the Pacific, fashioning a naval alliance with Japan in 1902. In both cases, London used diplomacy to clear the way for retrenchment—and it worked. Rapprochement with Washington and Tokyo freed up the fleet, enabling the Royal Navy to concentrate its battleships closer to home as the Anglo-German rivalry heated up.

It was precisely because Britain, while still enjoying preponderant strength, looked over the horizon that it was able to successfully adapt its grand strategy to a changing distribution of power. Just like Britain in 1870, the United States probably has another two decades before it finds itself in a truly multipolar world. But due to globalization and the spread of new manufacturing and information technologies, global power is shifting far more rapidly today than it did in the 19th century.

Now is the time for Washington to focus on managing the transition to a new geopolitical landscape. As the British experience makes clear, effective strategic adjustment means getting ahead of the curve. The alternative is to wait until it is too late—precisely what London did during the 1930s, with disastrous consequences for Britain and Europe. Despite the mounting threat posed by Nazi Germany, Britain clung to its overseas empire and postponed rearmament. After living in denial for the better part of a decade, it finally began to prepare for war in 1939, but by then it was way too late to stop the Nazi war machine.

Even Kagan seems to recognize that comparing the United States to Britain in 1870 may do his argument more harm than good. “Whether the United States begins to decline over the next two decades or not for another two centuries,” he writes, “will matter a great deal, both to Americans and to the nature of the world they live in.” The suggestion here is that the United States, as long as it marshals the willpower and makes the right choices, could still have a good 200 years of hegemony ahead of it. But two decades—more in line with the British analogy—is probably the better guess. It strains credibility to propose that, even as globalization speeds growth among developing nations, a country with less than 5 percent of the world’s population will run the show for two more centuries.

Whether American primacy lasts another 20 years or another 200, Kagan’s paramount worry is that Americans will commit “preemptive superpower suicide out of a misplaced fear of their own declining power.” In fact, the greater danger is that the United States could head into an era of global change with its eyes tightly shut—in denial of the tectonic redistribution of power that is remaking the globe. The United States will remain one of the world’s leading powers for the balance of the 21st century, but it must recognize the waning of the West’s primacy and work to shepherd the transition to a world it no longer dominates. Pretending otherwise is the real “preemptive superpower suicide.”

Charles A. Kupchan is a professor of international affairs at Georgetown University and the Whitney Shepardson senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the author of No One’s World: The West, the Rising Rest, and the Coming Global Turn (Oxford, 2012).



Robert Kagan replies:

Charles Kupchan has been predicting America’s decline, and the emergence of a genuinely multipolar world, for the better part of the past two decades. In 1992, he published an article titled “Legitimacy and Power: The Waning of U.S. and Soviet Hegemony.” In 1998, he published one called “After Pax Americana.” In 1999, it was “Life After Pax Americana.” In 2002, he called his book The End of the American Era. In 2003, he wrote of “The Rise of Europe, America’s Changing Internationalism, and the End of U.S. Primacy.” Now he writes again of American decline. Eventually, he will be right. But he is not right yet.

If Kupchan’s prediction has remained consistent, his supporting evidence has varied wildly. Today, he contends that while the United States itself shows no measurable sign of decline—a remarkable concession given my argument that the United States shows no measurable sign of decline—the real problem is the decline of “the West,” by which he means Japan and Europe. A decade ago, however, his story was quite different. Then, he wrote that the end of the American era was approaching not because of Europe’s decline but because of its rise. In 2002, he argued that the “challenge to America” would come “not from the Islamic world or an ascendant China … but from an integrating Europe, whose economy already rivals America’s.”

Now Kupchan, undeterred, argues the opposite: America’s decline will result from the failure of this erstwhile European competitor. He acknowledges it’s “true that economic strength and military superiority will preserve U.S. influence over global affairs for decades to come,” but he says that “global power is undeniably flowing away from the West.”

There are two problems with this argument. First, although Europe’s and Japan’s share of global output is declining, it is absurd to argue that they are ceasing to be very influential players on the world scene—let alone that they are being surpassed in global influence by the likes of Brazil and Turkey, or even by India and China. Europe’s economy remains vast, and the influence it wields on the world stage on a broad range of issues remains greater than that of China. The United States and Europe, working together, have outmaneuvered both China and Russia on issues such as Iran, Libya, and perhaps increasingly Syria, pushing both powers toward positions that they would not otherwise have taken. In East Asia, Japan remains a major player, especially now that active American diplomacy has helped link Japan with India and others in an increasingly effective regional network. No one looking at the diplomatic score sheet of the past two years, whether the issue has been the South China Sea or North Korea, would argue that China has gotten the upper hand. There is more to international power than the size of a nation’s gross domestic product.

Second, what constitutes “the West”? I find it a peculiarly narrow definition of the West that excludes Brazil, whose culture is, after all, firmly rooted in “the West.” From a geopolitical perspective, concepts like the West have probably ceased to serve any useful purpose. But if the question is one of values—the liberal values of democracy and free markets—it makes more sense to say that the West has actually grown stronger. The rise of India and Brazil, like the rise of Japan and West Germany during the Cold War, adds strength to the liberal world order. Can Kupchan really maintain the position that the rise of India and Brazil constitutes a setback for the West?

As for Kupchan’s argument that India and Brazil cannot be relied upon to follow American policy dictates at all times—and may even differ with the United States on key strategic issues like Iran—the only proper response is, “What else is new?” Yes, the new world is fluid, and nations will align themselves according to their particular interests. But it was ever thus. Think of how often close allies of the United States, such as France, departed from Washington’s strategic script during the Cold War. I predict that on the big issues, a majority of the time, India and the United States will be more likely to see eye to eye than, say, India and China. And isn’t that what matters? The question is not whether the United States is as powerful as it ever was in absolute terms (although I can make the case that it is). Rather, it is whether the United States has declined in power relative to others. If power is more diffuse in the present world, it could also make the United States more powerful relative to others who also have to face a more diffuse world. During the Cold War, power was concentrated in Washington and Moscow; was that situation preferable to the present? Kupchan thinks it was.

Kupchan seems to misunderstand the point I make about Great Britain in the last three decades of the 19th century. I cited the British example to show that decline is more than just a four-year affair, but I also wanted to show that when a nation does decline over time, there are measurable indicators. Britain went from unrivaled dominance on the high seas to one among equals. It went from No. 1 to No. 3 in overall economic output. My point was that until such measures of decline start appearing for the United States, it is premature to talk about inevitable decline. Kupchan agrees with me that no such declines have yet been visible.

We do disagree about the meaning of that British example, however, and about the history of the past century more generally. Kupchan, like many professional declinists, takes a rosy view of the past in order to make invidious comparisons with the present. He really does seem to think the world was better, and better for the United States, when a totalitarian government possessing massive conventional forces and an equally massive nuclear arsenal occupied half of Europe. He somehow finds the rise of Brazil more ominous for the United States. I personally would prefer Brazil’s challenges (if they can be called that) to a half-century of Cold War standoff.

Kupchan writes that from the 19th century until World War II, “Europe advanced the fortunes of liberal democracy and capitalism.” Really? I seem to recall that a few other things happened in Europe in that era, including the rise of fascism, Nazism, communism, and militarism. It really wasn’t until the United States became the leading power in the world, after World War II, that democracy and capitalism spread across the globe and created the liberal world order we enjoy today.

Kupchan also looks back favorably on British foreign policy at the dawn of the 20th century, praising London’s strategic adjustment to new geopolitical realities. He wishes the United States would do the same, even before, as he admits, there are any visible measures of actual American decline. But somehow he ignores Britain’s failure to avert World War I, the greatest strategic and human calamity in recorded history—that is until World War II, which Britain also failed to avert. Whatever wisdom the British showed in adjusting to new realities, I hope the United States will do better.

Robert Kagan is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author of The World America Made.



Charles Kupchan replies:

The core issue in this debate is the nature of the global landscape in the coming decades. Robert Kagan maintains that because the United States currently shows no sign of measurable decline, its primacy is indefinitely durable. For reasons spelled out above, I believe that the world is entering a period of tectonic change in the global distribution of power. The coming redistribution of global economic output speaks for itself. For the United States to deny this inevitable reallocation of wealth and power (as Kagan recommends) would be to engage in dangerous self-delusion. To be sure, the United States will remain a power of the top rank for a long time to come. Even so, managing a world in which the West no longer enjoys material primacy will require acknowledging the task at hand—as well as ample foresight and judicious diplomacy. Now, while the United States still enjoys primacy, is the time to begin shaping that next world.

Kagan is correct that I have been pondering the subject of a multipolar world for the better part of two decades. I have done so with lament, because I believe that the erosion of Western hegemony could make the world a more dangerous place. But that is precisely why the subject deserves urgent attention. Kagan is also correct that a decade ago, well before the European Union was beset by the current debt crisis, I foresaw an integrating Europe that was poised to project its collective weight on the global stage. Indeed, the transatlantic rift over the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq risked cleaving the NATO allies. Now, however, it is Europe’s weakness, not its strength, that poses problems for the United States. Over the past five years, the European project has stumbled; an E.U. preoccupied with its own troubles casts a smaller shadow across the globe. And as Europe remains America’s go-to partner on most international issues, its introversion and fragility mark a setback for the United States.

In Of Paradise and Power and other previous works, Kagan has denigrated Europe as having sworn off geopolitics. It is odd that, even amid the E.U.’s ongoing economic crisis, he is suddenly touting “the influence it wields on the world stage.” So, too, is it hard to buy Kagan’s claim that Japan now enjoys outsized influence in its region; in fact, China has been steadily extending its sway at Japan’s expense. Kagan appears to have woken up to the fact that the United States needs European and Japanese strength by its side, after all. But then he must also accept that their declining share of global product does not augur well for Western primacy.

Kagan believes that emerging democracies—such as India, Brazil, and Turkey—will usually align themselves with the United States, that common values will mean strategic solidarity. I believe that a government’s interests will matter more than its disposition. Indeed, New Delhi, Brasilia, and Ankara have already made it quite clear that they will chart their own courses on foreign policy, not line up with the United States and its traditional allies. Kagan is, of course, correct that the United States is often unable to get its way, even with its allies. But during the Cold War, geopolitical imperative kept partners close at hand even as they disagreed with Washington. In a multipolar world, states will have many more options at their disposal.

As for the analogy between the United States and Great Britain, Kagan is curiously silent on the main question: the speed with which a dominant power can suddenly find itself on a level playing field. In his response, Kagan writes that I will eventually be right about the onset of multipolarity, but not yet. The key question is when I will be right. If the British experience is any indication, the answer is in about two decades, not two centuries. If so, this is the time to begin preparing for what comes after the world that America made.

My critique of his New Republic essay is not, as Kagan charges, the work of a “professional declinist.” It is the analysis of a sober realist. 

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