The New, New Declinism . . . And Why It's As Intellectually Bankrupt As Ever

Predictions/dire warnings/gloating concerning the expected waning of American power worldwide are not a new phenomenon–the potential suggestion of the title of this post notwithstanding. As Robert Lieber points out, such predictions have been raining down from the Olympian heights of the pundit classes for a few centuries now. They periodically pop up to warn us that the era of American glory is coming to an end and when last we witnessed a major uprising of these sentiments, it was during the 1980s to inform us ever-so-solemnly that the United States would have to give way to Japan as a world power.

So much for that prediction. But now, the declinists are back to tell us that this time, they have it right and the U.S. is headed downhill. But Lieber’s article does an excellent job of demolishing such arguments. The article is long and you should read it all, but some excerpts–including the following semi-abstract–really couldn’t hurt:

In a time of war, televised terror threats, and economic and political pessimism, declinism has some of the qualities of a universal solvent: it explains everything. But while it may harmonize with current tremors of fear and uncertainty, declinism succeeds less well as a “new paradigm.” In contrast to the declinists’ arguments and analyses, America boasts a position of unmatched preponderance. No single country or even grouping of countries has emerged as a plausible counterpart or peer competitor, and apart from the very long-term possibility of China, none is likely to do so.

Lieber goes on to dismiss the arguments contending that institutions like the EU and countries like Russia, Japan and India will emerge as strategic threats to the United States. But of course, everyone wants to hear about China. While Lieber takes the Chinese seriously, he also makes clear that in terms of projecting power, China is not in America’s league:

. . . [China] projects greater influence in Asia by the day, and it has been a problematic actor in other regions as well, where it has bolstered and sustained repressive regimes that the U.S. and Europe have sought to isolate, as in Sudan, Zimbabwe, Burma, and to some extent Iran. Its ability to do so, needless to say, rests on economic growth. A huge trade surplus with the United States has spurred the accumulation of $1.5 trillion in foreign exchange reserves, the bulk of it invested in U.S. government securities. In theory, this could allow Beijing to undo the American economy in one fell swoop. However, in triggering a run on the dollar China would subvert its own national interest, boosting its own currency against America’s and thereby undercutting its own competitiveness as well as its ability to export to the U.S. market.

Still, Beijing now plays an outsized role in global affairs. But, again, as China has become the dominant power in East Asia, its muscle flexing has pushed not only Japan but also Vietnam, Singapore, Australia, and others farther into the U.S. orbit. In any case, China’s priorities for the immediate future center mostly on internal development and the absorption of hundreds of millions of workers from its lagging rural and agricultural sectors. The quickening pace of China’s military buildup seems intended primarily to deter the United States from intervening in support of Taiwan and, beyond that, to establish regional rather than global power. Over the very long-term China may indeed emerge as a great power rival to the United States. But this seems very, very unlikely in the near or medium term.

Also notable are Lieber’s arguments that contrary to popular belief, the United States is, in fact, much more popular around the world than many would have us believe–an especially important fact to take into account during an election year when the issue of America’s appeal is a hot-button campaign matter.

Lieber’s article is most welcome, though I fear that it will continue to be drowned out by the shrieking of declinism. But the article’s points are valuable and well taken. Lieber takes a contrarian stance, to be sure. But lots of times, contrarians show a disturbing tendency to be right. So it is in this case.