“American decline” and why it doesn’t mean anything: One more time

The ChiComs told us to take it down once their GDP got so big. Damn it.

I thought I was done with the “decline” stories, at least for a while. But it’s the Bad Idea That Won’t Die.

Robert Kagan of the Brookings Institution threw one more punch in the whole debate with his January 2012 piece in The New Republic, which supposedly in turn influenced some of the rhetoric in President Obama’s 2012 State of the Union address. (At least, that’s how Josh Rogin recounted it at Foreign Policy’s blog a few days after the address.)

Kagan is advising Mitt Romney — which right away is bound to raise hackles in the academic and policy world — but apparently, the President agrees with Kagan (and Romney, I guess) that “decline” is just so much hand-wringing.

As Kagan told Charlie Rose:

I think, actually…the United States is really as strong as it’s ever been. Obviously, we face challenges from a rising China and others, but they’re not necessarily greater challenges than we’ve faced in the past with the Soviet Union and I remember we were all worried about Japan at one time.

But we can, in a way, talk ourselves into decline if, as a result of a misplaced perception that we’re declining, we start to pull back from the rest of the world, we start to cut too much into our power and our ability to uphold the world order that we’ve created, then yes we could be in danger. But right now I think we have the capacity to continue shaping the world as we have in the past.

As anyone who’s followed this blog, or read my 2011 piece in the Toronto Star, or the piece I wrote with Joan Johnson Freese two years before that knows — and as I harangue my students regularly — I agree with the general point that America has never been stronger than it is today. (Oh, sure, we said it in 2009, but…oh, nevermind.)

How much do I like Andropov? This much.

It’s a point that to me is painfully obvious, and should be equally obvious to anyone who lived through the 1970s or even the later years of the Cold War. Conservatives tend to glorify Ronald Reagan and the 1980s, but it’s easy to forget that when Reagan came to work every day, his first order of business was making sure that the USSR didn’t vaporize the United States.

If anyone thinks we’re less powerful today than we were in 1982 — before capitalism and markets beat the crap out of centralized planning and command economies, and before an enemy alliance of some 400 million people armed with nukes finally collapsed — then either they weren’t alive, or they weren’t paying attention, when we were all sitting in line waiting for gas, wondering if 10% unemployment would ever end, and reading how the Soviet Union was running amok around the world while we were still licking our wounds from Vietnam.

The good old days of begging for gas. When America was powerful.

Anyway, now scholar Charles Kupchan has taken on Kagan in the pages of National Journal, arguing that Kagan is effectively in denial about whether we’re sliding into the tar pits. Kupchan is a wise scholar, and while he’s making a far less hysterical argument than some of the other “declinists” (read: Tom Friedman) he’s still relying on what amounts to 19th century realism to look ahead to America’s future.

First, however, let’s start with the one warning that Kupchan makes that is unarguably prudent, if overstated:

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.

We can all give an amen to that. Change is taking place; whether Kagan is really overselling American primacy is a matter of interpretation, but there is a kind of complacency among the anti-declinists at times, based on a warping of the American exceptionalism that has boundless faith in the ingenuity and gutsiness of the American people.

Civic-minded Americans rioting over sneakers in Florida, 2011.

The problem, of course, is that the American people of 2012 are not the battle-hardened and more virtuous Americans of a half-century ago. (Don’t argue with me on this: Americans went to church more, believed more in their government, and were generally more civic-spirited before the 1970s than they are today. Ask Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam.)

Yes, we were more intolerant, and more narrow-minded, but an hour of standing around in the cheap electronics section of a Wal-Mart will shake you to your core about whether this generation of Americans could rise to meet a temporary power outage, much less a national emergency.

But I digress. Kupchan, like so many other hard-nosed analysts, thinks heavily in terms of quantitative factors that look scary on paper, but don’t make much sense in political terms. He writes:

From Kupchan's article. Data, but does it mean anything?

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.

Scared yet? Think about it: the biggest economies in the world will be those crazies in the “developing world,” and one of them will be our worst nightmare, Russia. And as we all know, big = powerful. Right?


The “biggest economies” fallacy has been repeated so many times that I’m almost ready to give up arguing with it. (Almost.) It’s the intellectual equivalent of an urban legend: it’s partly true, and true enough to be upsetting, but not the disaster its proponents make it out to be.  (If you throw rice at weddings, birds eat it and they explode! Ah, no. But it makes a hell of a mess, which is the real reason churches don’t let you do it anymore.)

What the “biggest economy” argument always misses is that it measures nothing except the aggregate size of the economy — and says nothing about productivity, per-capita income, stability, dependence on raw materials, or any of the other things that measure economic vitality.

I never understand the chant about China’s growth, because China should have the world’s largest economy, because it has the world’s largest population, and the fact that it has gone for decades without reaching that mark is indicative of just how screwed up the Chinese economy has been in the 20th and 21st centuries.

And a word about growth: it’s a relative measure. China and India need high growth, because without it, the lights start to go out and the water stops running. When your infrastructure is, in places, at Third World levels, you’d damn well better be able to crank up production, because you still have plenty of economic distance to make up.

If political scientists were doctors, this would be the healthiest athlete in the world

Think of it this way. Economic size is like body weight: it doesn’t tell you about health. At his biggest, Muhammad Ali checked in at something like 220 lbs; does that mean a guy at 440 could have beaten him? (In a fight between a boxing heavyweight and a sumo wrestler, I’ll take the boxer.) More important, are two men both at 220 in the same state of health? Not if one of them can go 12 rounds with Frazier, and the other can’t climb three flights of stairs after a pack of Marlboros. Aggregate indicators just don’t say very much.

Americans, in fact, should want China and India to grow, because poverty and deprivation is not a recipe for a stable world. Nothing lubricates the gears of domestic government and the machinery of international affairs like a solid middle-class, and as long as the BRICs are trying to create one, good for them.

Only two things in this picture were made in China. Hint: Neither of the humans.

Now, if the Chinese start to out-produce us in ways that matter, like innovation, intellectual achievement (and I don’t mean scoring high on math, I mean inventing another Apple instead of building them), or surpassing us in standard of living, then sure, we should rethink what we’re doing. But nobody is arguing that anything like that is going to happen — because it would be flatly silly to make that argument anytime over the next half-century.

Kupchan is too smart to make that argument. Rather, he jumps right to the realist assumption that bigness means power, and power in turn means a challenge to the status quo:

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.

There’s so much wrong with this it’s hard to know where to start. The most obvious spit-take inducing moment here is the assertion that Europeans were trying to spread liberal democracy through the 19th century. (Ah. So that’s what imperialism was about.)

More nostalgia from when we ran the world.

But what about “the power and purpose of Europe and Japan?” Does he mean the Europe that was effectively helpless into the early 1960s? Or the Japan that was limited to a constabulatory military for most of its postwar resurrection?

This isn’t to take anything from our allies. (I think the U.S. and NATO pretty much saved the world, after all, but that’s for another day.) Rather, I wonder when Europe and Japan developed this independent “power and purpose” that we’re now supposedly losing.

More to the point, what difference does it make about gross output? America was leading in gross output during the Cold War because Communists were running all of Eurasia. Yes, it’s that simple: a coterie of intellectuals in Moscow and Beijing handcuffed their potentially massive economies to a ridiculous economic theory, convinced socialist wannabes in Asia and Africa, in particular, to emulate them, and then collectively rammed all of their economies into a brick wall. Miraculously, this century-long experiment with economic numbskullery did not produce global war.

All those in favor of ordering Soviet factories to produce only left shoes and household nails the size of railroad spikes, say aye

And speaking of history, Kupchan’s argument seems to rely on an odd reading of Cold War history, a time when America was in far more danger, and relatively less powerful in political terms than it is now. But historical memories are short, and people today think in retrospect that the Cold War was a cakewalk. (Much like Americans tend to think of the Revolution, the Civil War, and World War II, all of which were actually near-run things, as foregone conclusions that had to end in victory for the eventual winners)

But declinism is, at its heart, a realist argument, where politics is secondary to raw indicators of power and production. And so we know decline is happening and dangerous because, you know, that’s how it happened during World War I, and because realists since Kissinger have been entranced with 19th century Europe since…well, since the 19th century, which is why the lead-up to World War I explains everything:

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.

Boy, I sure wish I could remember that great part of my childhood where everyone used to obediently follow our lead, and we didn’t have to build 30,000 nuclear weapons because the Russians and Chinese were led by aggressive (and sometimes, psychopathic) ideologues. Maybe that was junior high; I was distracted in those years and could have missed that Golden Age.

Another recent article on decline. Except it's from 1987

Why is the “declinist” argument so persistent? That’s a big question, because it’s really a way of asking why realism is so persistent in the study of international relations, despite the annoying tendency of real countries to refuse to act like realist billiard balls. (One answer is to blame John Mearsheimer, or at least fawning articles about him like this one.)

I think the answer is related to three trends. First, political scientists hate particularistic arguments. They want to believe that everything happens in patterns, and that only they can see those patterns. (Hence, the malleability of history.)

Second, relying on realist arguments about raw power lets the political scientist study quantifiable stuff, and not have to bother with icky things like social data, culture, ideology, religion, and all the other things you can’t stick in a spreadsheet. This relieves everyone from having to know anything specific about any individual countries, which makes generalizing a heck of a lot easier.

Third, declinism is a great argument for self-aggrandization: Listen to me, you fools, or this whole thing is going to go up in smoke. I can save us all, if only you accept the folly of your ways and put smarter people — people like, say, me — in charge.

Now, in fairness, I don’t think that describes Kupchan; having seen him speak, I don’t think that’s his issue here. But it positively drips from the pages of the writings of people like Tom Friedman and others for whom the Doom Business is a way of scaring people into accepting their policy recommendations.

The most damning evidence against the declinists, and this does apply to Kupchan, is that their theory is completely unfalsifiable, because everything points to decline, no matter when it happens or what it is. Kagan makes this point in his rebuttal:

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…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.

When times are good, the rest of the West is going to overtake us. When times are bad, China is going to overtake us. When property values are low, Japan is going to own us. When energy prices rise, the Arabs are going to dominate us. And on and on.

A 1974 Datsun. Remember those? Me neither.

There is simply no way to falsify the decline argument if what constitutes “evidence” changes every few years; I’d be much more interested to read what would constitute the disconfirming evidence that Kupchan or others would say reflects American ascendancy. (You’d think the fall of Communism might have been a big indicator. But no.) No matter happens, the resulting argument is always the same: we’re all going to be eating Soylent Green by 2030. (Spoiler: It’s people.)

In the end, Kagan gets in the zinger that applies to all of the declinists: that they’re constantly predicting decline, because it’s just what they do.

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….Now he writes again of American decline. Eventually, he will be right. But he is not right yet.


The declinists say that we just have to take a long enough view: every 20 years, they tell us that decline is only 40 or 50 years away. Of course, 40 years ago, there was still a Soviet Union, China was a peasant nation, and there were only three TV networks in America.The idea that anyone in 1970 could have predicted the world of 2012 and made bets about the world four decades out is, in retrospect, obviously silly — but that doesn’t stop people from doing it, over and over again.

Note to the declinists: If your theory relies on a perpetually self-renewing clause that tells us to “just wait another half century,” it’s probably not a good theory.



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  1. Excellent piece. Unassailable logic. There are only four words I disagree with, which may be a record low, even here where I agree with most of what you write.

  2. Decline is often a choice; Carthage chose not to support Hannibal enough, and declined by being burned to the ground.
    If the United States is to decline, Federalist 10 will tell the tale: faction.

  3. Thank you!! Every time I try to talk about this issue, I run into this ridiculous rose colored glasses, imaginary standard of perfection from people who have lost all ties to reality. It is like that entry segment for Prairie Home Companion- all the men were brave, women sweet and children above average. I try to bring up gas prices, bombing in Lebanon, SALT treaties and heaven forbid – Regan’s tax increases and they go into a self induced coma.
    Chris Rock has a great line about if white men aren’t in power, then who is. That is how I feel about the issue. Maybe the US is not the power broker we used. After two wars that limped out to a draw because they were started in a way that has no format for a clear win- a huge recession, an educational malaise and the loss of the manned space program we may not be a Super Power as we used to be. But if we aren’t the super power, who is? India where they have no sewer system in many cities. Sorry, but if part of your economy is people working in the sewers pushing around crap by hand, sorry, not a super power. Russia, brain draining oil oligarchy. No dice, no mater how pouty Putin gets.China, sorry, not yet. Though good work with the Pandas. Resurrecting animals near extinction- that is a super power thing to do.