America’s Obvious Decline in Power

Paul Kennedy’s 1987 book, The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, caused quite a stir at the time, predicting the relative fall in power of the United States. I’ve always thought the thesis obvious; the alternative hypothesis, that Americans should expect the U.S. to sustain the high level of relative power it attained in the aftermath of the devastation of World War II, seemed little more than a straw man.

Identifying a trend depends critically on one’s starting point. If we measure U.S. economic and military power starting in the 1950s, with Europe and Japan still recovering from the war, and Britain and the Soviet Union wrecked even though victorious, it seems obvious that U.S. power would need to decline relative to other nations. Even if U.S. military and economic power continued to increase, the rate of increase could not be expected to match the extremely high rate of increase of nations reconstructing their economies from war time destruction. Therefore “relative” to the power of other nations, just about any measure would show decline, even if the absolutely power of the U.S. continued to increase.

To be sure, U.S. supremacy in the 1950s was not quite as obvious in the 1950s itself as it was in the 1980s. The Soviet Union continued to wield significant military might, and the perception at the time was that as the Soviet Union reconstructed from the war, it would become an economic colossus that would, as Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev predicted in 1956, “bury” the West. We forget, as the film Hail Caesar so humorously reminded us last year, that many Western intellectuals truly believed Marxism as a scientific theory that predicted the fall of capitalism and the rise of communism.

As European nations recovered from the war, as lesser developed nations began to develop, they would necessarily catch up in many ways to the United States, and so measures of relative power would necessarily show U.S. decline. The notion that U.S. power in the 1950s could be sustained in the long-run, which was the counter to Kennedy’s hypothesis (although he never stated it), seems so obviously fanciful that Kennedy’s hypothesis ranks little better than a truism.

At the time liberals cheered Kennedy’s book. Many wanted to take the lesson that the U.S. should simply settle into its inevitable loss of relative power, and embrace a role akin to many of the Western European nations of the time. The policy implications of Kennedy’s argument contrasted sharply with the military buildup pursued by President Reagan during the 1980s, and with his goal to topple the Soviet Union rather than seek peaceful coexistence with it.

There seem, however, to be other implications of Kennedy’s argument that might be useful to revisit. (Recall I don’t think Kennedy was wrong; my criticism is that he pointed out the obvious.) The relative decline of U.S. economic strength over the last generation also predicts the economic stagnation of the U.S. working class relative to workers in other countries. (In relative terms, Kennedy’s hypothesis actually predicts the relative economic decline of U.S. workers.) Neither liberals nor conservatives, understandably, wish to accept this outcome with equanimity. But it is not clear what national-level policies could, or can, be pursued to reverse the trend. The trend Kennedy’s hypothesis identified was bigger than national policy.

But in the face of policy impotence, perhaps a political implication of Kennedy’s hypothesis would be an expectation of growing economic populism among US workers in reaction declining relative status.

So, too, populist-style America Firstism might also be a prediction of the loss of relative power. Mancur Olson and Richard Zeckhauser‘s 1966 Rand paper argues that, in alliance systems, larger nations will naturally bear disproportionately larger share of alliance costs (because of the public goods nature of alliance security, and resultant free riding). Recall Kennedy’s thesis that the U.S. would have an increasingly smaller portion of power relative to other nations; it would be relatively smaller economically. If the U.S. contribution to alliances (and to global security in general) stayed roughly the same, but the relative size of the U.S. economy decreased, then the U.S. contribution would have indeed become increasingly disproportionate, i.e., “unfair,” over the last forty years. Indeed, the relative rise of China’s military strength does not herald an absolute decline in U.S. military strength. But it does suggest a relative decline.

To be sure, Americans do not necessarily need to rejoice in the relative decline in U.S. economic power, and the increasing disproportion of resources needed to maintain military power over the last generation. Nonetheless, if we take American economic and political strength in the 1950s as our starting point, it is impossible to think that the U.S. could have sustained its fantastically high level of relative power it had at the time. And no one, neither Kennedy, nor average citizens, should have thought otherwise.

Reader Discussion

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on December 27, 2017 at 06:34:38 am

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America’s Obvious Decline in Power – Top 100 Blog Review
on December 27, 2017 at 09:42:00 am

Not disagreeing with any of this, but: what does it mean, exactly, to say that US power has declined? What are the indicia of that phenomenon? Anything besides economic measures like wages and GNP? Despite all the chatter about the perils of nationalism and its reprobate nature, China is nationalism on steroids, yet for reasons of US domestic politics they are consistently held up by progressive US media as an example of the new supranational globalism. But their building up and parading about of military hardware, their predations on little coral reefs claimed by others: are these really an indication of the decline in US power? At the height of its power the US could not prevent Russia from rolling its army into other nations located in proximity to it, so the recent seizures of Georgia and parts of Ukraine--these surely cannot be indicia of US decline. The US military was in pretty sorry shape from 1975 through 1985 (or so): did US power decline then? If it did, it appears that it increased again soon after. Or did it?

It seems to me that power is what people believe it to be. Progressives are ideologically compelled to want US power to decline, so they propagandize along those lines relentlessly until others believe it as well and begin casting about for facts to sustain that belief. Such people worm their way into all of the nooks and crannies of the "deep state" and advocate self-fulfilling prophecies of decline, and then, when a Trump comes along, are defended as "experts" even by those who were their political adversaries the day before. Progressives are far more interested in redirecting US power inwardly against their political enemies than outwardly against foreign enemies. The Obama Administration was just such a redirection. Maybe power exists only when asserted, so 8 years of non-assertion constitute a tautological proof of US decline?

But really I don't know, and am asking.

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on December 27, 2017 at 11:19:53 am

" Maybe power exists only when asserted, so 8 years of non-assertion constitute a tautological proof of US decline?"

Indeed it is, especially when combined with a) a serious depletion of military resources / capabilities, b) the misuse / misapplication of these now limited military resources in pursuit of ideological fantasies AND c) as the essayist alludes to, the decline, not just of working class employment / economic status, BUT rather the consequent effects of "globalism" wherein not only jobs BUT the technology, expertise AND the machine tools required to maintain military preparedness / quick response have been "offshored." Recently, a study has been conducted that provides evidence that growth / strength, both economic and military is a function of "related" technologies / industries / expertise all operating as part of a complementary whole and providing both the resilience and technological capability / capacity to grow / develop new tooling, processes and additional machine tools necessary to support a viable economy (one that grows with consistency) and military base.

You cant't build tanks, if you no lomnger build automobiles; you cannot build state of the art weapons systems if you cannot build state of the art imaging systems, etc., etc., etc.

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on December 27, 2017 at 11:31:44 am

Oops, forgot an example:

Think Boeing and the 787 Jetliner:
Phil Condit, when not engaging in an affair with his cousin, another Boeing employee, swayed by the rising trend of offshoring decides to send the composite wing (and other parts) manufacture to Japan. Not only does he give the Japanese this contract, he also, in a misguided effort to show better profit to assets ration, *gifts* the Japanese the entire set of machine tools for the manufacture of such components. Thus goes an entire billion dollar effort / facility sacrificed to the gods of globalism and the continued effort to 'appease" the preferences of some twenty year old stock analysts.

We all know how the 787 Program turned out - BILLIONS in cost overruns, years late, etc.
Now, the folks at the Lazy "B" are having to bring it all back - well, at least they are trying to reconstruct it.

Just one example of a decline in the potential for military preparedness. There are countless others.

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on December 27, 2017 at 12:45:57 pm

Its not the decline of the US that is happening what is happening is the rise of nations that were once Great Powers themselves in the past. China throughout history has always been the largest nation and economy it was only in the last few hundred years that she stumbled but now she is back. Does this mean the US is done for? Not hardly . What we will have in the 21st century is a bipolar world much like the US/Soviet era and this type of arrangement is not unique in history. Some earlier examples include Great Britain/France Rome/ Carthage. What this does mean is that the US must now choose its direction of influence. Our interest in Europe and its affairs is only 100 years old and it may be time to end that interest or at least its prominence in our foreign policy. From Jamestown up until WWI we had been a people on the move towards the West. Its time we once again turn to the West as the Pacific Rim will be the economic and political center in the next century.

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on December 30, 2017 at 23:02:13 pm

I agree with everything you said, but the US will forever be chained to the "global market". You correctly point out technological examples, but there are many more, and the reason is, the US has priced itself out of the market. I'll give just one example, but when you see the drift, you will think of many more; apparel. Go to your closet, and look at the labels in all of your clothes. Where were they made? Most likely, most of them were made in a foreign country. Why did you buy them? For all the good reasons, I am sure, but you probably bought the least expensive example of what you wanted. That was only possible because the labor in the country is so much less expensive than labor in the US. If Americans were pay American labor costs for most of what they buy, Americans would be as poor as the countries our clothes come from. Worse yet, I doubt the apparel industry in the US could support the whole population, because even at our current wage scale, nobody wants to sew for a living. We have very few apparel manufacturers in the US. The consumer electronics industry is in the same boat. It is not the government driving "globalism" it is the consumers, and the workers. As the cartoon character Pogo once said, "We have seen the enemy, and he is us".

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