By Robert Ralston

Abstract: Many people debate whether the United States is in relative international decline, or whether its place as the most powerful country in the world is stable. To understand these debates it is crucial to reflect on how analysing relative versus absolute decline, and assessing the various metrics used in the debates to measure power might lead to differing policy implications.

There are many debates around whether the United States is in decline, or whether the United States can maintain its position as “top dog” of the international system. For example, Matthew Kroenig, a professor at Georgetown University, recently tweeted: “Is America in decline? In 1980, as it prepared to win the first Cold War, it possessed 25% of global GDP. In 1995, the height of the "unipolar moment," it had 25% of global GDP. Today, in 2023, America still commands 25% of GDP.” Kroenig’s tweet caused quite a stir among academics and politicians. Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy responded by tweeting that Kroenig’s conception or measurement of US power was “just a fundamentally flawed way to understand what’s happening in America today. GDP is growing but so is social isolation, suicide, addiction and violence. Why? Because most of the growth is gobbled up by the elites, while economic and social agency disappears for families.”

Debates about decline are nothing new in the United States, or indeed in major powers more generally. Politicians in the United States have often engaged in narratives of international decline, most notably John F. Kennedy and his concerns over Soviet missiles and declining US prestige, and Ronald Reagan’s promise to “make America great again” against the backdrop of what Reagan thought was a serious diminution of U.S. power under Jimmy Carter. 

During his State of the Union speech in January 2012, Barack Obama argued that “anyone who tells you that America is in decline or that our influence has waned, doesn’t know what they’re talking about.” A few years later, Donald Trump entered the U.S. political scene with a singular message, built around the notion of American decline and promising to “Make America Great Again” after eight years of Obama, and, indeed, decades of what Trump saw as the mismanagement of the United States. “The decades of decay, division and decline will come to an end. The years of American Greatness will return…We are going to make American Great Again,” Trump promised on the campaign trail in 2016. Four years later in his 2020 State of the Union address, President Trump changed course, claiming that his administration had ended the “American carnage” that he lamented in his inaugural address. Trump took on the role of America’s cheerleader in chief, proclaiming that his administration has put U.S. “enemies on the run,” its “fortunes on the rise,” and promising, “We are moving forward at a pace that was unimaginable just a short time ago, and we are never ever going back.”

These debates over U.S. power—or any power for that matter—can be dizzying. Different statistics are used to prove one’s point (or discredit another’s point). Events, whether successes or failures, are used to exemplify a given country’s decline, rise, or continuation as a great power. How should we make sense of these debates, and what is at stake in them? 

In this article, I highlight three key questions to consider: (1) whether the question is about absolute decline or decline relative to other countries (or both); (2) what metrics are being put forward in arguments about decline; and (3) what policy implications flow from arguments about decline?

First, are the claims being made about absolute or relative decline? It is important to remember that countries can be relatively declining while absolutely rising, rising relative to other countries while in absolute decline, absolutely rising and relatively rising, or absolutely declining and relatively declining. In other words, the trajectory of a country can be understood relative to other countries, or against its own performance. A country may go into recession, for example, while still rising relative to peer countries, who are experiencing a worst recession. Or, on the other hand, a country may be experiencing economic (absolute) growth while still falling down the ranking of other states. Claims about rising and declining powers may conflate absolute and relative decline, such that individuals talk past one another.

Second, what are the metrics that are being used to justify claims about rising and declining powers? As the debate between Senator Chris Murphy and Matthew Kroenig suggests, whether the United States is in decline boils down to a question of measuring power and success. For Kroenig, who is a scholar of international relations, GDP serves as a useful metric to compare US power to other countries. For Murphy, the domestic health of the United States and the lives of its people is the more relevant metric. Scholars typically have used metrics such as GDP or the “CINC” scores (“Composite Index of National Capability,” which measures military expenditure, military personnel, energy consumption, iron and steel production, urban population, and total population) to measure relative power in international relations. Others put forward different, more complex, measures. Leaders, however, may point to a whole host of different, and sometimes quite specific, metrics. For example, leaders may couple evidence of the nation’s relative slippage to a competitor in industrial or economic metrics with the decline of long-standing national virtues that made the nation great, as Margaret Thatcher did in the 1970s. Or, as another example, a decline in the nation’s prestige abroad may be coupled with declining virility at home and a need for the country to ‘get tough.’ Understanding why different metrics may point in different directions is important when assessing the relative merits of different claims about rising or declining powers.

Third, what are the policy implications that flow from arguments about US decline? Getting the question of ‘whether the US is in decline/other countries are rising’ correct is important for theoretical and policy reasons. If a country is not in decline, but acts like it is, it could lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy. Resources that could be used for domestic renewal may be used instead for programs or policies that remedy problems that do not exist. For example, the then presidential hopeful John F. Kennedy in the late 1950s railed against the so-called missile gap and declines in American prestige as the United States entered the 1960s. Yet his rhetoric was built around myths that could not be sustained, even early on in his presidency: National Intelligence Estimates presented to Kennedy suggested no such gap existed. On the other hand, it can also be dangerous if states, their leaders, and citizens are not attentive to decline that is actually happening. Failure to recognize one’s decline can prohibit renewal.

Getting the question of whether the US/other countries are rising correct also matters for broader narratives around the “inevitability” of conflict between China and the US. For example, one need not look further than the controversial recent book by Graham Allison, widely adopted by those in Trump’s inner circle, as evidence of the power of particular understandings of international politics, the nature of US decline, and the inevitability of war to see how these debates may have pessimistic, and self-defeating, impacts on US foreign policy. Arguments about US decline may well fuel desires for more defense spending and a more bellicose posture towards China, exacerbating security dilemmas in the region and globally. Moreover, as I argued in a previous Global Insecurity article, narratives of international decline can be fracturing, placing blame on “enemies within” or on racist stereotypes of the “other.” We should be careful when confronting debates over international decline. We should be wary that such narratives do not fall prey to such fracturing, divisive rhetoric and the policies that stem from such debates or lead to more hawkish foreign policy preferences among leaders and the public. 

Debates about decline are difficult to disentangle. Many commentators, academics, and politicians talk past one another, choosing to focus on different metrics, different conceptions of decline, and different policy prescriptions. Keeping in mind these nuances is important to understand the US and other powers’ positions in the world. The same questions can be used to assess rising powers and their trajectories: on what metrics are rising powers said to be rising? Is the rise absolute? Relative? Both? Ultimately, questions of rising and declining powers have long been central to international relations, and we should expect such debates to continue long into the future.

Robert Ralston is a Lecturer in the Department of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Birmingham, UK. He is also a non-resident fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. (@RobertJRalston)

Article or Event Link
Oct 19, 2023
Public Policy


Public Policy

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