Is the United States an empire in decline?


Is the US on the decline - or simply in an economic slump?

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The current argument about the United States' standing in the world is an odd thing.

Mitt Romney says the US has abandoned global leadership and is slipping behind, but does not really believe that the country is in long term decline.

President Barack Obama on the other hand, insists that his country, "is back", but appears to harbour private doubts about it.

Start Quote

If it's a neurotic superpower you're looking for, then America's your one”

End Quote Dr Robert Kagan US Historian

The two men have in part been forced into these positions by the presidential debate. The Romney pitch is essentially that Mr Obama has been a weak ditherer who has conceded ground unnecessarily to the likes of Russia, China, and Iran, and is in danger of pitching the country into an irreversible downward trend.

The Romney people have to believe their champion can reverse this, and Obama's have to insist that the loss of power or influence has not taken place to start with.

Whatever the political contortions required of the two candidates, the debate is fuelled by underlying public attitudes.

Polls suggest that when asked whether the country is "in decline", 60-70% of Americans will say Yes.

In recent years, hundreds of thousands of books have sold in the US with a similar message, leaving one reviewer to comment wearily, "decline has the same fascination for historians that love has for lyrical poets".

Military balance

The terms of this debate need refining. For example, does it refer to an absolute loss of power by the US or a relative increase in the proportion of the world cake consumed by others?

Mitt Romney Mitt Romney has accused President Obama of presiding over a decline in US global power

At its heart, the argument is largely about whether China has become the more dynamic and successful country and will outhaul the US within our lifetimes.

By some indices the argument can be settled very quickly - victory goes to China on population or the US by aircraft carrier count.

Almost everyone still agrees that the Americans are still militarily preponderant, although some reputable experts do express concerns about the long term consequences of Chinese defence budgets rising while Pentagon ones fall.

It is clear though that in the wake of hugely costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the White House is determined not to use the military instrument.

Indeed Mr Obama has made a positive virtue out of re-directing attention and resources to the economy, arguing in June "we have spent a trillion dollars on war… now we must invest in America's greatest resource, our people… it is time to focus on nation building here at home".

This has conditioned Mr Obama's attitude to events in Syria and, some even whisper in Washington, evolved into an absolute determination not to go to war with Iran.

National introspection

So if you are resolved not to use the military, what instruments of influence does the United States still wield?

It remains a powerhouse of creativity, that is clear, from Hollywood to the people at Apple. Americans are still confident in their ability to innovate and work their way out of recession, even if they have been rattled by the phenomenon of "jobless recovery".

Those who argue against the "declinist" proposition, such as historian Robert Kagan, believe the current situation mirrors some earlier periods of national introspection.

Barack Obama Barack Obama has sought to make an economic virtue out of military drawdown

In the 1920s or 1970s, for example, a combination of economic hardship and costly foreign wars, produced isolationism or faltering national confidence. "If it's a neurotic superpower you're looking for, then America's your one," Dr Kagan told me.

Dr Kagan's confident assertions that the current mood is cyclical and does not portend a downward slide for America have been quoted by both candidates for the presidency.

He has also pointed out that the relative proportion of the global economy accounted for by China, India, or Brazil has been increasing very slowly.

There are however, some features of today's situation that are new. Nobody is quite sure how the national debt - $16tn and growing - might impact in the long term.

The more sanguine experts point out that only one sixth of this is in the hands of foreign governments, and the more alarmist that US government spending now depends on borrowing money from China.

Chinese stake

Inside the beltway, Washington's foreign policy elite is nervous about the possibility of continued budgetary gridlock, particularly if, as many now think likely, Mr Obama is re-elected, but still has to do business with a Republican-controlled House of Representatives.

When I spoke to Strobe Talbot, chairman of the Brookings Institution think tank, last week, he warned "our dysfunctional politics in Washington cannot help".

Workers on the floor of a car factory in China 16 August 2012 Both candidates have been sparring over trade relations with China.

While many argue that Chinese bailouts should not be feared, because they increase that country's stake in US recovery, it is also clear that the public in both countries is often uncomfortable with this inter-dependence.

Mr Romney's campaign has been playing to these fears, insisting that one of his first acts in office would be to label China guilty of unfair trade practices. The countries are already sufficiently locked together that such talk makes many uncomfortable.

Speaking to Richard Armitage, deputy secretary of state under President George W Bush, he said "having a bad relationship right out of the gate with China is not a hopeful way to try to protect our interest".

Mr Armitage also characterised the description by Mr Romney - his own Republican party's candidate - of Russia as the principal threat to US security as, "incomprehensible".

While Mr Romney has come under a good deal of fire recently for gaffes, or shooting from the hip, it is only fair to point out that on China, Mr Obama has been triangulating - or adjusting his policy closer to those advocated by his critics - on trade relations with China.

This week he suggested he might introduce new tariffs on Chinese car imports - and has already quietly been upping the duties on other manufactured goods.

Comparisons with Britain

All of the historians involved in the debate over decline agree that the age of American Imperium cannot go on forever. Rise and fall is what great powers do, after all. Many attempt to calibrate where they think the US is now in terms of Britain's imperial past.

The more pessimistic tend to see analogies with the early 20th Century, after the Boer War and before the cataclysm of 1914, and it is true there are similarities with the British debate about decline during that period and the current American introspection.

Troops in Suez Crisis A Suez moment for the US, in which an imperial rival calls the shots, still seems a long way off

Even if one accepts that view, it took until the early 1940s and World War II for the US to eclipse Britain as the world's greatest military power.

Optimists wind the clock even further back. When I asked Dr Kagan where he put the US now in British terms, he replied with a twinkle in his eye, "Oh about 1840", before conceding that China might overhaul the US during the lifetime of someone who was a toddler now.

Dr Kagan expressed concerns too about the failure to control the budgetary deficit and its possible acceleration of this process. If the trillions keep piling up, he noted, simply servicing the debt will crowd out more productive types of spending, creating a downward national spiral.

Perhaps the moment in Britain's decline that American policy makers should be focussing upon is 1956. During the crisis caused by an Anglo-French invasion of Egypt, the US stopped the fighting by threatening to pull the plug on the British economy.

It marked the end of Britain's ability to act as an independent global power, and it was the country's indebtedness to the US that caused it.

Nobody thinks that China could create a "Suez moment" any time soon. And of course it is that sense that a real reckoning with imperial rivals is some way off in the future that allows candidates for the presidency to avoid too much explicit discussion of American decline.

But the impulse not to engage in too explicit a debate about managing the downward slope of empire may simply be bringing that dread day closer.

Mark Urban, Diplomatic and defence editor, Newsnight Article written by Mark Urban Mark Urban Diplomatic and defence editor, BBC Newsnight

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  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    Empires are built upon trade, namely the profit made from exporting to others. This profit then allows for military campaigns when required and the investment in infrastructure required to service the needs of an empire. America's balance sheet proves that it is currently in decline, and very few civilizations have managed to reverse that trend once commenced. They are doomed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    not true - US had every intention of becoming an empire - and effectively stole the British Empire - by forcing the UK to accept the switch from reserve currency from Pound to dollar. As for rebuilding nations - done purely for selfish reasons. American aid - has always had strings attached and as seen in Russia this week - often used as an opportunity to destabalise nations.

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    Although it is simplistic, I've always viewed the US's status in the world as the result of our relative good fortune to have been on the winning side of WW2 while suffering relatively little. The rebuilding of Europe and Asia gave the US a decade or more of a head start. The rest of the world has now caught up, although some failed along the way (USSR), and somebody will soon surpass the US.

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    richdix this isant anti americanism it's just accepting the truth

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    @8. hmunkey

    The reason they pour money into those 'weaker, smaller countries' is because they DO get a return. Japan is a very handy ally to have in Asia, just as Britain and Turkey/Israel are in Europe and the Middle East. They reason they run their empire in that way is because even they know controlling and taxing them would be a wee bit hypocritical and hard to maintain anyway.

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    @Robbie777 it is a common complaint I've heard many time though. And the exorbitant privilege of the supremacy is the US dollar is something the pound enjoyed as well - it is a natural outcome of a country that is viewed as the preeminent economic power during a specific period of time. It has always been this way and there's little that's nefarious about it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    The country elected Barack Obama, hell yes it's in decline!

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    Classic BBC anti-Americanism.

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    Just as the article implies, America's bright future has only ONE obstacle - national debt. (Bush's 2 wars and Obama's spending spree with a Chinese credit card has got us into this mess). This is why we MUST elect a government who is truly ready to tackle this issue. Otherwise we will become a weak state with no true relevance on the world stage, like many of our European cousins.

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    The US and its 'democracy' are already dead and buried. A walking corpse.

    They have built everything on debt - essentially, get the people to borrow to fund a few rich and send in the troops to protect their interests.

    The only way they have survived is that the dollar is still the only global currency.

    If that situation changes, they are gone.


  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    @ 28. twilightnyc Its not really the war time loans which caused the problems, more the outcomes of the Bretton Woods system, and the "exhorbitant privilege " of the world reserve currency status of the dollar. That has allowed them to rake the rest of the world over the coals economically since.

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    Other things are happening that bode ill for the US.
    1 energy policy rooted in the 19th century.
    2 a risk-averse culture that fears change and innovation
    3 *very* expensive higher education, plummeting local schools budgets
    4 huge income disparity, shrinking middle class
    5 dependence on foreigners for high-skill labor
    6 a political party that celebrates doing nothing
    7 old infrastructure

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    I could fix the US in 10 minutes. Cut taxes, cut spending, end the welfare state, cut immigration from 2nd and 3rd world, embrace our heritage and history and reject multiculturalism garbage, end the wars, get israel influence out of congress, reinstill glass-steagall and hold wall st accountable when they mess up, no bailouts

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    id say the us power started to decline when it's industrial base was exported to china and now the us is economically dependent on china as is china on the us. but i dont think it matters as long as war doesent happen between them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    I believe we have been in decline for some time, due to inadquate attention to education, health care for all, wealth inequality and the environment. Unrestrained capitalism and religious fundamentalism have also set us back. This decline is not necessarily a bad thing, in my opinion. It may spark change and possibly even lead the world, as mentioned above, to a "post-superpower" era.

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    @5. Brit Expat

    Yes, NASA has done a lot of truly amazing things, with around $7Billion. Imagine what they could do with the US Military budget, which get's through $7Billion in about 10 days or so...

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    @ 12.markthesensible

    Hitlerr declared war on the US on December 11th 1941. I'm thinking it highly unlikely they were lending him anything at all beyond that date. Dropping money instead of bombs from bombers?

    That would be naive indeed don't you think?

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    One thing I really don't understand is this common British refrain that the US somehow raked the UK over the coals with the ww2 wartime loan. It's utterly and demonstrably crap and completely* untrue. It was a *sweetheart deal between allies *and huge amounts were written off for ww1 debts. But don't take my word for it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    The rise and fall of empires seems to be speeding up lately. The Egyptian empire lasted over 2,000 years,as did the Chinese. The Greeks and Persians battled for under half that, the Romans for about 600 years, We lasted a little over 300. And, although they never called them that. the American and Russian spheres of influence (AKA empires) less than a century. Now it's the Chinese turn again.

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    America will really start to decline when we get a PM with the guts to say not to them.


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