The Broken Consensus: America's Contested Primacy

L ike clockwork, at the end of every decade for the last fifty years, the subject of America’s decline comes up. As if on cue, for instance, the National Intelligence Council’s November 2008 report , Global Trends 2025 , argued that “the international system—as constructed following the Second World War—will be almost unrecognizable by 2025 . . . [It] will be a global multipolar one with gaps in national power continuing to narrow between developed and developing countries.” This conclusion represented a striking departure from the NIC’s view in 2004 that the United States was likely to continue its dominance of the international system.

What changed in four short years? Counterinsurgency wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the seemingly inexorable rise of the so-called BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, and China), and the global financial crisis: these and other developments have cast a shadow on American leadership, both at home and abroad, and new conventional wisdom asks whether the world order that emerged after 1989 has failed—whether the pursuit of primacy that set the foreign policies of three presidents has grown untenable.

The debate over America’s possible decline is not academic. Perceptions of U.S. power guide both American policymakers and other nations as they consider their policy options. And those tempted to write an ending to the story of American influence should remember that history has not been kind to declinists. The emerging international environment is likely to be different than either of the futures forecast by the National Intelligence Council in 2004 and 2008. It would seem more likely that the relative decline of American power will still leave the United States as the most powerful actor in the international system, but the rise of other nations and the spread of nuclear weapons in key regions will likely confront the United States with difficult challenges to its global position.


T he revived question of America’s decline nevertheless serves an important function in its summons to carefully consider our assumptions about the purposes of American power and the value of our primacy abroad. After all, seeking to maintain America’s advantage as the prime player in the international system imposes significant costs on U.S. taxpayers. It is certainly fair to ask, as Michael Mandelbaum does in his new book, The Frugal Superpower , what the United States gets from trying to remain number one. But it is also appropriate to note that primacy involves more than bragging rights and macho swagger. It allows the dominant state to advance its own specific policy objectives and gives it greater freedom of action in pursuing those ends. For the last century, American presidents have sought a “liberal world order” based on a free and open global economy and an international political arrangement that bolstered liberal democratic states. Adhering to a strategy based on a strong power or group of powers seemed the only way to foster economic growth, representative government, and international peace and prosperity.

Despite episodic outbreaks of anti-Americanism, the U.S. continues to be seen by most countries as relatively benign in its interactions with other powers. And despite the current economic downturn, the consensus view that free markets, open societies, and democratic institutions provide the surest path to peace and prosperity has remained extremely durable. This “transnational liberalism” inclines national elites to see a broad confluence of interests with the United States and reduces their tendency to try and counterbalance American power. As the guarantor of the international world economy and a provider of security and stability through its alliance system, the United States provides global public goods that others cannot. (This explains why Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has said that in his travels he has not found many anti-American governments.) Accepting the new conventional wisdom of the end of U.S. primacy could make this order dysfunctional.

But assertions of American decline can cut two ways. If seen as a fait accompli , they can predispose decisionmakers to pursue policies that actually accelerate decline; if seen as a challenge, they can spark leaders to pursue courses of action that renew American economic vitality. Declinism is what historian Marvin Meyers described years ago as a “persuasion”—a “matched set of attitudes, beliefs, projected actions: a half-formulated moral perspective involving emotional commitment.” The emotional aspect creates much of the confusion in the debate about decline: some commentators try to say the unsayable, while others appear to favor a weaker America and argue for such an outcome.

Who are some of the stakeholders in this second group?

Economic declinists stress the materialist basis of the distribution of power in the international system and see the shifting pattern of global production and wealth creation inexorably leading to a declining U.S. share of world economic power. Since the ability to create useful coercive power, including military capability, is based on economic strength, the result seems clear: as America’s share of power declines in both absolute and relative terms, it will—in their view—become a power on par with many others.

For the structural realists , unipolarity itself is an aberration. The structure of international politics abhors the absence of balance, and other powers will naturally attempt to counter U.S. power. We should not become melancholy over the loss of a unipolar system, they argue, since it is inherently unstable (due to the ongoing scramble among rising powers to challenge the hegemon). The desire to preserve what can only be transient may provoke miscalculations and conflict. Although aware of changing economic relationships in the international system, this group places more emphasis on the structure of international politics, and some explicitly call for the “taming of American power.”

Overexpansionists on both the left and right argue that America’s global role has harmed America’s own domestic society. Leftists see the United States’ “imperial” role as the sole superpower as the inevitable result of the workings of monopoly capitalism. Paleo-conservatives fear that unless the United States lays down the “burdens of empire” it will forever be denied the freedoms that flow from limited government and self-examination. Some liberals believe that lowering our global ambitions would justify defunding national defense, which would free up resources for a progressive national “reform” agenda.

As the United States contends with a rising China, for example, and the increased economic clout of the other BRIC countries, these voices will continue to be heard, and perhaps even grow louder. One factor that will shape the debate is the willingness of the American people to support—and fund—continued predominance. Some believe that Americans, exhausted by eight years of military exertion in Iraq and Afghanistan and focused on the personal costs of the financial crisis, may be willing to forgo a policy of global primacy. But even in the face of pressures at home and abroad, public support for a strong U.S. global role has remained constant through the post–Cold War period.

If declinism has grown more aggressive, it has also touched off an equal and opposite reaction. Anti-declinism, too, can be broken down into different tendencies. Economic revivalists , for instance, believe that the U.S. economic travail is overstated and that declinists undervalue the historically demonstrated resilience of America’s economy. Soft power advocates see the attractiveness of the American political and economic model and its cultural influence as mitigating decline. Structural positionists tend to stress the advantages of America’s geopolitical location, its alliance relationships, and the resulting demands by others that the United States provide leadership in solving international problems. Benign hegemonists combine several of these elements by stressing the attractiveness of American ideology, the willingness of others to follow its lead, and the global leadership role of the United States as a moral imperative.

The anti-declinists undoubtedly feel strengthened in their convictions because the declinists have been so consistently wrong in the past. But they could be correct this time, so their arguments need to be taken seriously. America’s ability to adapt should not be underestimated, but the strength of the unipolar moment will certainly be tested in the next few years.


I t’s important to remember that American decline will not be determined purely by economic gains or losses. The future shape of the international system will depend more on broader measures of national power than percentage shares of global production. Factors like GDP, population, defense spending, and a variety of other criteria should also be taken into account. The key variable would seem to be the efficiency and effectiveness with which nations convert resources into usable hard and soft power. At least as important as the objective measures of national power are the subjective assessments by international statesmen and military leaders of the international distribution of power. Those judgments are inevitably affected by a range of cultural, psychological, bureaucratic, and political factors. It is worth asking how the putative competitors stack up on some of these dimensions.

Europe . Over the years, most declinist predictions have assumed that a united Europe would be a key component of a multipolar world. But even before the current economic crisis began to take the wind out of Europe’s sails, the EU had failed to translate its economic clout into global political power. Continued dependence on the United States security guarantee may have allowed Europeans to spend less for their own security, but it also diminished their capacity to project power. Moreover, Europe’s mixture of a graying population with a growing percentage of immigrants will exacerbate its economic and social problems, making it highly unlikely its military power will increase—or even be wielded outside of Europe. Even if the old powers were able to surmount these demographic trends, the political challenges of deeper and more extensive European integration remain. As Global Trends 2025 suggests, the EU could well become a “hobbled giant distracted by internal bickering and competing national agendas, and less able to translate its economic clout into global influence.”

Japan . In the 1970s and 1980s it was widely assumed that Japan would join Europe as part of an emerging multipolar world in which the United States would be cut down to size. Rather than scaling the heights of global economic dominance, however, Japan entered a decade of deep recession, economic stagnation, income loss, high levels of unemployment, and political drift as its “asset bubble” burst. Today, Japan barely figures in the discussions of what comes next for two reasons: the “lost decade” of stagnation, compounded by the current recession, and daunting demographics in the form of a wave of aging that is not only larger than that of any other developed country but also approaching much faster.

Brazil . Will Brazil fill the vacuum left by Japan’s own undisputed decline? Its rise to great-power status has certainly been anticipated for years. Brazil combines high growth with democracy, relatively tranquil domestic politics, varied exports, and a business climate relatively welcoming to foreign investors. On the regional level, Brazil has already played a leading role in managing hemispheric security issues like the crises in Haiti and more recently in Honduras; however, as the National Intelligence Council suggests, a more global role would appear to be a bit of a stretch given the country’s economic and social vulnerabilities. There is a vast gap separating the rich from the poor, and Brazil trails other large developing countries in levels of educational attainment, spending on research, and infrastructure development. Violent crime is endemic. The country suffers from chronic underinvestment, and government spending is growing at an alarming pace. Regulations and labor laws have grown complicated and constraining, and there are chronic fears about the country’s finances. If anything, Brazil after Lula could be a prime candidate to forge a stronger relationship with the U.S. in order to ease its successful integration into the global economy and establish it as an alternative to the populist, anti-globalization agenda promoted by Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez.

Russia . Russia’s prospects put it in a different category than the other BRIC countries because its catastrophic demographic situation is a powerful limitation and suggests Russia is a declining rather than a rising power. Nicholas Eberstadt has described Russia’s contemporary demographic disaster in these pages as only the most recent episode of population decline in the past hundred years, albeit the first not resulting from revolution, forced collectivization, or war (but rather from the peaceful collapse of the Soviet Union). Demographic and health-related limits on military manpower are likely to compel Russia into continued, long-term reliance on nuclear weapons as the only conceivable counterbalance to foreign military power. Its conventional forces, while posing a limited threat to former parts of the Soviet empire such as Ukraine and Georgia, will be a decreasing concern at the global level, and without a concerted effort at modernization, Russia’s economy will likely face a secular decline.

India . In 2004, the NIC’s Mapping the Global Future report identified India as a rising power along with China. At current rates of growth, India will surpass China sometime after 2025 as the country with the world’s largest population. India has been averaging about five percent economic growth per year for the last decade, and forecasts for the future are bright. Economic success is also generating increased military capability, and India is likely to be one of the most lucrative markets for arms exports in the years ahead. But the country is also beset by an array of demographic, economic, social, political, and security problems that are daunting, to say the least. Still, even if the most bullish projections for India do not come to pass, it is clearly a country on an upward trajectory. Exactly what kind of great power India will become remains a matter of some debate. Because of its colonial background, national sovereignty issues are particularly sensitive, but India seems a strong candidate for an enhanced relationship with the United States. Both countries share democratic values and, at least among the elite in India, the English language. India and the United States also share the same strategic preoccupations: both are worried about the activities of Islamist extremists and the rise of China. Although the development of a U.S.-Indian strategic partnership will not come easily or quickly given past differences, such an outcome is more likely than the emergence of India as a peer competitor.

China . That leaves China, whose rise has attracted more attention than that of any of the other BRIC countries. It has unseated Japan as the world’s second-largest economy and will, according to the New York Times , surpass the U.S. as early as 2030. The global recession has barely put a dent in China’s ascent. Chinese officials have been at pains to assure one and all that they have no aspirations of hegemony or dominion over other countries. China’s intentions and aims, however, may become more expansive as its power increases, and its increasingly assertive international behavior has begun to trouble many.

But China too has many significant challenges to overcome. The strong hold of the state on the economy and the patronage relationships that link the party and state to major industries have generated massive waste and inefficiencies in the economy. Rising income inequality and arbitrary abuses of authority have created a combustible mix of socioeconomic tension and unrest, to the point that increasing levels of social protest have become an everyday occurrence. China’s demography, however, may present the country’s leaders with the most intractable issues of all. In the next decade and a half, China’s population will stop growing and begin to decline. The proportion of elderly to working-age individuals will also shift, giving China a so-called “4-2-1” population structure in which one child will have to support two parents and four grandparents. China’s approaching demographic shifts will also intersect with a growing gender imbalance in which males vastly outnumber females in the younger portions of the population as an indirect result of the one-child policy. In fact, the potential for a perfect storm of economic, demographic, and social unrest has led some observers to conjecture that China, far from being a rising power, is actually on the verge of collapse.

For the moment, however, China must be seen as a strong competitor, in particular because its economic advance has enabled it to amass significant and growing military capabilities. Even if the country experiences turbulence, it will continue to be assertive, although it is hard to know exactly what form that new assertiveness will take. Some suggest that China’s increasing economic and military strength will drive a contest for power in the region and a long-term strategic competition with the United States. Others believe China’s increased interaction with multilateral institutions will help it integrate peacefully into the international system as a responsible stakeholder. Much will depend on the ideas that China develops about its global role. The increasing discussion of the “decline” of the United States, and the West more broadly, could have an impact on the attitudes of Chinese leaders and the methods they employ in accomplishing their international objectives.


A merica’s moment of unipolarity has been based on a singular fact: the United States is the first leading state in modern international history with decisive preponderance in all the underlying components of power: economy, military, technology, and geopolitics. All of its competitors face internal and external security challenges that are as or more serious than America’s own. Japan faces not only economic and demographic challenges, but also a rising China and a de facto nuclear-armed failing state, North Korea. India has domestic violence, insurgencies in bordering countries, and a persistent security dilemma in the form of China. Demographic challenges will be particularly acute for Europe, Japan, and Russia in the areas of military manpower and economic growth. China, India, Brazil, and Russia all suffer from significant regional disparities that have led, or could lead, to social unrest and political instability. Europe faces the challenge of incorporating the new members of the EU into its institutional structures against a backdrop of a major economic slump.

The United States, by contrast, has several underappreciated sources of national power and continued advantage. As Samuel P. Huntington has noted, U.S. power “flows from its structural position in world politics . . . geographically distant from most major areas of world conflict” as well as from “being involved in a historically uniquely diversified network of alliances.”

Natural resources are another area of advantage for the United States. Agriculture has been “a bastion of American competitiveness,” and America’s farmers and producers have never been more efficient or productive than they are today. The media may have lavished a great deal of attention on U.S. dependence on imported oil—a true strategic liability—but they have neglected its abundant coal and gas resources. In fact, the United States (combined with Canada) trails only the Middle East in the overall wealth of its energy resources.

There are other factors that could help the United States navigate the period ahead. One of them is openness to innovation, which can play an important role in extending the United States’ leading role in the world. Some scholars believe, in fact, that failure to maintain system leadership in sectors that power long waves of economic activity and growth is a key cause of decline. Another factor that may propel the United States to a more rapid recovery is the so-called “American creed,” which includes skepticism about the role of the state in the economy and a veneration of the private sector, which indeed does produce the entrepreneurs and innovators capable of prolonging America’s leading sector primacy in the international economy.

Demographics, too, make continued U.S. economic leadership around the world more likely. American fertility rates are among the highest in the developed world and have virtually reached replacement levels. With a growing population that will be more youthful than those of other developed countries (or China), the United States appears to be in a favorable position for the future.

None of these advantages, however, including the United States’ unchallenged military capacity, mean that America is destined to remain the preponderant power in the world. Without a concerted effort by the United States, the international system could move in the direction of nonpolarity or apolarity, with no nation clearly playing a leading role in trying to organize the international system. The result would be a vacuum of leadership and an inability to manage the plethora of contemporary global problems like terrorism, nuclear proliferation, ethnic and sectarians wars, humanitarian disasters, crime, narcotics trafficking, pandemic disease, global climate change, and so forth.

Notwithstanding the prediction of Global Trends 2025 that the world is moving toward multipolarity, it seems likely that U.S. predominance could continue in a unipolar system, albeit one where U.S. hegemony is less clear than it was in the 1990s, more constrained by U.S. domestic and international economic limitations, and more contested by regional powers. China will pose the biggest challenge in Asia, but potential new nuclear powers like Iran and North Korea will also create difficult questions about U.S. extended deterrence in Northeast Asia and Southwest Asia. Other troublesome challengers may arise, including Venezuela in the Western Hemisphere (particularly if it aligns with a nuclear-armed Iran).

As Charles Krauthammer has written, “decline is a choice,” and one that can be avoided if the U.S. government takes some basic steps. The first is to get America’s financial house in order. Second, the United States will need to meet head-on the reputational challenges it currently faces and be prepared to continue to defend the global commons
(i.e., the air, space, maritime, and cyber domains). Perhaps most important, the decline in the margin of U.S. dominance and the emergence of challengers at the regional level will make alliances and alliance management central concerns for American policymakers in a way that they have not been since the end of the Cold War.

Maintaining the United States’ role as the “indispensable nation” will require resolve and foresight. After 1989, at the dawn of the first unipolar era, there was an effort at the Pentagon to think explicitly about a strategy for extending U.S. predominance in the international system. Although the document that resulted, the 1992 Defense Planning Guidance, became the subject of much misplaced criticism and controversy, its main outline became the de facto bipartisan strategy that underpinned the unipolar “moment” that, against most expectations, has stretched into an era. If the United States is going to successfully manage the challenges of contested primacy, the moment to debate the strategy that will carry U.S. power forward in the new century is now.

Eric S. Edelman has served in senior positions at the White House and the Departments of State and Defense, including postings as U.S. ambassador to Finland and Turkey. He is currently a distinguished fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment, for which he produced a longer version of this article.

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