The Magazine

Alive and Well

American power and influence need not be on the wane.

Mar 4, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 24 • By JOSHUA MURAVCHIK
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Lieber offers a little historical context, reaching back beyond the declinist boom of the late 1980s to show that prophecies of American decline have been a recurrent attention--grabber since at least 1797, with the work of Joseph de Maistre. Furthermore, Lieber reminds us that such predictions don’t only come from the lips of publicists. In 1972, President Richard Nixon, who prided himself on being a deeper thinker about world affairs than his rivals and most of his predecessors, pontificated that the world was shifting to a pentagonal balance of power among the United States, the Soviet Union, China, Japan, and Western Europe. Forty years later, just as Nixon’s vision might have been expected to reach fruition, the Soviet Union exists no more, and Japan and Europe are economically troubled and militarily weak. That leaves only the United States and China from Nixon’s five-cornered model.

And what of China? Theories of U.S. decline comprise two broad themes: America’s weaknesses and the strengths of possible competitors. Today, that putative rival is China. Lieber reminds us that China is a less formidable foe than those we bested in the 20th century—namely, the Axis powers and the Soviet Union. True, China’s economy is predicted to grow larger than our own in the coming years, but gross output is not a definitive statistic. In one of this book’s more interesting factual tidbits, Lieber tells us that “in 1870, China and India possessed the world’s largest economies in GDP terms,” even while both were being trampled underfoot by more developed countries with smaller GDPs. Per person, China today is only about one-fifth as wealthy as America. That means Americans have far more discretionary income to draw upon for national purposes, including those which translate into power.


Moreover, China’s economic growth masks a range of vulnerabilities. Lieber finds it unlikely “that the economic model of export-led growth can be sustained indefinitely.” He also cites other debilities: the aging of the population, which will produce a burdensome ratio of pensioners to workers; a system of higher education that, according to one reputable study, produces engineers only 10 percent of whom are employable; and a political system that makes no sense. In addition, China has limited influence: Its language is spoken by few non-Chinese, and its political system is emulated by almost no one. Most of its neighbors fear it and are prone to form alliances of various kinds to balance against it.

If the most likely rival to America has feet of clay, what about America’s internal weaknesses? Lieber sees fewer of them than strengths. He concedes that America’s share of world economic output has shrunk, but only from about one-fourth of the total down to about one-fifth—a difference he finds inconsequential. On the other hand, he cites many enduring advantages, such as America’s size in geography and population, and the fact that, unlike other countries, the population is not shrinking. Another is the patriotism of the populace and its willingness to sustain foreign commitments. Then there are the vast superiority of its higher education institutions, the international ubiquity of English, and America’s unflagging attractiveness to immigrants and to allies.

Above all is the country’s flexibility:

While serious errors of policy and delays in coming to grips with domestic and foreign crises are nothing new, the long-term record of the United States is one of remarkable resilience, adaptation, and crisis response.

This record makes Lieber hopeful, albeit not certain, that America can come to grips with what he sees as the greatest danger to its current position: unsustainable deficits and paralysis of fiscal policy.

Failure to face this danger and disarm it could indeed erode our strength and lead to the waning of America’s global power, which would imperil “not only the national interest and security of the United States itself, but the stability of the global order that the United States has underwritten during the past seven decades.” Such an outcome, however, does not inhere in any objective factors.

The human potential, flexibility, openness, entrepreneurial skills, and scientific, educational, and technical assets within the United States are available to underpin this role, as they have been in the past. The underlying question is less one of capacity and potential than of policy, persistence, and political will.