Military Officer | 1.1.09
By Alan W. Dowd

The statesmen, scholars and scribes tell us the United States is in decline—again.

A feature in The New York Times Magazine, for example, announces “the demise of American hegemony.”[i] Under the heading, “The end of a U.S.-centric world?” a section of The Washington Post website declares, “U.S. influence is in steep decline.”

Overseas, reports of America’s downfall range from subdued to hysterical. “The magic is over,” French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner sighs, referring to America’s purportedly waning diplomatic purpose and prowess.[ii] German finance minister Peer Steinbrueck declares it is “probable” that “the U.S. will lose its status as the superpower of the global financial system.” “The empire of the dollar is crashing,” howls Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez. “America’s empire will crash.”

And these are just the latest verses in a growing chorus of declinist doom-saying. In 2005, Nicolai Ouroussoff of The New York Times called America “a society that has turned its back on any notion of cultural openness…an empire enthralled with its own power and unaware that it is fading.” That same year, an essay in Britain’s Guardian newspaper labeled America “the hollow superpower.”

Of course, we heard the same dirge in the early 1990s, when the experts predicted that Japan and Germany would dislodge a beleaguered America from its economic perch; in the 1980s, when political scientists concluded that America was tumbling toward “imperial overstretch;” in the 1970s, when the U.S. slipped into a malaise; and in the 1960s, which began and ended with humbling setbacks to communist regimes.

If the declinists were wrong then, why should we believe them now?

Economic Formulas
There are many facets of U.S. power, but most can be traced to America’s enormous economy.

Even as the housing market erodes, Wall Street giants implode, and economists debate whether we’re at the beginning, middle or end of a recession, the U.S. economy remains the engine of globalization and innovation.

For instance, America’s GDP is about double that of the second largest economy on earth, China’s. Only when the European Union cobbles together its 27 economies can it claim to rival U.S. economic output. Yet America’s labor force is one-fifth the size of China’s and 30 percent smaller than the EU’s.[iii]

The U.S. boasts 17 of the 50 largest companies on earth—three times as many as the closest challenger, Britain. The U.S. is home to the world’s largest aerospace (Boeing), biotech (Pfizer), media (TimeWarner), retail (WalMart), petroleum (ExxonMobil), software (IBM), technology hardware (HP), capital goods (Caterpillar) and telecom (AT&T) firms—corporations that are truly shaping the future.[iv]

Speaking of the future, The American Magazine reports that the U.S. accounts for more than a third of all international patent filings. Second-place Japan claims only 17.8 percent.[v]

It’s no surprise that the World Economic Forum recently labeled the United States “the world’s most competitive economy” and “arguably the country with the most productive and innovative potential in the world.” The WEF cites a range of factors: “an excellent university system,” “sophisticated and innovative companies,” and “strong collaboration between educational and business sectors in research and development.”[vi]

The U.S. economy is not perfect, of course. The mortgage crisis, which has impacted everyone from Main Street to Wall Street, confirms that.

The country’s debt also is a looming worry. Yet America’s public debt represents just 36.8 percent of its GDP. Many countries would be thrilled to have such a debt ratio: Japan’s public debt is 194 percent of GDP, Germany’s is 65 percent.[vii]

Some see China’s booming economy as a threat to U.S. economic primacy. But they fail to consider the immense gap in per capita income—$44,244 in the U.S. versus $2,069 in China—and they overlook systemic problems with the Chinese economy.

Although it has an ocean of cheap labor and a swelling treasury, China doesn’t have a stable middle-class; a government that breeds confidence rather than concern in its trading partners; or a genuine rule-of-law system that protects buyers and sellers, balances the interests of labor and management, and fights corruption.

In fact, MinxinPei of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace warns, “Beijing’s brand of authoritarian politics is spawning a dangerous mix of crony capitalism, rampant corruption and widening inequality.” That’s not exactly a formula for long-term success.

Diplomacy and Defense
America’s military power is yet another indication that the declinist dirge is premature.

As Johns Hopkins scholar Fouad Ajami has noted, “The world rails against the United States, yet embraces its protection, its gossip and its hipness.” Especially its protection: Dozens of countries—comprising perhaps half the world’s landmass—enjoy security treaties with the United States. But why would they want the protection of a “declining” power?

Perhaps it’s because they know America’s military power has no peer, parallel or precedent. They know that in the span of about 15 months, the U.S. military overthrew two enemy regimes located on the other side of the planet and replaced them with friendly, popularly supported governments. They know that this same military simultaneously guarded the 38th parallel, monitored Russian and Chinese nukes, kept the sea lanes open, and responded to disasters of biblical proportion in places as disparate as Myanmar, Sumatra, Louisiana and Pakistan.

No other military could attempt such a feat of global multitasking. “The rest of the world has nothing that can compete,” as historian Niall Ferguson concludes in Colossus. Not even the British Empire, he adds, “dominated the full spectrum of military capabilities the way the United States does today.”[viii] 

Those capabilities include tanks that move as fast as cars on a freeway; seaborne warplanes that strike at night, in the snow or in sandstorms; satellite-guided weapons that are equally accurate when fired by an unmanned drone or far-away submarine; invisible bombers that fly intercontinental missions; Special Forces that are equally adept at liberating the oppressed and defeating their oppressors; and “regular” forces that are more motivated, more intelligent, more lethal and yet more restrained than any in history.

Indeed, the struggles in Iraq say more about America’s self-imposed restraint than about its influence or power. Thankfully for the rest of the globe, the means are as important as the ends to Americans. 

Which brings us to another key factor contributing to America’s enduring presence on the international stage: The U.S. is a benign power. It does not garrison troops overseas to smother a far-flung empire. Instead, America’s troops are invited in every instance.

The duly and freely elected Iraqi government wants U.S. forces in Iraq, even if half the U.S. Congress does not. Afghanistan wants U.S. forces to excise Taliban scar tissue. Kosovo, Korea and Kuwait want U.S. troops to maintain regional stability. From Germany to Georgia, those who remember a Europe of concrete walls and iron curtains want U.S. forces on their soil as a hedge against a revisionist Russia. And across the Pacific, those who worry about a rising China are strengthening their ties with Washington.

Are these global commitments “overstretching” America? Not if history is any guide. Ferguson reminds us that the United States had 3.4 million men on active duty in 1952.[ix] With a population of around 160 million, that represented a sizable 2.1 percent of the country. By 1963, as Derek Leebaert notes in The Fifty Year Wound, the U.S. had a million troops “stationed at more than 200 foreign bases.”[x]

Today, the U.S. has 1.4 million men and women on active duty—out of a population of 300 million—and 70 percent of America’s forces are based in the U.S. and its territories.[xi]At 4 percent of GDP, the U.S. spends less of its wealth on defense today than during the Cold War, when the military consumed 6-10 percent of GDP.

As to America’s supposed diplomatic decline, the past reminds us—from the Paris Peace Accords, to the Iranian hostage crisis, to the unwelcome entry of Pakistan and India into the nuclear club—that there was never any “magic” to American diplomacy. And the present reminds us that America is still the most powerful diplomatic force on earth:

  • For better or worse, Washington shepherded Kosovo toward statehood and then led most of Europe to recognize its independence.
  • Washington persuaded Europe and recently even China to get serious about Iran’s nuclear program.
  • Washington cajoled four regional powers into talks on North Korea and then extracted Pyongyang’s promise to give up its nukes. (Whether Pyongyang keeps this promise is a subject for another essay.) 
  • Washington forged the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), with the aim of intercepting weapons of mass destruction and their precursors while in transit. The PSI now enfolds some 80 nations.
  • And Washington brought Europe, Japan and Australia into an international missile defense coalition.

These are not trivial diplomatic feats.

Culture Club
Some have argued that globalization is just another word for Americanization, and they may be right. Indeed, it is in the wake of globalization that we begin to glimpse the full breadth of American power.

America’s culture,” as historian Victor Davis Hanson observes, “is spreading throughout the world, and homogenizing other nations without the threat of military force.”[xii] Consider a few examples:

  • An estimated 90 percent of the PCs on earth run Microsoft software.[xiii]
  • Newsweek reports that Apple has dethroned “Sony as the leading innovator in consumer electronics.” Apple’s ultra-popular iPod has a 58-percent market share in Japan, more than double Sony’s answer.[xiv]
  • Created by a pair of StanfordUniversity grad students, Google so dominates the Web that the EU is pouring some $290 million into birthing an answer.
  • Ferguson notes that 70 percent of Coke’s thirsty drinkers reside outsideNorth America. He adds there are 30,000 McDonald’s restaurants spread across 120 countries, over half of them located somewhere other than the U.S.[xv]
  • Retail juggernaut WalMart, with 2,700 stores outside the U.S., pegged global sales at $344 billion in 2007. Only 31 countries have a GDP that large.
  • China honored Yao Ming as its “vanguard worker” in 2005, an award once reserved for those who embodied the revolutionary spirit of Mao. Yet Yao is a multimillionaire who plays basketball for a decidedly capitalist organization known as the Houston Rockets.[xvi]
  • A global survey of universities conducted by the London-based Q.S. Education Trust concludes that six of the top ten universities on earth, 14 of the top 25, and 37 of the top 100 call America home. Harvard is number one.[xvii]
  • Americans dominate the roster of Nobel Prize winners. And as French president Nicolas Sarkozy observes, “More than half of America’s Nobel Prize laureates are immigrants.”

Indeed, America has a magnetic pull on peoples of every race and region. When they arrive, these would-be Americans find a culture eager to accept the new and the different—a nation where a refugee from Czechoslovakia could serve as secretary of state, an Austrian bodybuilder could become governor of California, an Afghan immigrant could represent U.S. interests in Kabul or Baghdad (or both), a Taiwanese or Cuban kid could grow up to serve in the president’s cabinet, or a Polish immigrant could head the Joint Chiefs.

So much for the cynical view that America “has turned its back on any notion of cultural openness.”

White Flag?
To be sure, the U.S. faces challenges that could erode its global position: China and India are ascending; the near-term economic forecast is cloudy; and the world abounds with asymmetric threats that could undermine the liberal order Washington has sought to spread for generations.

Of course, China is booming largely because it looks more—not less—like America today than it did a generation ago, at least culturally and economically; India’s ascent may bolster America’s global position; America’s economy weathered worse inflation in the 1950s and 1970s, worse unemployment in the 1970s and worse Dow declines in the 1980s; and today’s asymmetric threats pale in comparison to the existential threat the Soviet empire posed for half-a-century.

So perhaps it’s premature to replace Old Glory with a white flag just yet.

PARAG KHANNA, “Waving Goodbye to Hegemony,” New York Times Magazine, January 27, 2008.

[ii] Alison Smale, “‘Magic is over’ for U.S., says French foreign minister,” International herald Tribune,” March 12, 2008.

[iii] CIA World Factbook, “Rank Order GDP,” www.cia.gov, 2008; CIA World Factbook, “Rank Order Labor Force,” www.cia.gov, 2008.

[iv] Forbes, The Global 2000, April 2, 2008.

[v] The American Magazine, “Innovation Nation,” May/June 2008.

[vi] WEF, The Global Competitiveness Report 2007-2008.

[vii] CIA World Factbook, “Rank Order Public Debt,” www.cia.gov, 2008.

[viii]Ferguson, p.16.

[ix] Niall Ferguson, Colossus, p.85.

[x] Derek Leebaert, The Fifty Year Wound, p.316.

[xi] DoD, “Active Duty Military Personnel Strengths by Regional Area and by Country,” June 30, 2007.

[xii] Victor Davis Hanson, personal correspondence, October 31, 2005.

[xiii]Kevin Maney, “One Billion Laptops,” Conde Nast Portfolio, January 4, 2008.

[xiv] Christian Caryl, “Not made in Japan,” Newsweek, February 15, 2008.

[xv]Ferguson, pp.18-19.

[xvi] Edward Cody, “Not Your Average Chinese Worker,” Washington Post
April 29, 2005.

[xvii]QS Education Trust, “QS World University Rankings,” www.topuniversities.com.