How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
By now, commentators and policymakers across the entire U.S. political spectrum have acknowledged in action, if not in words, that the nation’s international standing and foreign policy are in crisis. The Cold War ended 30 years ago; the United States opened the self-inflicted wound of the global “war on terror” 20 years ago. Today, powerful economies outside the United States expect an equal say in shaping the international order. Military competitors such as China and Russia, while still no match for the United States, are gaining the upper hand in their immediate spheres of influence. After a period of unmatched wealth and military supremacy, the United States is navigating a world order in which it cannot dictate global rules.
Washington has begun to come to terms with a global transformation that it helped catalyze but by no means controls. For a brief period after the Cold War, the United States was a hyperpower able to chart its course unilaterally. Now it is once again a superpower with peers. Terms such as “decline” and “end of empire” sensationalize a shift that is actually rather mundane: a return to a historical normal, in which multiple powers thrive and compete. The United States remains prosperous and powerful and exerts a great appeal in many parts of the world. But it is not the only thriving nation that attracts immigrants and emulators. It may still cling to the position of first among equals, but the United States is only one among other powers. This reduction in relative stature creates an opportunity for the country to match the postwar achievements of some of its peers—especially by building an economy and a social safety net that work in the best interests of all of its citizens.
Within the United States, the debate over the country’s shifting place in the world falls into distinct camps. President Donald Trump’s commitment to “Make America Great Again” demands the reassertion of U.S. primacy. The president’s chauvinistic rhetoric, trade wars, and blustering escalations in the Middle East reflect a fantasy of unfettered American power. Trump mistakenly believes that sharing the world with other nations is a zero-sum affair and that the United States must grab what it can rather than try to share the pie. Many observers have placed Trump in the tradition of American isolationism, but that characterization is wide of the mark. Trump has not adopted an isolationist foreign policy. Instead, he has pursued a grand strategy of “illiberal hegemony,” by which he seeks U.S. dominance but dispenses with past imperatives such as democracy promotion and preserving the international liberal order.
At the opposite extreme are those who see U.S. power as fundamentally in decline. In their view, the United States will inevitably shrink in stature on the international stage, a fate hastened by hubris and imperial overreach. Some even welcome that diminishing, insisting that U.S. hegemony has done only harm and, in the long run, immiserated American citizens. They argue that a shrunken United States will stop hurting the world, even if nothing particularly good takes its place. But these critics of U.S. hegemony suffer from a kind of tunnel vision, emphasizing the damage done while ignoring the wealth, health, and security spread by the United States.
Realists try to insert themselves between those calling for robust U.S. hegemony and those seeking greater retrenchment. They are sanguine about the passing of the unipolar moment, arguing that boisterous competition, uncertainty, and violence are constants in international relations. The strongest will win, and there is no humane and moral way to determine which is the strongest. In the realist view, the United States must prepare for greater competition. Washington overreached at the pinnacle of its power in the first decade of the twentieth century, as empires tend to do when unchecked, and will now revert to a more modest status relative to international rivals such as China, Russia, and maybe even the European Union.
Both the declinists and the realists are partially right. There are more limits on U.S. power today than there were 20 years ago. Washington must adapt to the realities of a multipolar world. But the loss of global preeminence is not necessarily a story of decline but a story of other nations catching up. A growing community of powerful nations can be a challenge to manage, but it need not be a threat.
The loss of American global preeminence is not necessarily a story of decline.
The history of the twentieth century offers numerous examples of dynamic empires that matured into happy middle age or were radically transformed after the destructive shock of war. After World War II, one-time militaristic powers such as Japan and several European nations began to invest their resources into relatively egalitarian social democracy at home and reorient their international relations toward less ambitious (but more ethically consistent) values of shared security and prosperity. Some nations, such as France and the United Kingdom, shifted from guns to butter by choice, while the defeated states of Germany and Japan were compelled to do so. All of them fell under the U.S. security umbrella, enabling them to spend less of their national budgets on defense.
Today, happily, collective security doesn’t depend on one behemoth expending a colossal sum on a military with global reach. The world’s mature democracies can adequately defend themselves from external threats through collective security arrangements. The United States often misunderstands the legacy of its post–World War II security arrangements. Its investment in security and economic recovery propelled the growth of East Asia and Europe—while making the United States the richest country in the world, in control of the global currency and all major international institutions. The Marshall Plan, NATO, and long-term deployments in Japan and Korea weren’t costly charity projects for the United States; they were incredibly profitable investments that brought returns many times over in security and wealth.
For the better part of a century, other post-empire nations have generally forsworn wars of choice and violent entanglements, instead pursuing a course of safety, prosperity, and justice for their citizens. Japan and the European Union may not have grown at the breakneck economic speed of the United States, nor can they match the United States’ enormous global military reach. But these aren’t weak, poor little states—they are rich and technologically advanced, capable of defending themselves from attack, and crucially, they have provided human security to their citizens at levels unknown in the United States.
Japan, South Korea, and much of western Europe blossomed under the protective umbrella of the United States, which directly funded reconstruction, designed postwar international institutions, and, finally, paid for and provided military security. The whole world should be grateful for the Marshall Plan, and for the security afforded by NATO, which directly benefited hundreds of millions and prevented a replay of the cycle of defeat and militarism that drove violence in the first half of the twentieth century. But today, the United States needs more of the type of visionary investment and pooled sovereignty that went into the Marshall Plan and less of the militarism and colossal defense commitments that NATO often requires.
The United States urgently needs to rebuild its own domestic foundations, from education and health care to transportation and energy infrastructure. But this isn’t Europe in 1945; the country isn’t in ruins and doesn’t need a protector to provide security and investment. Instead, the United States can improve the standard of living of its citizens by shifting its budget and policymaking priorities away from military entanglements toward transformative projects at home.
What policymakers have to reckon with is that the United States is no longer the indispensable nation, a fact that longtime scholars of U.S. foreign policy observe without glee. China and Russia have both asserted themselves in their geopolitical neighborhood, and the United States has realized that it has few tools to deter them. In the Middle East, the United States is implicated in myriad conflicts and can be outmaneuvered by rival powers such as Iran and Russia, which can thwart U.S. aims with a fraction of the resources deployed by the United States. Increasingly, Washington must grapple with the implications of its diminished standing, from having to share the costly burdens of Persian Gulf security to scaling back its ambitions in conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria to entirely surrendering the idea that it be the sole arbiter in East Asia.
As the United States finds itself sharing the world with more players, it needs to cautiously adjust to this changing landscape. Any overarching shift in its foreign policy will by definition produce some instability, but a rushed reversal in the United States’ global military posture could be as destabilizing to international security as reckless U.S. interventionism. Trump’s hapless handling of the U.S. military presence in northeast Syria is one example of the harm to civilians and regional stability that can follow a chaotic U.S. policy U-turn. A new approach would be best executed over years through a deliberate, coordinated shrinking of the United States’ military footprint—sharing the burden and freeing the country from its self-appointed role as global cop.
Such a reorientation has not been seriously attempted since the end of the Cold War. Former President Barack Obama flirted rhetorically with the idea of a less militaristic U.S. foreign policy, but in practice he maintained the commitment to a maximalist global war, miring the United States deeper in Afghanistan, intervening in Libya, and joining a disastrous war of choice in Yemen. Nearly two decades into an endless “war on terror,” a course change is overdue. A rich and secure United States can continue to be a bulwark of the international order even if it is more restrained in its interventions. There will be times when Washington will see an atrocity committed abroad and will be frustrated by the limitations of responding solely with diplomatic and humanitarian tools. On the overall balance sheet, these opportunity costs are likely to be dwarfed by the collateral benefits of restraint: the United States will no longer be killing and maiming civilians in Special Forces raids, drone strikes, and bombings that, in any case, were failing to achieve their stated goals.
With the international presence and size of its military greatly reduced, the United States could reinvest every single dollar saved—and then some—into domestic job-creation projects with a heavy emphasis on research and development, education, and human services (including care for children, new parents, and the elderly). Imagine if the United States were as cutting edge in its capacity to integrate every single American into its society as it is at being able to surveil, detain, and kill people. Habitual critics of government expenditure might find themselves pleasantly surprised, or even outright happy, if a federally funded and coordinated social safety net were not only serving their families’ needs but providing them with satisfying, well-paid jobs.
The United States should not completely retrench from the world; neither should it forswear military power. But what’s best for the United States and for the world would entail a sizable shift in priority and investment away from military power. Such a shift would mean giving up on having an American say over every troubling policy or security dilemma worldwide. The United States would lose some of the benefits of primacy. A downsized Pentagon would be able to deter threats against the United States but not all threats everywhere against U.S. interests and those of its partners. Washington would thereby accept a meaningful loss of power, but better to do so by choice now than later by force of circumstance.
Such a fundamental reorientation in U.S. foreign policy seems far-fetched only to Americans who have forgotten history and mistake today’s dysfunctional political paralysis for destiny. The United States has undergone many profound transformations since its founding. The Gilded Age gave way to the New Deal. Jim Crow yielded to the civil rights movement. One period of interventionist excesses in Latin America and Vietnam was followed by the Church Committee and a brief consensus on placing some limits on the United States’ unique powers.
A similar moment of transition presents itself now. After World War II, Washington’s closest allies fashioned radical new social compacts and resolved conflicts that were far more violent and entrenched than those facing the United States today—interwar Europe experienced tumultuous domestic strife that pitted leftists, communists, and anarchists against oligarchs and titans of industry. The result, after World War II, was social democracy, which through progressive taxation and a profound investment in a social safety net preserved much of what is good about capitalism while resolving the root inequalities that still plague the United States.
The United States is not an aberration: it doesn’t stand outside of history.
The belief in American exceptionalism can discourage comparisons with other countries, suggesting that the United States cannot learn from others. But Americans are exceptional only in the sense that they have their own history and culture. The United States is not an aberration: it doesn’t stand outside of history.
The truly radical change in the United States’ orientation will come when the country repositions itself as one that is great for its citizens and residents by investing in a real egalitarian democracy that protects Americans from homelessness, illness, and poor education just as eagerly as it purports to protect them from foreign “terror.” The United States cannot transform itself at home without changing the way it operates in the world. It should return to the ideals of 1945, when the United States led the formation of the United Nations and the Bretton Woods institutions on the principle of serving as a responsible pillar in a global order that benefits all. Today, in a multipolar age, the country should recommit to those ideals, while adopting a restraint based on its new status as a leading member of a community of powerful nations, not a lone superpower.
Chauvinists, know-nothings, and those Americans directly invested in the military-industrial economy might deride such a mindset as “weak” or “un-American.” But whether they like it or not, circumstances will reduce the United States to a diminished international role. It would be far better for the country to choose to transform itself before it’s forced to.