How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
Wealth and power breed ambition, in countries as in people. Nations on the rise dream big, dare greatly, and see failure as a challenge to be overcome. The same process works in reverse: nations on the wane scale back their ambitions, cut losses, and see failure as a portent to be heeded.
Feeling down these days, the United States is questioning the global role it once embraced. The empire that Washington absent-mindedly acquired during flusher times now seems to cost more than it’s worth, and many want to shed the burden. What that might involve is the subject of this issue’s lead package.
Thomas Wright and Stephen Wertheim kick off the debate with strong statements of the central arguments on each side. In general, Wright notes, American alliances, security guarantees, and international economic leadership over recent generations have been a great success. It makes sense to prune lesser commitments, but certainly not to abandon Washington’s essential global role. On the contrary, says Wertheim: it is precisely the notion of American primacy that needs to go. Instead of policing the world with endless military interventions, Washington should withdraw from much of the greater Middle East, rein in the “war on terror,” rely on diplomacy instead of force, and concentrate its attention on trying to steer the global economy toward fairer and greener pastures.
Three tough-minded pieces offer different ways Washington could lower its sights. Graham Allison suggests dealing with the loss of hegemony by accepting spheres of influence. Jennifer Lind and Daryl Press favor limiting U.S. objectives to whatever the domestic and international markets will bear. And Stephen Krasner advises settling for good enough governance in the world. Lastly, Kathleen Hicks throws cold water on hopes (or fears) of any dramatic defense cuts, explaining what it would actually take to reduce military spending and why it’s so much easier said than done.
Similar calls for retrenchment were heard half a century ago, when the United States was at another low ebb in its global fortunes—facing declining relative power, increasing isolationism, a lost war in the periphery, a scandal-ridden president under siege. But just a few years later, after some creative strategy and diplomacy, the country had extricated itself from Vietnam, reshaped the global balance of power, reestablished its position in Asia, and become the dominant force in the Middle East. And although it took a while, the U.S. economy ultimately rose to the challenge posed by increased international competition and came out stronger for it. Could such miracles repeat themselves, or is it finally time for America to come home?
—Gideon Rose, Editor