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Is the United States in Decline?

In mid-May, leaders of 29 nations, and representatives from some 80 others, descended on Beijing to discuss China’s ambitious “One Belt One Road” (OBOR) development initiative—also known to some as the “New Silk Road.” This plan is the follow-on to China’s creation several years ago of the Asia Infrastructure Development Bank (AIIB), a major new international financial institution to foster economic development in “emerging market” nations.

OBOR, a signature policy of Chinese president Xi Jinping, calls for investing massive amounts of money ($1 trillion, according to some reports) to promote trade and economic development by constructing transportation links that will tie together East Asian manufacturing hubs with Southeast Asia, Central Asia, Africa, and Southwest Asia. These new transportation routes also will connect China with the participating nations and Europe. China’s aim is twofold: to create new markets for the goods and services it produces, and to extend its geopolitical influence. Some analysts see OBOR as a Chinese version of the Marshall Plan, the important post-World War II American initiative that helped rebuild Western Europe and laid the foundation for European economic unity that ultimately culminated in the European Union.

TAC cover July 2017

With OBOR, China is following the example of Great Britain and the United States (as well as pre-World War I European great powers such as Germany).  In the 19th century, the expansion of the British empire, including what scholars Ronald Robinson and John Gallagher describe as its “informal empire,” was driven by the perceived need to find outlets for the United Kingdom’s “surplus” goods and capital—that is, goods and capital that could not be profitably absorbed by the domestic economy. When the United States burst onto the world stage as a great power in the late 19th century, acquiring Puerto Rico, Hawaii, Guam, and the Philippines, it imitated Britain’s pursuit of both informal and formal empire for the same reason: the belief that America’s continuing economic growth depended on exporting American capital and goods.  China today faces the problem of insufficient demand for its products and limited prospects for profitable domestic investment. Beijing is responding to these problems pretty much as Britain and the United States did in the latter part of the 19th century: by seeking new markets and attractive investment opportunities abroad.

As both Britain and the United States demonstrated, economic expansion begets geopolitical expansion. Economic clout can buy a lot of political influence. But the lines of communication linking the home country to its overseas markets must be protected. And political stability must be maintained where the home country is investing. For Britain and the United States, economic expansion resulted in the inexorable expansion of their military power and diplomatic sway. We can expect OBOR to have a similar effect on China. It is a powerful incentive for China to expand its military projection capabilities. Beijing will be compelled to assume an increasingly active role in managing regional security in places affected by OBOR—especially in Central Asia and Pakistan, which are plagued by political instability and terrorism.


OBOR is a milestone on China’s path to great power status and is one of several indicators of receding American power—not just geopolitically, but also in matters involving the international economy and international institutions. When discussing the Sino-American rivalry, attention is focused on the military balance between the United States and China and to flashpoints between the two countries that could spark a conflict—the South China Sea, the East China Sea, Taiwan, the Korean Peninsula.  But these more intangible economic and diplomatic developments will be no less important in shaping relations between Washington and Beijing as in determining the fate of the world order built by the United States following World War II—that is, Pax Americana, or what is sometimes referred to as “the liberal rules-based international order.”

Since the early 2000s there has been an ongoing conversation among scholars, policymakers, and members of the broader American foreign policy establishment about whether U.S. power is in decline. The question actually extends back to the 1980s, with the publication of Yale historian Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers and other important books on the subject by scholars David Calleo and Robert Gilpin. The controversy surrounding decline dissipated, however, when the Soviet Union imploded and Japan’s economic bubble burst. In one fell swoop, America’s primary military and economic competitors fell off the geopolitical chessboard.

The decline issue remained dormant through the “the unipolar moment” of the 1990s but was rekindled with China’s rapid great-power emergence in the early 2000s. China’s rise is the flip side of American decline. The central geopolitical question of the early 21st century is whether Pax Americana can survive China’s rise and the resulting shift of world geopolitical and economic power from west to east. The U.S. foreign policy establishment is allergic to the word “decline.”  After all, as Jon Huntsman declared during his brief presidential run in 2012: “Decline is un-American.”  Perhaps so, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not happening.

Though Huntsman has plenty of company on this issue in the foreign policy establishment, we would do better to heed the advice of the great Hall of Fame pitcher Satchel Paige.  “Don’t look back,” he said, “because something may be gaining on you.” A glance at the rear-view mirror shows China rapidly closing the gaps with the United States in all the dimensions of power upon which the Pax Americana was built: military, economic, and institutional.

In the last decade, China has displaced the United States as the world’s leading manufacturing power. In 2014, according to the World Bank, China passed America as the world’s largest economy (measured by purchasing power parity). In 1980, the United States accounted for about 25 percent of gross world product. Today it accounts for around 18 percent. Some analysts have come up with clever arguments to discount the importance of these economic trends. They are unconvincing. But the reality of U.S. decline is more than just a matter of numbers; it is also evident in Washington’s diminishing ability to manage the international economy and in the growing challenges to many legacy institutions of Pax Americana.

A strain of thinking called hegemonic stability theory holds that a liberal, open international economy requires an overarching power to manage and stabilize the system by creating a political and security order that permits economic openness. The  United States filled this role for half a century, from 1945 until the Great Recession. The world’s economic hegemon must provide public goods that benefit the international system as a whole, including:  making the rules for the international economic order; opening its domestic market to other states’ exports; supplying liquidity to the global economy; and providing a reserve currency. Having declined to grasp the mantle of leadership during the 1930s, Washington seized it decisively after World War II. Johns Hopkins professor Michael Mandelbaum has argued that, following the Cold War, the United States essentially acted as a de facto government for the international system by providing security and managing the global economy.

The Great Recession impaired the United States’ ability to provide leadership for the international economy. After all, an economic hegemon is supposed to solve global economic crises, not cause them. But America plunged the world into economic crisis when its financial system seized up with the sub-prime mortgage crisis. A hegemon is supposed to be the lender of last resort in the international economy, but the United States became the borrower of first resort—the world’s largest debtor. When the global economy falters, the economic hegemon must assume responsibility for kick-starting recovery by purchasing other nations’ goods. From 1945 to the Great  Recession, America’s willingness to consume foreign goods constituted the primary firewall against global economic downturns. During the Great Recession, however, the U.S. economy proved too infirm to lead the global economy back to health.

At the April 2009 G20 meeting in London, President Barack Obama conceded that, in key respects, the United States’ days as economic hegemon were numbered because America is too deeply in debt to continue as the world’s consumer of last resort. Instead, he said, the world would have to look to China (and other emerging market states plus Germany) to be the motors of global recovery.

Another example of how the U.S. has lost its grip on global economic leadership is its failure to prevail over the Europeans (read: Germany) in the transatlantic “austerity versus stimulus” debate that commenced in late 2009. Reflecting their different historical experiences, the United States and Europe (more specifically, Germany and the European Central Bank, or ECB) adopted divergent fiscal policies during the Great Recession. Obama administration economic policymakers were guided by the Keynesian lessons learned from the 1930s Great Depression: to dig out of a deep economic slump, the federal government should boost demand by pump-priming the economy through deficit spending, and the Federal Reserve should add further stimulus through low interest rates and easy money. Obama administration policymakers and leading American economists were haunted by the “1937 analogy”—FDR’s “recession within the Depression’’—demonstrating that if stimulus is withdrawn prematurely, a nascent recovery may be aborted.

On the other hand, Germany—the EU’s economic engine—has long been haunted by the “1923 analogy”: the fear that inflation can become uncontrollable, with disastrous economic, social, and political consequences. From the founding of post-World War II West Germany until the advent of the European Monetary Union and eventually the Euro, Germany’s central Bundesbank maintained a primary mission of combatting inflation and preserving the Deutschmark’s value. For the German government, assurance that the new ECB would follow the Bundesbank’s sound money policy was a sine qua non for Berlin’s decision to give up the Deutschmark in favor of the Euro.

This U.S.-European divide on austerity versus stimulus was apparent as early as the April 2009 London G20 summit, where the United States wanted to rebalance the international economy by inducing the Europeans (most particularly, Germany, which, with China, was one of the two large surplus economies) to lift the Continent out of the Great Recession by emulating Washington’s use of deficit spending to galvanize economic revival. Washington wanted Germany to export less and import more. Berlin flatly refused. German Chancellor Angela Merkel argued that for states—especially ones already deeply in debt—to accumulate more debt in an effort to spend themselves out of the Great Recession would only set the stage for an even greater crisis down the road.

Washington’s inability to prevail over Berlin in the stimulus vs. austerity debate highlighted waning U.S. power in the international economy. Jack Lew, then Treasury secretary, implicitly said as much at the October 2015 IMF-World Bank annual meeting when he stated  that the United States could not be the “sole engine” of global growth.

But America’s inability to get Germany to give up austerity was not the only indicator of America’s decreasing ability to shape the international economic agenda. During the Obama administration’s first term, the United States was unable to persuade China to allow the renminbi to appreciate to Washington’s preferred level (which the United States hoped would reduce China’s export surplus to the United States while simultaneously boosting American exports to China).

U.S. economic and fiscal troubles have contributed significantly to the fraying of Pax Americana’s institutional global framework. The Great Recession spurred calls for a major overhaul of the international institutional order as evidenced by the emergence of the G20, demands for IMF and World Bank reform, and a push for expanded membership of the UN Security Council. The past decade or so also has seen the creation of new international organizations and groupings such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, and BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa). As American power wanes, a parallel or “shadow” international order is being constructed as an alternative to Pax Americana. Perhaps the most dramatic example of his is Beijing’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

As Beijing rolled out its AIIB plans, the Obama administration kicked into high gear diplomatically in an attempt to squelch it. As the New York Times reported, Washington “lobbied against the [AIIB] with unexpected determination and engaged in a vigorous campaign to persuade important allies to shun the project.” Washington’s attempt to dissuade its allies from joining the AIIB failed. The dam burst when, in an Ides of March 2015 decision, Britain announced it was going to become a member of the AIIB (“Et Tu Britain?”). London’s decision to join the AIIB set off a stampede as other states on the fence rushed to sign up for membership.  Those joining included U.S. allies such as France, Germany, Italy, Australia, South Korea, even Israel and Taiwan. Beijing’s diplomatic coup in attracting widespread support for its AIIB initiative from long-standing U.S. allies was viewed as a direct challenge to America’s global geopolitical and economic leadership. Writing in the Financial Times, former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers said that London’s AIIB decision and its aftermath “may be remembered as the moment the United States lost its role as the underwriter of the global economic system.”

 Summers was both right and wrong. The U.S. role as the hegemonic power in international politics and economics indeed is being challenged. But this did not start when Britain and the others decided to sign-up with the AIIB. America has been slowly, almost imperceptibly, losing its grip on global leadership for some time, and the Great Recession merely accelerated that process. China’s successful launch of the AIIB and its OBOR offspring merely accentuates that process.

Not surprisingly, U.S. policymakers and the wider foreign policy establishment brush off any possibility of diminishing U.S. power. Recent books by leading foreign policy analysts (including Josef Joffe, Robert Lieber, and Joseph S. Nye Jr.) assert that U.S. power is robust, and that the 21st  century, like the 20th,  will be an “American century.” Meanwhile, during the Obama administration U.S. foreign policy officials never missed a chance to assert America’s continuing role as a global hegemon (though President Obama’s own views on U.S. primacy seemed more nuanced).  For example, the Obama administration’s 2015  National Security Strategy, a twenty-nine page document, invoked the term “American leadership” more than 100 times.

While President Trump lacks any serious, coherent worldview, there are more than enough Republican members of the foreign policy establishment to ensure that he doesn’t break with America’s post-1945, bipartisan policy of primacy. And Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again’’ certainly puts him in the camp of U.S. global dominance.

But Paul Kennedy was correct when he noted in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers that in the history of the modern international system (since around 1500) no state has managed to remain permanently atop the great power pyramid. “American exceptionalism” notwithstanding, the United States will not be an exception. Pax Americana was the product of a unique post-World War II constellation of power. As scholars such as Kennedy and Gilpin have pointed out, when World War II ended the United States accounted for half of the world’s manufacturing output and controlled some two-thirds of the world’s gold and foreign exchange. Only America could project air and naval power globally. And, of course, the United States alone had atomic weapons. America used its commanding economic, military, and political supremacy to lay the foundations of the post-World War II international order, reflected in such institutions as the United Nations, NATO, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (which has morphed into the World Trade Organization). Additionally, the United States kept the Soviet Union at bay until that artificial regime collapsed of its own weight.

All this represented a remarkable achievement, ensuring relative peace and prosperity for more than half a century. But today China’s AIIB presents a double-barreled challenge to U.S. leadership of the global economy as well as to Pax Americana’s institutional (and ideational) foundations. The AIIB aims at enhancing China’s role both in managing the international economy and in international development. With AIIB China means to demonstrate its seriousness in demanding a share of decision-making power in the Bretton Woods legacy institutions, the IMF and World Bank, reflecting its current economic and financial clout. The AIIB’s impact, however, transcends international economic affairs and reflects the shifting Sino-American balance of power.

Washington said it opposed AIIB because of doubts that it would adhere to the same environmental, governance, lending, transparency, labor, and human rights standards practiced by the IMF, World Bank, and Asian Development Bank. But Treasury’s Lew was more candid when he said that, because of the AIIB, America’s “international credibility and influence are being threatened.” For their part, the Chinese regarded the U.S. stance as an attempt to counter China’s rise and its ambition to become the dominant power in East Asia. As China’s former Vice Minister of Finance, Wei Jianguo, put it, “You could think of this as a basketball game in which the U.S. wants to set the duration of the game, size of the court, the height of the basket and everything else to suit itself.  In fact, the U.S. just wants to exclude China from the game.”

The Obama administration’s ballyhooed Asian pivot was based on the assumption that, although the ASEAN nations of Asia, along with Australia and South Korea, are being pulled into China’s economic orbit, they will turn to the United States as a geopolitical counterweight.  However, Beijing’s ability to get ASEAN, South Korea, and other neighboring states to jump on the AIIB bandwagon suggests this assumption may be erroneous. The pull of Beijing’s economic power may override security concerns and draw these states into China’s geopolitical orbit. The trajectory of ASEAN’s trade flows is revealing. In 1993, the United States accounted for 18 percent of ASEAN’s total trade (imports and exports combined), and China for only 2 percent.  By 2013 the United States’ share of ASEAN’s total trade had shrunk to 8.2  percent while China’s had jumped to 14 percent. The trend lines indicate that in coming years China’s share of regional trade will continue to rise while that of the U.S. will decline.

Thus while OBOR and the AIIB don’t get the same attention from U.S. grand strategists as does China’s military buildup, they are equally important in signaling the ongoing power transition between the United States and China in East Asia. Among American security studies scholars, even those who once firmly believed that unipolarity would last far into the future now grudgingly concede that the era of American hegemony may be drawing to a close. They console themselves, however, with the thought that the United States can cushion itself against future power declines and the loss of hegemony by taking advantage of what they see as a still-open window to “lock in” Pax Americana’s essential features—its institutions, rules, and norms—so that they outlive unipolarity. As Princeton’s G. John Ikenberry puts it, the United States should act today to put in place an institutional framework “that will safeguard our interests in future decades when we will not be a unipolar power.”

Ikenberry argues that China, having risen within the post-1945 international system, has no incentive to overturn it. His argument is superficially attractive because it posits that, even if the material foundations of U.S. dominance wither, its institutional and ideational essence will live on. This almost certainly is incorrect. China’s rise within the post-1945 international order doesn’t mean it has any interest in preserving Pax Americana’s core. On the contrary, the evidence suggests China wants to reshape the international order to reflect its own interests, norms, and values. As Martin Jacques puts it:

The main plan of American soft power is democracy within nation-states; China by way of contrast emphasizes democracy between nation-states—most notably in respect for sovereignty—and democracy in the world system. China’s criticism of the Western-dominated international system and its governing institutions strikes a strong chord with the developing world at a time when these institutions are widely recognized to be unrepresentative and seriously flawed.

Thus the “lock-in” concept isn’t likely to work because China, along with much of the developing world, does not accept the foundations upon which the post-World War II liberal international order rests.

For many American scholars and policy makers the notion of a “liberal, rules-based, international order” has a talismanic quality. They believe that rules and institutions are politically neutral and thus ipso facto beneficial for all. Many proponents of “lock-in” have constructed a geopolitically antiseptic world, one uncontaminated by clashing national interests.  In this world, great power competition and conflict are transcended by rules, norms, and international institutions. The problem is that this misconstrues how the world works. Great power politics is about power. Rules and institutions do not exist in a vacuum. Rather, they reflect the distribution of power in the international system.  In global politics, the rules are made by those who rule.  

As E. H. Carr, the renowned English historian of international politics, once observed, a rules-based international order “cannot be understood independently of the political foundation on which it rests and the political interests which it serves.” The post-World War II international order is an American order that, while preserving world stability for a long time, primarily privileged U.S. and Western interests. Proponents of “lock-in” are saying that China will—indeed, must—agree to be a “responsible stakeholder” (with Washington defining the meaning of “responsibility”) in an international order that it did not construct and that exists primarily to advance the interests of the United States. In plain English, what those who believe in “lock-in” expect is that an increasingly powerful China will continue to accept playing second fiddle to the United States. But Beijing, by all the evidence, does not see it that way. And OBOR and the AIIB prove the point. Instead of living within the geopolitical, economic, and institutional confines imposed by Pax Americana, an increasingly powerful China will seek to revise the international order so that it reflects its own political and economic interests. Thus are  OBOR and the AIIB straws in the wind. And, as the great Bob Dylan said, you don’t need to be a weatherman to know which way the wind is blowing.

Christopher Layne is University Distinguished Professor of International Affairs, and Robert M. Gates Chair in National Security, at Texas A&M University.


44 Comments (Open | Close)

44 Comments To "Is the United States in Decline?"

#1 Comment By ds9 On August 9, 2017 @ 12:30 am

Thank you for a very interesting article. Still, I think there is a large issue not addressed: Isn’t China on the verge of a now unstoppable demographic catastrophe? How do you see that affecting China’s “rise” long term?

#2 Comment By RVA On August 9, 2017 @ 12:34 am

Professor Layne: You left out something very significantly causal re: decline of American power. It is not mysterious or a deeply historic twist of inevitable fate.

Rather, we have spent TRILLIONS in vain military blood and treasure over the past 17 years, with NOTHING to show for it – besides a destabilized region raining the most refugees since WW2 onto our allies, the Europeans (destabilizing THEM as well.)

This failure is not even being addressed, let alone changed. Policymakers responsible apparently have clearance to continue this uselessness indefinitely.

A Chinese sage named Sun Tzu said it best, some 2500 years ago, in The Art of War:

” When you engage in actual fighting, if victory is long in coming, then men’s weapons will grow dull and their ardor will be damped. If you lay siege to a town, you will exhaust your strength.

3. Again, if the campaign is protracted, the resources of the State will not be equal to the strain.

4. Now, when your weapons are dulled, your ardor damped, your strength exhausted and your treasure spent, other chieftains will spring up to take advantage of your extremity. Then no man, however wise, will be able to avert the consequences that must ensue.

5. Thus, though we have heard of stupid haste in war, cleverness has never been seen associated with long delays.

6. There is no instance of a country having benefited from prolonged warfare. ”

No mystery here. America is proving not to be Exceptional enough to survive elite mismanagement.

#3 Comment By Catalan On August 9, 2017 @ 1:02 am

No. The rest of the world is merely catching up. The wealth that the US enjoyed relative to the rest of the world in the decades following WWII was unprecedented, and is probably not a repeatable phenomenon. If we are declining, it is only because we fail to appreciate the multi-latereral nature of our world, and stick our nose where it doesn’t belong.

#4 Comment By hn On August 9, 2017 @ 2:20 am

too long of an article to read.

#5 Comment By Nelson On August 9, 2017 @ 9:14 am

We’re in decline not because of China but because of the decisions we make (or fail to make). We devote too many resources towards wars and asset appreciation (financial bubbles) and not enough into investing in ourselves (education and infrastructure). In the short run, the strong military made us look strong to the world snd ourselves but we never examined whether that was the most judicious use of our resources for the long run.

This is not anything new. Eisenhower spoke of this 50 some odd years ago.

#6 Comment By EliteCommInc. On August 9, 2017 @ 9:33 am

If we are in decline and there are signs that is the case. It is by our doing. Over expanded strategic goals and dismantling the very social structure(s) that maintains, sustains and protects longevity.

The abandonment of national identity by our leadership class. They claim in the national interests, but upon examining their policy agendas, immigration, bailout, lobbying rules, domestic agendas and management, there’s plenty to be concerned about.

#7 Comment By EliteCommInc. On August 9, 2017 @ 9:41 am

” For Britain and the United States, economic expansion resulted in the inexorable expansion of their military power and diplomatic sway. We can expect OBOR to have a similar effect on China. It is a powerful incentive for China to expand its military projection capabilities.”

The trick here is managing the relational dynamics so that whatever mechanisms one uses in maintaining that power don’t backlash to the point of disruptive violence or using sufficient force that such backlash doesn’t occur.

The British/European model model of colonial rule was unsustainable. It might be wise to examine Switzerland, Sweden, Denmark, maybe Germany but comparing these socialist smaller states would be a tricky comparison.

#8 Comment By bkh On August 9, 2017 @ 10:07 am

The idea that the US would maintain its world standing has been laughable for decades. A nation cannot excel when you have a population as narcissistic and willfully ignorant like we have now. The economic downfall is only a symptom of the ever deepening moral failures we find ourselves fighting over and even clinging to. I am no fan of socialism or communism, but what we have created here in America is an out of control monster set to destroy all in its path.

#9 Comment By Kurt Gayle On August 9, 2017 @ 10:22 am

A valuable analysis, Dr. Layne:

“The Obama administration’s ballyhooed Asian pivot was based on the assumption that, although the ASEAN nations of Asia, along with Australia and South Korea, are being pulled into China’s economic orbit, they will turn to the United States as a geopolitical counterweight. However, Beijing’s ability to get ASEAN, South Korea, and other neighboring states to jump on the AIIB bandwagon suggests this assumption may be erroneous. The pull of Beijing’s economic power may override security concerns and draw these states into China’s geopolitical orbit.”

It is in this context — South Korea, Japan, and other south Asian nations being drawn inexorably into China’s geopolitical orbit, thus overturning US post-WW2 hegemony in the region – that current, much-exaggerated US concerns about North Korean nuclear weapons can best be understood.

The US is using North Korea’s nuclear development – undertaken by North Korea as a defensive measure against regime change by the US – as one of a series of pretexts aimed at preserving its ever-diminishing post-WW2 hegemony in Asia.

At some point the US will begin to withdraw the 30,000 US troops stationed in South Korea and the 30,000 US troops stationed in Japan – and will stop conducting military exercises and shows of force near the Chinese border – and will sit down with China, North Korea, South Korea, and Japan and begin the long process of negotiating the gradual, peaceful US acceptance of the new geopolitical reality in east Asia.

#10 Comment By John Gruskos On August 9, 2017 @ 10:28 am

The lesson I took from reading Paul Kennedy was, decline is a choice.

China, India and the Middle East could have competed with early modern Europe if centralized multi-ethnic empires (Manchu, Mughal and Ottoman Empires) hadn’t stifled the energy of those civilizations.

The Spanish could have stayed on top if, beginning in 1559, Philip II, III, and IV hadn’t stubbornly clung to ethnically dissimilar European territories such as the Netherlands, and if they hadn’t wasted their nation’s strength in the wars of the Counter Reformation.

Beginning with the 1670 Treaty of Dover, the French under Louis XIV and XV fell into the same trap, wasting their strength in the service of the Counter Reformation and territorial ambitions in the Netherlands.

The British could have stayed on top if they hadn’t alienated the Americans, wasted their strength on tropical imperialism and balance of power wars, and then surrendered their industrial lead to Germany and America via the dogmatic embrace of free trade.

Germany might have replaced Britain as the new leading power if they had maintained the peace with a simply foreign policy based on a strong alliance with Russia, instead of the Byzantine complexity of Bismark’s diplomacy followed by the belligerent buffoonery of Kaiser Wilhelm.

Prior to the Cold War, Americans did everything right. We grew from a tiny settlement in 1607 to a colossas possessing half (!) the world’s GDP in 1947. We maintained the homogeneity, without stifling the energy, of our people. Most of our wars were fought to obtain sparsely populated temperate zone land for the colonization of our people – not for tropical imperialism, balance of power, or international ideological crusades. Pragmatism, not ideology, guided our economic policy. During the Cold War, we began sacrificing the interests of the American nation to the newfangled ideology of “Americanism”. Tentatively under Truman, and definitively beginning with Kennedy, we undermined the homogeneity of our people with mass immigration from the whole world, undermined our traditional morality with liberal social engineering, became the policeman of the world intent on exporting “Americanism”, and assumed an attitude of lofty contempt for our own trade interests.

The Chinese, on the other hand, chose ascent when they purged The Gang of Four and substituted Chinese ethno-nationalism for feverish Maoism as their guiding principle.

#11 Comment By ScottA On August 9, 2017 @ 10:30 am

It is obvious that we are now in the decline phase of the life cycle of empires. See the British general Sir John Bagot Glubb’s book “The Course of Empire” and other writings.

#12 Comment By Kurt Gayle On August 9, 2017 @ 10:31 am

@ “hn” who said (2:20 a.m.): “too long of an article to read.”

Luv it!

That comment belongs in a time capsule.

#13 Comment By Michael Kenny On August 9, 2017 @ 10:50 am

Blue chip stocks yield to blue chopsticks! Human civilisation is a forward-moving perpetual motion machine. It never stops and it never goes back. There is no “end of history”. There is no point at which human civilisation just stops dead in its tracks and never moves again until the sun implodes in 10 million years and roasts us all. The world has always had its revisionists and reactionaries who want to take their countries back to some real or imagined golden age. If we’re lucky, such people eventually disappear into Trotsky’s famous “dustbin of history”. If we’re not lucky, they start a war, lose it and then disappear into said dustbin, destroying their country in the process and opening up the way for a new dominant power to emerge. Just as Britain dominated the world by 1850 and the US by 1950, China will dominate the world by 2050. I don’t really see what disadvantage there is in that for Americans and for us in Europe, it looks very positive. Machiavelli said that as between two tyrants, always choose the most distant. China is Europe’s distant tyrant. OBOR seems to be very much to Europe’s advantage, displacing American hegemony and undermining US hegemonists’ attempts to use Putin’s Russia as an instrument to keep Europe under their control.

#14 Comment By Dan Green On August 9, 2017 @ 11:24 am

Being a confirmed Realist and having researched Realism what is going on today between ourselves, the Chinese Reds, and Russia is quite understandably. Few share our Democracy model, it is too messy.

#15 Comment By Jon S On August 9, 2017 @ 11:34 am

“the liberal rules-based international order.”

Let’s not be obtuse. This order was put in place by individuals in the USA because it was to their economic benefit to do so. That in no way means that this order benefits all Americans or even a majority. And to the tens of thousands of American soldiers who have died maintaining this order it was to their great detriment.

I personally have no allegiance to “the liberal rules-based international order”. If the Chinese can do better, let them have at it.

The important question is not whether America is in decline. It is whether the American people’s living standards are in decline.

#16 Comment By Gaius Gracchus On August 9, 2017 @ 11:44 am

Empire is not cost effective or beneficial to the general welfare of a country. It only serves to enrich a few, while creating domestic corruption and inequality.

The post-WW2 American empire, allegedly to contain Communism, really didn’t benefit America. And the costs have been enormous.

It did benefit bankers, defense contractors, scoundrels, and the Wall Street Washington cabal centered on the CFR.

We wasted the post Cold War era believing there was an “End to History”. Anyone with decent understanding would have considered that trying for a unipolar moment was a huge mistake and a world with various Great Powers was a more likely outcome.

Unipolar attempts don’t work. Acknowledging the US as the greatest Great Power, among many, is a much better idea than trying to keep the US as the sole Superpower. That isn’t decline but breaking through illusion.

#17 Comment By Michael N Moore On August 9, 2017 @ 12:43 pm

The Soviet Union sustained 20 Million causalities in the Second World War while it moved its factories east to keep them out of German hands. Contrast this with the US imperial elite who simply handed over our industrial base to China. The result is that China’s economy is growing a rate three times that of the United States.

#18 Comment By Adriana I Pena On August 9, 2017 @ 12:49 pm

What goes up must come down
Spinnin’ wheel got to go ’round
Talkin’ ’bout your troubles it’s a cryin’ sin
Ride a painted pony let the spinnin’ wheel spin

#19 Comment By Interguru On August 9, 2017 @ 1:35 pm

This thoughtful article is followed by thoughtful comments. One commenter already mentioned demographics. Due to immigration, America is the only advanced country not facing a population implosion.

Another ace-in-the-whole is geography. We are protected by two oceans with weak friendly neighbors on our land borders.We are blessed with rich resources. This includes rich agricultural land reachable by navigable rivers and mineral wealth.

We have rich political and social institutions that hopefully can survive Trump.

While we are doing our best to squander these they give us a cushion.

#20 Comment By SteveM On August 9, 2017 @ 2:39 pm

The U.S. is in an inevitable decline. The only question is the extent of the economic sabotage and outright wars that the Deep State will instigate to try to forestall the collapse.

Washington will not tolerate a second axis of power arising even if it is strictly economic. Consider how American Elites used subversion to catalyze the coup in Ukraine. They will stop at nothing to sustain U.S. hegemony in the larger global sphere.

Should China, Russia and Europe seek to integrate into a huge, contiguous Eurasian economic marketplace independent of United States hegemonic interference, the Deep State will use all of its military power to prevent it. (Especially ironic since death and destruction are becoming America’s primary exports.)

The current rumblings of American power projection in the South China Sea and Russian borders are a set up for future conflicts. The United States regime deluded by arrogance and stupidity and saturated by the cult of military exceptionalism can’t say no to military coercion and war as its primary foreign policy instrument.

With the Neocon/Neoliberal militarists now running the show, it’s only going to get worse…

#21 Comment By Peter On August 9, 2017 @ 3:56 pm

We are in decline because the decisions we made during and after the cold war.
– we tried to buy goodwill (“allies”) by using the “most favored nation” clause – outsourcing manufacturing jobs, starting at the bottom of the sophistication scale (apparel, appliances…).
And all we have left is defense manufacturing jobs. We have no more jobs to give away to buy goodwill.
– while reducing taxes, we kept increasing defense related spending by borrowing money.
With all the senseless wars, we have a huge debt, not exactly something which gives you clout.
– we wasted brainpower on financial gimmicks which have zero contribution to economic strength.
Such gimmicks might mess up the economy – and we did this, too – for the whole world.
China took the market driven part of communist economy which was viciously stamped out by Stalin – the New Economic Policy (NEP) – and built an economic powerhouse, with money to spend.

#22 Comment By Phillip On August 9, 2017 @ 4:06 pm

The decline of the United States can be directly correlated to the decline in our spiritual fervor and the absence of the fear of God. Falling morals precipitate the fall of the nation. It’s not a question of if at this point, but when. You can argue whatever other factors you wish, but there is a direct correlation between strength of a nation and God throughout human civilization.

#23 Comment By Dan Green On August 9, 2017 @ 4:37 pm

Lots to chew on as they say, but a couple key points from the article. A US President represents how the world view’s we Americans. From all the so called turmoil, with both political parties sent packing, Trump may in fact represent real America. The fantasy the left markets, of a social democratic welfare state is a myth. Next, we have grown up on a diet of our President elect, being Commander in Chief, of the worlds most powerful military. So I ask, did Bill Clinton or Barack Obama seem to Americans, like a commander in chief. Bush wasn’t capable of responding to 9-11, he tried and failed. Last Commander in Chief we had in our image was Ronald Reagan. Any wonder our enemies are making hay while the sunshines. So now we have two very very admirable foes. China and Russia neither with western values. How we now fit is up in the air. Getting Trump impeached or forced to resign replaced with whoever won’t change millions of Americans.

#24 Comment By EliteCommInc. On August 9, 2017 @ 5:28 pm

I would take exception to some of these comments about inevitable decline. The word decline suggests to some end. That is very different than retraction or change.

When one examines China, Russia, Europe, these nations have been in play as states for 1500 years. And despite periods of retraction have maintained some semblance of their origins, more than some. Their cores remain intact as to culture and practice despite differing polities What is key for the US is her youth. We are unable to match the strategic long term strategies as the states mentions because we have not been around long enough to seal our core existence as a nation.

Mistaking youthful exuberance for wisdom of age is where we are. There is no mistaking that the US can remain a major player in world events and we should. But that process need not be at the expense of who we are are becoming or in lieu of it.

I will have to dig out my Zsun Tsu. It is easy to apply those admonitions out of their intended context. Because so many different environmental war scenarios are addressed. For example, Asia plays the long game. They are not thinking merely about this century, this decade, this year, month . . . but the next century. Hence the idea of long war. Consider how long they have been on the Continent of Africa.

They are in a sense just waiting everyone else out. Iraq, blood in the water. Afghanistan, blood in the water. They are not the least troubled that we are embroiled in the ME.

The size of our debt is troubling and the size of how much of that debt is owned by other states is disturbing. China, some ten years ago, indicated that they are seeking a way around the power of the dollar.

I am fully confident that we can survive the rise of any nation on earth. I believe we are special unique, and endowed with an energy, ingenuity, vibrancy and psyche today’s world. But we are so inundated with a kind of can’t do — must accept attitude in social polity that undermines sense of self. and that is where I think the force of a Pres Trump is helpful, reinvigorating.

Conserving a sense of self, identity is mandatory for survival.

And while I have opposed out latest military interventions as unnecessary, if we decide to make war — we had better do it to the full and be done with. This is more in line with what I think Tzun Tzu — destabilize the opponents psychology.

Here the importation of Doaist, Hindu, and other existentialist philosophies are upending western thought. The humanities are tearing asunder our social and psychological meaning of self. Whether it is soulmates, no anchored truth or reality or the notion of that human sexuality is malleable and no right no wrong save as to individual minding and social circumstance . . . the system of concreteness is being chiseled to nothingness.

And it shows. Europe remains a cautionary tale.

#25 Comment By EliteCommInc. On August 9, 2017 @ 5:36 pm

“Such gimmicks might mess up the economy – and we did this, too – for the whole world.”

Actually we did something else, we embraced the world’s standards – Basel I and Basel II. Which are major contributors to our economic system. When Pres Nixon pressed to go off the gold standard . . . huge error.

Last week one of the toughest hurdles was to avoid getting into that ambulance I knew the minute I did, I would be entering a system bent on bending me to its will.

Before we go about making the world — we need a clear and clean sense of self and resist change, regardless of the pressure by friend or foe.

#26 Comment By EliteCommInc. On August 9, 2017 @ 5:42 pm

” The United States filled this role for half a century, from 1945 until the Great Recession. The world’s economic hegemon must provide public goods that benefit the international system as a whole, including: making the rules for the international economic order; opening its domestic market to other states’ exports; supplying liquidity to the global economy; and providing a reserve currency.”

Uhh you are playing fast and loose here with one overarching reality — there really was no one else left who could do so. And that lasted a good while. As those regions recovered, we continued to provide without ever adjusting to the their own ability to provide. Prime example, our presence in Europe, I would be interested in the ROI of defending the Europeans even as they make war on others or encourage conflicts they themselves ave no intention of supporting, but are more than happy that the US do so.

#27 Comment By SteveK9 On August 9, 2017 @ 7:31 pm

Paradoxically the acceleration in the decline began with the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Incredible hubris followed, and we are reaping the usual results.

#28 Comment By philadelphialawyer On August 9, 2017 @ 8:53 pm

I think just the opposite. OBOR, AIIB and the Shanghai Group show China playing precisely by the rules of the international, rules-based liberal order set up by the Western powers generally over the last few centuries and particularly by the USA after WWII. China actually follows the international rules. It hasn’t invaded anyone since 1979. How many wars not authorized by the UNSC, and generally either dubious or flat out in violation of international law, has the US engaged in since that date? China does not interfere in the internal affairs of other nations. As the article states, China follows the rules of Westphalian sovereignty. But it also follows the rules of international law. China does not abuse its veto power in the UNSC, the way the Western powers, particularly the USA, does. China is not looking to impose its way of life on other countries. And its international initiatives, including the international organizations it has created and sponsored, are all about trade, tourism, and co operation and development, as opposed to the USA’s, which are all about domination, ever expanding “defensive” military alliances, military bases everywhere, demeaning and degrading, not to mention hypocritical, “human rights report cards,” endless “sanctions” and “embargoes” on everyone who does not do its bidding, covering up for the sins of its aggressive, horrible client states, particularly Israel and the KSA, handing out cookies to coupsters in the process of overthrowing legitimate, and even democratically elected, governments, and generally sticking its nose into the elections of other countries, and now, with Trump, threatening to upset the apple cart when it comes to international trade and tourism and cultural exchange.

The USA is the rogue state, in regard to the very international order that it played a huge role in establishing. The USA can’t even seem to go through an Olympic Games without making a fuss about something or another.

“Rules and institutions do not exist in a vacuum. Rather, they reflect the distribution of power in the international system. In global politics, the rules are made by those who rule…international politics ‘cannot be understood independently of the political foundation on which it rests and the political interests which it serves.’ The post-World War II international order is an American order that, while preserving world stability for a long time, primarily privileged U.S. and Western interests. Proponents of ‘lock-in’ are saying that China will—indeed, must—agree to be a ‘responsible stakeholder’ (with Washington defining the meaning of ‘responsibility’) in an international order that it did not construct and that exists primarily to advance the interests of the United States. In plain English, what those who believe in ‘lock-in’ expect is that an increasingly powerful China will continue to accept playing second fiddle to the United States. But Beijing, by all the evidence, does not see it that way. And OBOR and the AIIB prove the point. Instead of living within the geopolitical, economic, and institutional confines imposed by Pax Americana, an increasingly powerful China will seek to revise the international order so that it reflects its own political and economic interests. Thus are OBOR and the AIIB straws in the wind. And, as the great Bob Dylan said, you don’t need to be a weatherman to know which way the wind is blowing.”

Of course the distribution of power matters. But China is using its power within the liberal, rules-based framework established by the West. It actually already behaves in a “responsible” manner. It didn’t invade Hong Kong or Macao, rather it made deals with the declining colonial powers which controlled them. It doesn’t invade Taiwan. Rather it uses diplomacy to slowly advance its cause with respect to “One China.” It uses its economic clout to develop trading partners, not to try to bully them into political submission, a la the USA. It is patient with regard to North Korea. It is patient with regard to US sabre rattling and blustering right at its borders. It is patient and rule-abiding in just about everything. Its organization are bypassing the USA. Not confronting it. If China eventually eclipses the USA, it will be because China has beaten it at its own game.

#29 Comment By Sam Bufalini On August 9, 2017 @ 9:26 pm

Last Commander in Chief we had in our image was Ronald Reagan.
Yeah, that invasion of Grenada was huge!

#30 Comment By Dale McNamee On August 9, 2017 @ 10:51 pm

Our moral decline leads to the other decline mentioned in the article…

There’s a statement that says :”America is great because she is good… But, she will cease to be great because she ceased to be good”…

We’ve been in decline since the ’60’s and are coming to our “bottom” ( and end ) ever more quickly…

#31 Comment By Interguru On August 9, 2017 @ 11:13 pm

“The decline of the United States can be directly correlated to the decline in our spiritual fervor and the absence of the fear of God. ” @Phillip

Does China have a fear of God?

#32 Comment By Misstique On August 9, 2017 @ 11:37 pm

Sort of a silly question isn’t it?

#33 Comment By Student On August 10, 2017 @ 9:40 am

One thing not mentioned in the article is
how we lost our technological lead. This in
large part due to our H1B program, which is a
conveyor belt to transfer tech and organizational knowhow abroad. Most R&D
operations seem to be staffed largely by guest workers from China and India. Yes, there is a saving on salaries, leading to profits. But in addition to the knowledge transfer, there is the discouragement to US natives from entering tech fields.

#34 Comment By cdugga On August 10, 2017 @ 1:30 pm

I would mellow the harsh of the lawyer above, but cannot really disagree with the factual gist. It is getting close enough to the friday funnies to answer, is the US is in decline?, with the fact that a large part of our democracy thinks they need a flim-flam man to make them great. Commentary suggesting moral decline is probably true but I believe points in the wrong directions. Like, even blaming the election of the don, not on those strident self righteous evangelicals that elected him, but on the queer transgender black mexican muslims not representative of western christian civilization, is telling on who the responsible really are. The church is in decline from within because it invited politics in to help bolster its weak faith dependent on denial of science. We have a whole political party documented as worshiping a free market deity which they have convinced us is the true god. So, I would mostly agree with the lawyer. Most of our decline has not come from without, or from those clever orientals not playing by the rules. Our decline comes from irresponsibility towards learning. Our mantra really has become, no regrets.
The world passes on by the wantonly ignorant, and we cannot really complain about the direction it is heading when our participation seems to revolve around projection of power and is invested in the merchants of death to maintain the status quo of established wealth and power. Look at our working class, fooled into believing a tiny raise or tiny tax cut benefits them in some way when they live on the margin. Any graph showing increased economic benefit plainly shows that a tiny percentage increase in income, or tiny decrease in taxation benefits the uber-wealthy sponsoring our government and our legislation. As Jon S above stated, a measure of our decline would be the measure of our quality of life. I would add the caveat that perceived quality of life can be manipulated, and is subject to cognitive dissonance. And who can argue that thousands of chinese and indians are coming here to buy up our land and resources, and enjoy their investment in science, education, and responsibility for a new future in our relatively unspoiled country. What political party wants to sell that off too? They are the same ones that pray at the alter of the free market and smile in agreement when we cry that abortion is abominable. I strongly disagree with the defeatist attitude of how we cannot really be expected to remain on top. It sounds too much like an excuse for cashing in on our race downhill.

#35 Comment By Luther Grove On August 10, 2017 @ 3:09 pm

Of course the U. S. is in decline, just look at a few datum points:
1. Education – our public education system went from the best in the world to near the bottom of the industrialized world in a single generation. The public school system and our colleges and universities no longer teach students to think; emotional urges and feelings drive decision making and attitudes. Thinking has become a lost art.
2. Workforce – 94.5 M Americans not in the workforce who are not eligible to retire (people just don’t want to work)
3. Industrial production – jobs and production gone overseas.
4. Social upheaval – same sex marriage issues, transgender confusion, drug abuse, intolerance of different viewpoints and curtailment of free speech on college/university campuses, name calling, and spike in violent crime in EVERY major city.
5. Race relations – our first-ever black president, instead of using his influence to heal old wounds, used his rhetoric to exacerbate racial hatred and division.

#36 Comment By Greg Settles On August 10, 2017 @ 7:01 pm

“there will never be a time that we are not the most powerful nation in the world”
– Donald Trump, August 9, 2017

I daresay, so also said the Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Mongols, Spanish, French, Ottomans, British, and Soviets.

“He who sits in the heavens laughs;
the Lord holds them in derision.” Psalm 2:4

“He changes times and seasons;
He removes kings and sets up kings” Daniel 2:21a

#37 Comment By Bob On August 11, 2017 @ 12:34 am

my compliments on a brilliant piece of analysis.

#38 Comment By Chad R On August 11, 2017 @ 4:14 am

“Does China have a fear of God?”

Interguru, it just might:


#39 Comment By Some Fine Day On August 11, 2017 @ 2:22 pm

One obvious culprit is mass immigration. It has incurred a terrible cost in social cohesion, intellectual quality and rigor, the moral strength that comes from shared belief.

Plenty more, to be sure.

#40 Comment By EliteCommInc. On August 13, 2017 @ 4:34 pm

“Of course the distribution of power matters. But China is using its power within the liberal, rules-based framework established by the West.”

I think the obvious challenge to this is the UNCLOS ruling and China’s response. No China is not abiding by western rules of play. She is challenging those rules when they are not in her favor. I appreciate China, and think it was wise to include her into the real world, but make no mistake.

Her admonition that,

“That Asia is for Asians,”

should be taken seriously. She has her own rules and her own agenda and no nation on her borders takes that lightly. There’s a reason Vietnam wants back in the action. There’s a reason why her neighbors are nervous.

#41 Comment By Arterisco On August 14, 2017 @ 11:11 am

Trade ties between powerful countries have become an overpowering beast, along with international finance and big internet firms. And the challenge of these unstoppable tides is what subverts traditional Nation States, such as the America itself.

#42 Comment By Dan Green On August 19, 2017 @ 10:28 am

Seems obvious the final curtain has come down on post WW 2, with no plan where we had intended to go from here. My beef is our foreign policy, is like constantly moving goal post. Many international US controlled world bodies, created post WW 2 are no longer effective , but again no effort to replace. The Brits had to pass us the banner we have no such provision of a partner.

#43 Comment By nonofurbiz On November 22, 2017 @ 7:25 pm

so the answer is yes?

#44 Comment By Positive On January 6, 2018 @ 9:54 pm

I have read some of Christopher Layne’s articles especially about NATO.
He sounds more like an extended mouth of moscow than an actual American patriot or an expert in anything. He is very negative and all his articles are critical of US foreign policy if that policy is against Russian interests (especially in the Balkans).
Safe to say, that Christopher Layne’s opinion should be looked skeptically at best or just disregarded.