At least a good half of the students I teach believe that the US is a declining power. I have warned them that when I was young, people were already predicting the demise of the US and the rise of Japan.
The US economy was in crisis, the Vietnam War had left it deeply wounded, Iran had humiliated US president Jimmy Carter in unprecedented ways, and the military of the former Soviet Union was thought to be stronger than that of the US. US decline was irreversible, people said. Nothing could be done against Asian workers, and Asian management methods were better than Western ones. This was the time when a book called The Japan that Can Say No was published.
All this talk looks ludicrous now, as it should have done from the beginning. While US weaknesses can be seen, those of others are often hidden from view.
I tell my students that one of my mentors, the late Jesuit Father Maurice Martin, used to say that by the end of the 1970s like it or not the US had become the most powerful, the most inventive, and the most dynamic nation the world had ever seen. Its universities were the best in the world for one thing, acting like giant octopuses to draw in all the talent of the planet and then knowing how to ensure its loyalty.
There was also no match for the US media, with the world’s elites depending on it for information. Do you think the Soviet army is stronger than that of the US, Martin used to ask. Perhaps it is now, he would say, but this will surely change as the USSR will not be able to cope with the coming technological revolution. Most US statesmen are incompetent, or at least are doing a terrible job, he said. But this does not matter. The country is so powerful that it can afford to be ruled by donkeys.
A friend, one of the best political analysts in the world, said to me in 2005 when people were beginning to realise that the US-led invasion of Iraq had been one of the biggest mistakes ever made in US foreign policy that “the problem with the Americans is that they are so powerful that they can afford to bungle things. If an experiment does not work, they can try something else. They do not have a sense of danger. Other countries cannot afford to commit such mistakes, which for them would be suicidal.”
Some weeks ago I wrote an article wondering whether a quarter of a century of mediocre US presidents – Bill Clinton, George W Bush and Barack Obama, though the first was much better than the other two and the advent of Donald Trump may force a rehabilitation of Bush and Obama – could prove Martin wrong.
This led to another question: Perhaps the reversal of US fortunes during the 1980s was at least partly the result of the smart policies implemented by Carter (who lost the presidency before even registering the results), Ronald Reagan and George Bush senior (who also lost the presidency before reaping its fruits). These men strengthened the US military, used the US alliance with China to weaken Japan, maximised the advantages of the US technological edge over other countries, and used its monetary policy to kill off the former Soviet Union.
The US has major structural advantages regardless of what its leaders are doing. While preparing this series of articles, I read two others. The first was written by Jacques de la Rosière, a former head of the IMF and a former governor of the French Central Bank, and was published by the influential French journal Commentaire in summer 2005. The second was written by the German analyst Josef Joffe and published by the US journal Foreign Affairs in its September/October 2009 issue.
Of course, one should also quote other writers, including the brilliant and controversial Nicolas Baverez, who has written extensively on the decline of France, the late French philosopher Julien Freund, author of a masterpiece entitled La Décadence, and the US academic Allan Bloom’s polemic The Closing of the American Mind, even if their focus greatly differs.
Like my article, Joffe’s starts by noting that the thesis of American decline is periodically popular. It is always proven wrong, but it never dies. It is put about by Americans who are unhappy with the state of the Union and by America-bashers addicted to wishful thinking.
Joffe is especially severe on the UK academic Paul Kennedy’s notion of “imperial overreach” in his book The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers as somehow explaining America’s decline, but he does not discuss it as he thinks it has in any case already been refuted by history. I would add something else: Maybe Kennedy was right in his book, but he said nothing about when the decline started or how long it would last. A decline that allows you to remain on top for 70 years or more is not the same as one that leads to a sudden collapse.
I am not sure that all the proponents of the decline thesis are as misguided as Joffe implies, however, as some versions of it deserve more serious debate. This is true of the discussion of the issue by the French commentator Emmanuel Todd, for example, even if the message as a whole is déjà-vu.
Joffe’s argument is centred around the theme that America is in a league of its own. You can define the criteria of power as you wish, preferring smart power to hard power, economic clout to military prowess, or the other way round, or imagining that the media is more or less relevant to the debate. But the fact remains, he says, that America is on top, and that no other country has a reasonable prospect of matching it in the foreseeable future.
The gap between the US and other countries is unprecedented in world history, and it is a total one, he says. America is never in second position.
For Joffe, the statistics used to say the contrary miss certain crucial facts. I often find his arguments convincing, though on the economic issues I am not in a position to assess what he has to say. But the general meaning is clear: Neither the European Union nor China is in a position to compete with the US.
Many of the points Joffe makes are well-known, stressing the incomparable power of the US media and universities, while many of the others are interesting. China and Europe are ageing societies, he says, whereas the US has its own demographic dynamic, knows how to rely on immigration, and is able to integrate new immigrants into society. The US is today the youngest of the great powers, and it is only outstripped in this regard by India.
A further instalment on this theme follows.
The writer is a professor of international relations at the Collège de France and a visiting professor at Cairo University.