The decline and fall of America’s decline and fall
Harvard professor Joseph Nye
October 7th, 2011
02:00 PM ET

The decline and fall of America’s decline and fall

Editor's Note: Joseph S. Nye, Jr, a former US assistant secretary of defense, is a professor at Harvard and the author of The Future of PowerFor more from Nye, visit Project Syndicate or follow it on Facebook and Twitter.

By Joseph S. Nye, Project Syndicate

The United States is going through difficult times. Its post-2008 recovery has slowed, and some observers fear that Europe’s financial problems could tip the American and world economy into a second recession.

American politics, moreover, remains gridlocked over budgetary issues, and compromise will be even more difficult on the eve of the 2012 election, when Republicans hope that economic problems will help them unseat President Barack Obama. In these circumstances, many are predicting America’s decline, especially relative to China.

And it’s not just pundits who think so. A recent Pew poll found that in 15 of 22 countries surveyed, most people believe that China either will replace or has replaced America as “the world’s leading superpower.” In Britain, those putting China on top rose to 47%, from 34% in 2009. Similar trends are evident in Germany, Spain, and France. Indeed, the poll found more pessimistic views of the US among our oldest and closest allies than in Latin America, Japan, Turkey, and Eastern Europe. But even Americans are divided equally about whether China will replace the US as a global superpower.

Such sentiments reflect the slow growth and fiscal problems that followed the 2008 financial crisis, but they are not historically unprecedented. Americans have a long history of incorrectly estimating their power. In the 1950’s and 1960’s, after Sputnik, many thought that the Soviets might get the better of America; in the 1980’s, it was the Japanese. Now it is the Chinese. But, with America’s debt on a path to equaling its national income in a decade, and a fumbling political system that cannot seem to address the country’s fundamental challenges, are the “declinists” finally right?

Much will depend on the uncertainties – often underestimated – brought about by future political change in China. Economic growth will bring China closer to the U.S. in power resources, but that doesn't necessarily mean that China will surpass the U.S. as the most powerful country.

China’s GDP will almost certainly surpass that of the U.S. within a decade, owing to the size of its population and its impressive economic-growth rate. But, measured by per capita income, China will not equal the U.S. for decades, if then.

Moreover, even if China suffers no major domestic political setback, many current projections are based simply on GDP growth. They ignore U.S. military and soft-power advantages, as well as China’s geopolitical disadvantages. As Japan, India, and others try to balance Chinese power, they welcome an American presence. It is as if Mexico and Canada sought a Chinese alliance to balance the U.S. in North America.

As for absolute decline, the U.S. has very real problems, but the American economy remains highly productive. America remains first in total R&D expenditure, first in university rankings, first in Nobel prizes, and first on indices of entrepreneurship. According to the World Economic Forum, which released its annual report on economic competitiveness last month, the US is the fifth most competitive economy in the world (behind the small economies of Switzerland, Sweden, Finland, and Singapore). China ranks only 26th.

Moreover, the U.S. remains at the forefront of such cutting-edge technologies as biotech and nanotechnology. This is hardly a picture of absolute economic decline.

Some observers worry that American society will become sclerotic, like Britain at the peak of its power a century ago. But American culture is far more entrepreneurial and decentralized than was that of Britain, where industrialists’ sons sought aristocratic titles and honors in London. And despite recurrent bouts of concern throughout its history, America reaps huge benefits from immigration. In 2005, foreign-born immigrants had participated in 25% of technology start-ups in the previous decade. As Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew once told me, China can draw on a talent pool of 1.3 billion people, but the U.S. can draw on the world’s seven billion, and can recombine them in a diverse culture that enhances creativity in a way that ethnic Han nationalism cannot.

Many commentators worry about America’s inefficient political system. True, America’s founding fathers created a system of checks and balances designed to preserve liberty at the price of efficiency. Moreover, the U.S. is now experiencing a period of intense partisan polarization. But nasty politics is nothing new to the U.S.: its founding era was hardly an idyll of dispassionate deliberation. American government and politics have always experienced such episodes, and, though overshadowed by current melodramas, they were sometimes worse than today’s.

The U.S. faces serious problems: public debt, weak secondary education, and political gridlock, to name just a few. But one should remember that these problems are only part of the picture – and, in principle, they can be solved over the long term.

It is important to distinguish such problems from those that cannot, in principle, be solved. Of course, whether America can implement the available solutions is uncertain; several commissions have proposed feasible plans to change America’s debt trajectory by raising taxes and cutting expenditures, but feasibility is no guarantee that they will be adopted. Still, Lee Kuan Yew is probably right to say that China “will give the U.S. a run for its money,” but not surpass it in overall power in the first half of this century.

If so, the gloomy predictions of absolute American decline will turn out to be as misleading as similar predictions in decades past. And, in relative terms, while the “rise of the rest” means that America will be less dominant than it once was, this does not mean that China will necessarily replace the U.S. as the world’s leading power.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Joseph Nye. Copyright:Project Syndicate, 2011.

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Topics: China • United States

soundoff (27 Responses)
  1. Onesmallvoice

    Judging by all the current trends, America's future does appear to be quite bleak indeed. First of all, the 2012 elections appear to be a true no-winner, the two candidates being Barack Obama and most likely Mitt Romney who wants to throw even more money needlessly into the military. So either candidate will take this country into further decline which will if not already, be irreversable!!!

    October 7, 2011 at 7:51 pm | Reply
    • Serge Prévost

      Never discount the resilience of the USA. MR. G. under Bush traded a manufacturing base for a service base economy your grand architect Greenspan made an utmost mistake probably not totally of his fault. China appears now to be your banker, the USA will have to learn the hard lesson of being humble, just like a Canadian but again never beat against the USA.

      October 10, 2011 at 2:14 pm | Reply
  2. Rz

    Because the foundation is faulty, the structure built upon it is cracking, crumbling, and caving in on itself. So implementing any further solutions based on the same principles and ideology would fall under Einstein's definition of insanity. But the powers to be cannot face the facts because the real solutions (a) do not fit in with the current science of politics, (b) would be laughed down legally by any opposition, and (c) would be of greater benefit to the general population versus mostly the aristocracy. So, the only way out is to keep yourself as best as you can, let the chips fall where they may, but do EVERYTHING IN YOUR POWER to prevent the escalation and instigation of WWIII by our insane world leaders.

    October 7, 2011 at 10:20 pm | Reply
  3. j. von hettlingen

    Rise and fall – each dog has its day!

    October 8, 2011 at 5:08 am | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      America should concentrate on doing its homework.

      October 8, 2011 at 8:57 am | Reply
  4. blaine

    it would probably be better for a lot of the world if the united states did topple. American militarism and adventurism has spilled a lot of blood in this world; it will be interesting to see how adventurous the excited states will be when it no longer has hegemonic status. That said, I still believe – sadly – that the excited states will pull through because China and India have profound problems of their own. maybe the best we can hope for is not a total american collapse but a multipolar world

    October 8, 2011 at 7:50 am | Reply
    • Rz

      But keep in mind that a proven remedy for collapse has been war. And even using war as an inoculation should come as no surprise to any of us (in fact there are many who strongly believe it is occurring right now). Every collapse or restructuring should be designed and controlled from beginning to end much like the demolition and replacement of an aging high-rise building. Otherwise, the results could be unthinkable. And having said this, it is impossible to believe that our governments/leaders are the least bit ignorant of the situation and are not already in complete care and control. So where will it leave everyone? Well that will depend on who you are and what you do.

      October 8, 2011 at 11:25 am | Reply
    • Non

      Compared to any other superpower in history, the US has "spilt" far less blood. The US is expected to nation build whenever it invades, and has faced (and allowed) far more criticism and demonizing than previous superpowers. I also think it will be good for the world if the US takes a step back, because for most humans, they require an alternative to what they've got to understand how bad life can be. The USSR provided this previously, and so will China - try "protesting" chinese aggression in the future and see what happens.

      October 9, 2011 at 12:33 pm | Reply
    • tiki

      I think the multipolar world is the best outcome which is why this doesn't scare me at all... people are talking about sharing the stage not getting off it

      October 11, 2011 at 12:07 pm | Reply
    • vokoyo

      當我們看中國的外交,卻發現她很多時會在違背自身價值觀和利益的情況下,向各國妥協。可見中國外交的失敗。

      中共所實行的睦鄰政策,可說是徹底的失敗。中共現在的領導人奉行鄧小平那套所謂的「韜光養晦」政策。但其實,這只是一種逃避挑戰的鴕鳥政策。當今中國所面臨的惡劣國際環境,則決定了這種鴕鳥政策必然失敗。

      在這種鴕鳥政策主導下,中國外交不僅畏首畏尾,更胸無大志,既沒有系統的外交戰略,也沒有長遠的外交目標。

      這種頭痛醫頭、腳痛醫腳式的外交政策,直接導致中國外交在面對各種挑釁時束手無策,盡顯軟弱之態,面對大好機遇時,也因毫無戰略準備而無所作為。

      對朝鮮對印度對日本甚至是越南,中國都是畏首畏尾,一昧退讓,實行韜光養晦。本來,鄧小平的韜光養晦,是指平時積蓄力量,關鍵時刻果斷出手,是一種積極進取的外交思維。但現在,卻成了一種鴕鳥政策,令人無奈。

      其實,按照中國現在的實力,根本不用如此讓步,中共對東南亞國家,對日本,甚至是越南朝鮮,都讓得太多。完全顯示不到大國風範,畏首畏尾的外交政策,只會令中國人蒙羞!

      至於對印度和越南的外交處理手法,中共簡直令人覺得恥辱。情況就好像當年清政府打贏法國,但仍然賠償法國一樣。令人覺得是絕大的恥辱。

      中國在和日本,越南,俄羅斯,印度等列或者周遍強國的政治經濟往來中,沒有佔到多少便宜,也沒有讓這些列強放棄對中國崛起的偏見和敵視,自身利益不斷被侵占,不能不說中國的外交政策有很大缺陷,這是中國國家佈局計劃和外交政策慘敗的最佳體現。

      中國常常想成為一等一的大國,但他的外交卻事事以懦弱的方式勉強了事,實在不能給人任何強國的風範。

      October 25, 2011 at 9:07 am | Reply
  5. joseelr

    Keep believing it...

    October 8, 2011 at 11:35 am | Reply
  6. sarahsmith232

    over the last couple of decades every time you look back whatever predictions have been made have always been out by a mile.
    this J.Nye was going on about America remaining the worlds biggest and only superpower in the 90s 'cause of American movies and pop culture, it's soft power. maybe it was very different in the 90s but check the Middle East and North Africa and that would very much be including Isreal. what is it that you see there? these are parts of the world that are emulating Europe. you go to Israel and you immediately feel like you're in Europe. they describe themselves as being very Europeanised. a very Europeanised Israeli is what is seen as a the affluent and sophist sections of Israeli society, this is their words. Arabs are exactly the same. they're also culturally very 'Europeanised'. there's nothing culturally American in any of these societies. so either this was a person that was out by a mile in the 90s or the ME and N.Africa has moved so far away during the last ten yrs from what he saw then that it is now unrecogisable from any kind of being influenced by so called Ameican soft power.
    society moves at a rapid, fair old clip. whatever it is he's going on about now will prob be utter claptrap 10 yrs from now. for all he knows Eastern Europe will be the part of the world pulling in the 'best and the brightest'. and if you've ever been to E.Europe you will known that that's very far from a laughable statement.
    etc, etc, etc.
    he can't predict the future. no one can. with his track record i really wouldn't take anything he says as wrote.

    October 9, 2011 at 8:57 am | Reply
    • Non

      Sarah, you're kidding yourself if you don't believe that the European culture which you mention hasn't been insanely altered by American culture. Just look at the technology "european culture" uses and see where it was made.

      October 9, 2011 at 12:36 pm | Reply
      • sue-helen

        Yes Non. Unfortunately american culture has a very negative influence all over the world. It would be a blessing if americans kept their "culture" to themselves and while they're at it, took the time to learn about some other true cultures.

        October 10, 2011 at 4:09 pm |
    • papajazzman

      Joseph Nye vastly overestimates American soft power. What he doesn't realize that in the 21st Century, the "soft power" battle will be won by whoever creates the most economic opportunities, simple and short.

      If you take a trip to regions as diverse as South East Asia, Latin America and Africa, China is already creating the most economic opportunities.

      America is increasingly seen as being distant and paranoid. A young African might love America, American movies and MTV in his teens and early twenties. But when he realises (after spending five years of his life fighting to get into America), that America really doesn't welcome his kind, he will turn his attention to Dubai, India and China. He immediately learns that he has a better economic future if he is engaged in business with the East.

      As this trend continues, America becomes less real and more abstract in the eyes of youth all over the World. It doesn't help that America barely makes an effort to sell itself to the rest of the World. In an age of Al Jazeera, the US is yet to come to terms with the need for public diplomacy.

      October 9, 2011 at 2:49 pm | Reply
  7. T40g

    Author is naively optimistic. For instance, household incomes dropped 10% over last 4 years – with most of the loss coming in last 2 years. For instance, California had China fix bridges over oakland bay that we built, because we can no longer do it. And finally, in the past we'd never outsourced our mfg. So you cannot compare this to previous crises – this one is different – and this one is the big one.

    October 10, 2011 at 4:32 pm | Reply
  8. elenore

    Who cares if China surpasses America in Global Power?Who really cares? As an American under 40 shouldn't we be worried more about our homeland,our children,our culture,our own nation,our own culture,our own citizens.America was never meant to be a long term world leader,America was stuck in leader position while Europe,Asia,and Africa got their crap together.

    October 10, 2011 at 11:10 pm | Reply
  9. mark o. david

    Am I missing some thing?I do not recognize any aspect of american life I would refer to as culture unless you call predatory capitalism culture.

    October 10, 2011 at 11:24 pm | Reply
  10. Justin

    I humbly request everyone here who hates the U.S. to move out of it. Please. Why continue to be unhappy in the country you live? Stop playing the victim and move to one of the BRIC nations that has "so much more economic opportunity."

    October 11, 2011 at 9:37 am | Reply
  11. Optimist

    The author is right, but does not know how much. First, the US is in a bind because the old guard (baby boomers) has refused to give up control and assume the advisory, rather than leadership, role that is their destiny. Secondly, China, having enjoyed beginner's luck, is heading for an enormous existential crisis involving the potential loss of Tibet (and forget Taiwan). Furthermore, the West is headed for a mini renaissance of creativity and productivity, although rebuilding economic confidence will take a while.

    October 11, 2011 at 6:30 pm | Reply
    • That'snotTrue:[

      Where's your proof about China, the US is involving in way more external "affairs"!!!
      Are you one of those people that pray for other country's doom every single day? You sound like it.

      October 11, 2011 at 7:13 pm | Reply
  12. R SEN

    The dose of motivation is probably sensible for American nationals at this juncture and not illogical.But the prediction on the revival of American supremacy based earlier histories may not collect support unless the result oriented jolted action from the Govt right at this moment,especially in the financial front, is in distinctly in made visible. The real need for Americans at this moment is not the deliberation on the strength or weakness of China or any other country for that very purpose but the same for unification within the administration for consensus decision on crucial issues and implementing them with the the shortest possible period, may be in unconventional way, if required.This will not only raise the level of confidence within themselves but also regain the confidence of the people in the process.

    October 12, 2011 at 8:26 am | Reply
    • Mike Houston

      Can you restate that in something that resembles coherent English? It looks like you may have some good points
      to make but, as written, it is barely comprehensible. In fact it comes off as gibberish...

      October 12, 2011 at 2:50 pm | Reply
  13. Garis

    And how, pray tell, does Joseph Nye expect the US (as a practical matter, not with feel-good rhetoric) to rebuild it's economy, when it's been made bare over the past four decades? The US recovered before because we had a lot of oil and, well, we don't anymore. On top of that, we've allowed corrupt bankers and health insurers to create a rip-off economy that ensures Americans stay stuck in debt (tough to stimulate an economy that way), foolishly allowed the top -0.1% to evade taxes and grab 50% of the wealth (can't be a superpower when half your population is impoverished!), foolishly outsourced our manufacturing and tech jobs to India, foolishly allowed rich companies and lobbyists to buy our politicians and guarantee corruption, foolishly encouraged a political system that involves more food-fights than getting things done, then lost still more trillions of dollars on wars and whatever else.

    Again, Mr. Nye, how in practice do you propose that the US would stay as the top world power and bring our economy back from the brink? Your article gives no answers because there aren't any. The US is declining out of it's own blundering and inability to reform out of the feudal-ish stupidity that now governs on economy. So yes, we are declining, and that'll be a good thing. How good China will be in our place is an open question, but at least they tend to keep to themselves and not go blustering around spreading their economic idiocy everywhere else. The heart of the EU is also a superpower (minus blunderers like Greece and the UK, which'll probably be kicked out soon enough), that's maybe the best prospect for a more responsible superpower as ours hits the fan.

    October 14, 2011 at 12:32 am | Reply
    • Me

      Eh. Wrong.

      October 15, 2011 at 1:12 am | Reply
      • Dagonus

        "Eh, wrong."

        Dunno, that comment looked pretty on-spot to me, which is maybe why you didn't address one single point in it. Or maybe you're just another of the idiots who's in denial about the corruption currently crumbling the US into a 3rd-world nation. To add to what people have said above, the costs of health care in the US have become so high that US firms are moving their operations to other countries, esp to Europe, where health care is single-payor and thus far better for businesses. All this on top of students who finish college with $200,000 in loans, and the future for the US ain't looking too bright unless our politicians grow a spine quickly and fix these problems. In any case the prospect of the US playing superpower much longer is pure fantasyland, it's hard to project power abroad when your structure is crumbling back home.

        October 25, 2011 at 1:51 pm |

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