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Is America Choosing Decline?

Anxiety about China surpassing the United States is old news. The numbers are complicated—but actively undermining the postwar order isn't helping.

Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images

Commentators are once more worrying over America’s waning preeminence. A New Yorker headline in January suggested Donald Trump was “Making China Great Again.” When the president withdrew from the Iran deal in May, Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum lamented that “the era of American hegemony” had been “remarkably brief.” And just last week, reflecting on the G7 summit, the New York Times exhorted Americans “to recognize that this president has transformed ‘America First’ into ‘America Alone,’ and that this is the last place that a great and powerful nation wants to be.”

While the United States has defied many declinist predictions in the postwar era, there is good reason for recent anxiety. Withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership has reduced America’s leverage in the Asia-Pacific and enabled China to gain further traction for its own economic initiatives in the region. Trade tensions with longstanding allies including the European Union, Japan, Canada, and Mexico have compounded U.S. isolation. And unlike his postwar predecessors, President Trump harbors a deep skepticism toward U.S. support of and participation in what is loosely called “the postwar order.”

But shifts in the world’s strategic balance are more complicated than they seem: While the rise of other countries and the growing heft of nonstate actors mean that America’s relative decline will likely continue, there is more to a country’s standing than headline-grabbing metrics. A “superpower” is bolstered not merely by the force it wields, but by the vision it embodies: a conception of world affairs that holds widespread appeal, enabling it to advance its objectives and amplify its values far more than it could do with military and/or economic coercion alone. Washington has a significant edge over Beijing in this regard—one reason why we are less likely to witness a clean, discrete power transition between the two countries than an uncertain, fluid bilateral balance—if the United States can rebuild, rather than dismantle, the structures that work to its advantage.

Consider a typical indicator of national prowess: military strength. According to a projection by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Beijing’s military expenditure could overtake America’s by the mid-2030s; but the composition and use of those military outlays matter at least as much as the level. China will not be a military peer until and unless it can apply armed force as quickly, lethally, and globally as the United States. “Most of the military modernization underway in China corresponds to achieving the types of capabilities the United States has already attained,” Cortez Cooper of the RAND Corporation testified in February. Washington is fighting terrorist organizations in at least 14 countries and, as of last year, had special operations forces deployed in 149 countries—roughly three-quarters of the world’s total. No other country can project military power into any corner of the world.

Economic indicators, too, are more ambiguous than they are sometimes made out to be. A recent forecast calculated that China’s gross domestic product will overtake America’s in dollar terms by 2032. But size is not everything; to be considered an economic peer, China would need to have a per capita GDP roughly four times its current level, a comparably robust system of innovation, and a currency that figures as centrally in global financial markets as the greenback. It is undoubtedly making progress on all these fronts. China’s per capita GDP has roughly quadrupled over the past decade. Its ambitious “Made in China 2025” plan, moreover, lays out concrete targets in ten priority areas to help the country become a world leader in advanced manufacturing. And the German Bundesbank’s recent announcement that it would begin to include yuan in its reserves is another small step forward in the renminbi’s internationalization. Still, true economic parity between Washington and Beijing is far away.

A more abstract factor is the ability to regenerate fundamentals of national power such as population size, economic growth, and innovative capacity. In large measure due to immigration, the United States has the most favorable demographic outlook among major powers: The Pew Research Center projected in 2015 that future immigrants and their U.S.-born children would account for 88 percent of the country’s population growth through 2065 (though the Trump administration’s desire to reduce immigration could dampen that trajectory). Thanks to the shale revolution, the United States is on track to become a net exporter of energy products by 2022, a feat it last accomplished in 1953. And, despite a worrisome dip in international students in 2017, it retains an unmatched ability to attract and harness global talent (though it might begin ceding that advantage if the administration tightens student visa requirements as it is reportedly considering).

However one measures overall national power, China will likely continue to catch up to the United States. But history suggests that secular trends alone are insufficient for predicting preeminence. While the U.S. economy overtook Britain’s in absolute size in the last quarter of the 19th century, Washington did not emerge as the world’s central power until the end of World War II. The devastation that Europe and Asia had suffered during the war meant that only the United States had the capacity to fashion a new order. Critically, though, the Truman administration used the moment strategically, building a framework around the United States—grounded in multilateral institutions such as the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank—that elevated collective interests over narrow ones and gave Washington an unrivaled ability to convene problem-solving coalitions. Subsequent administrations expanded this system, appreciating that the United States could strengthen its perch by enabling the progress of former antagonists and longstanding friends alike.

The Trump administration is the first of the postwar era to challenge this framework, regarding the world as “an arena of continuous competition” and reverting to a largely transactional style of foreign policy. Abandoning the Trans-Pacific Partnership, declaring its intention to withdraw from the Paris climate accord, decertifying the nuclear deal with Iran, and asserting a “national security” rationale for imposing tariffs on longstanding European and Asian allies all steer the United States away from the course of statecraft from which it benefited in the twentieth century. They also reflect the administration’s embrace, as Financial Times columnist Gideon Rachman has argued, of “a power-based order—in which the U.S. lays down the law and others are compelled to follow.” While America’s current margin of preeminence might sustain this sort of approach for now, the strategy could also hasten the country’s relative decline—not only by encouraging competitors to intensify revisionist efforts, but also by accelerating allies’ efforts to reduce dependence on U.S. actions.

Beijing’s resurgence over the past four decades may be one of the most extraordinary trajectories of any country in history. Consolidating its control over the South China Sea, undertaking large-scale projects such as the Belt and Road Initiative, and growing increasingly vocal in its rejection of Western ideology, China is an increasingly formidable long-term competitor. To surpass the United States as the globe’s preeminent power, though, it will likely have to tether its ambition to a coherent, compelling conception of world affairs. “A superpower,” Samuel Huntington observed three decades ago, “has to stand for an idea with appeal beyond its borders.” China has yet to identify the idea for which it stands, not only because it has benefited immensely from the postwar order, but also because taking on the responsibilities of a superpower would detract from its pursuit of a national renaissance. While its foreign policy has enabled it to generate an impressive base of national power, Beijing has been unable to inculcate a distinct vision within a network of alliances.

The United States might consider, instead of trying to match each of China’s initiatives, renewing its own core strengths. The framework it helped establish in the post-World War II period faces a number of tests. A growing number of emerging powers regard the postwar order less as a self-evident gift than as an illegitimate imposition. Borderless problems, including cyberthreats and climate change, are challenging its problem-solving capabilities. Finally, as the 2016 presidential election clarified, Americans experiencing economic hardship and demographic anxiety understandably feel little commitment to abstractions about “order,” “engagement,” and “leadership.”

Washington would have to do an enormous amount of work abroad and at home to modernize the system it constructed after World War II. For now, though, as recent statements by longstanding allies affirm, it is actively undercutting that framework and, in the process, a key source of competitive advantage. “Can countries including China and the U.S., especially China and the U.S., agree on one rule-based order, which President Xi Jinping said he supports?” Singaporean Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen asked after this month’s Shangri-La Dialogue, implicitly questioning America’s commitment to a rule-based order. Ahead of the more recent G7 Summit, French President Emmanuel Macron issued an even more striking rebuke: “The American president may not mind being isolated, but neither do we mind signing a six-country agreement if need be.”

Proponents of an “America First” approach to foreign policy may not worry much about such statements or believe that U.S. influence has benefitted much from a strategic vision. They would do well, though, to heed French political theorist Raymond Aron, who argued that “the strength of a great power is diminished if it ceases to serve an idea.” While geopolitical commentary increasingly abounds with discussion of a power transition between Washington and Beijing, the world may actually find itself suspended between two giants whose behavior defies expectations: a reigning power that attacks a longstanding source of its own influence on one side and a putative replacement that struggles to define itself as an idea on the other.