In the 1970’s Henry Kissinger wrote that the US had “passed its historic high point like so many earlier civilizations” and he elaborated “Every civilization that has ever existed has ultimately collapsed. History is a tale of efforts that failed.” This anxiety is a common one among the US public- with 47% of Americans thinking China has or soon will surpass the US as the world’s pre-eminent power (only 48% disagreeing with the motion). However this crisis of confidence is more a reflection of rhetoric than reality. But if several problems threatening US hegemony are not resolved by US strategy makers, a decline may well ensue soon.
Joseph Nye has used the concept of soft power to illustrate continued American dominance over the world order. With America accounting for much of world trade and commerce, Nye argues America is able to use soft power, through economics and trade to keep economically developing countries in line. While Pakistan, when polled, has extreme anti-American attitudes, Pizza Hut Pakistan is the most profitable branch in of the American company in the world and thus Pakistan’s hatred of America is unlikely to manifest into reality any time soon. America is further able to consolidate it’s soft power through it’s dominance of internet companies- controlling over half of the top twenty-one profitable internet companies. This dominance of the internet allows for the narratives on international relations discourse to largely come from an American perspective.
However this soft-power has it’s limits and in some cases the American internet companies allow for narratives that undermine American soft-power to flow across the internet. One key example is the Stop the War Coalition (a misleadingly titled anti-western pressure group) who spread anti-American narratives with ease on Facebook and Twitter. Anti-American values are widespread following the War on Terror, a Gallup poll in 2013 finding that 24% see the US as the number one threat to world peace, including pluralities in nominal US allies such as Germany and Australia. In September 2015 this anti-American feeling allowed the Labour Party to elect a harsh critic of American foreign policy, Jeremy Corbyn, as their leader. In 2011 anti-American feelings resulted in the Arab Spring, these two examples showing that this failure in American soft power does have real strategic consequences for the US. America, Nye argues, has failed to adequately use it’s soft power to promote it’s own goals and interests and thus it’s power gained as a policemen of worldwide order is threatened by popular discontent.
Another way in which the USA may be thought to be in decline is the lack of will power among it’s own citizens to preserve it’s own position of global preeminence. In 1991 the end of the Cold War presented America as the only super-power in the world, a moment Charles Krauthammer calls a “unipolar moment”. During this unipolar moment there was much enthusiasm among the American citizenry for increased American presence on the world stage, starting with the Gulf War in 1991 and ten years later the War on Terror. However the negative backlash from the latter US intervention has led to a period Stephen Sestanovich calls “retrenchment”, which started with the election of Obama in 2008 on a platform to withdraw US troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. This retrenchment reached it’s trough in 2013 with some polls showing over 90% opposition amongst the American public to US airstrikes in Syria, despite Assad’s alleged violations of international law. American hard power is on the decline in this sense, not because of a decline in ability but a decline in fundamental will to fight.
But the hard power in terms of ability, Kagan argues, is still there. The US still has a military stronger than the next ten powers and bases in over 100 countries. It was the largest number of nuclear weapons and a navy, due to positioning, able to keep control of all the oceans. Kagan argues that provided the US avoids cutting defense spending , the US will still have the hard power it needs to be the world’s poiliceman when it chooses to come out of it’s period of retrenchment.
As well as potential declines in American soft power and American hard power, one further such decline is the decline in faith in the American way, which it has been preaching as superior since 1776 and pro-actively spreading (occasionally with military force) since 1898 (The Spanish American War) at the latest. American democracy, which allows smooth talking demagogues with support from Big Media outlets and businesses to ascend to the role of President, has come under attack for for producing leaders such as George Bush, Barack Obama, (and possibly Donald Trump) who are seen tohave more show than substance, and the Chinese model of a meritocratic autocracy- which values competence over popularity, has become popular amongst some intellectuals. Following the 2008 financial crash- American capitalism has come under sustained attack, with the faith in the virtues of free-financial flows reduced and support for a Chinese system of slow-moving. limited foreign capital flows becoming popular with economists such as Ha-Joon Chang, China’s popularity in the ongoing battle of ideas poses a serious threat to the USA’s power status in the world today.
However American values are still dominant in the global institutions which it has influence over. The IMF are still keen to promote economic liberalism- with $900 million being lent to Ghana in February 2015 on the condition it liberalize it’s petroleum sector and in July 2015 it helped bail out Greece on the condition it implement harsh spending cuts. In 2005 the UN established the United Nations Democracy Fund, of which George Bush was a founding member, which grants large sums of money every year to small projects promoting democracy, in 2010 it was endowed with $100 million for this purpose. The aforementioned intellectual discontent has not yet reached the upper echelons of the named global governing institutions in which America and the things she stands for still has the greatest amount of influence.
In conclusion American hard power and American soft power is still secure for now, and so is the supremacy of American values. Thus the US, based on these factors, is not yet in decline. However it is clear that these factors which make up American power are under visible threat, both physically (China) and ideologically (enemies within). Unless steps to counteract these two threats are taken soon , it may well soon find itself in terminal decline.