THOUGHTS ON THE FUTURE OF AMERICAN POWER: THE KAGAN VERSUS KUPCHAN DEBATE
"One of the past’s most indelible patterns is that rising nations eventually expect their influence to be commensurate with their power. The proposition that countries such as India and Brazil will sit quietly in the global shadows as they become economic titans flies in the face of history. Other than modern-day Germany and Japan—both of which have punched well below their weight due to constraints imposed on them after World War II—a country’s geopolitical aspirations generally rise in step with its economic strength. During the 1890s, for instance, the United States tapped its industrial might to launch a blue-water navy, rapidly turning itself from an international lightweight into a world-class power. China is now in the midst of fashioning geopolitical aspirations that match its economic strength—as are other emerging powers. India is pouring resources into its navy; its fleet expansion includes 20 new warships and two aircraft carriers....
But today’s global landscape is new. By presuming that current circumstances are comparable with the Cold War, Kagan underestimates the centrifugal forces thwarting American influence. Bipolarity no longer constrains how far nations—even those aligned with Washington—will stray from the fold. And the United States no longer wields the economic influence that it once did. Its transition from creditor to debtor nation and from budget surpluses to massive deficits explains why it has been watching from the sidelines as its partners in Europe flirt with financial meltdown. The G-7, a grouping of like-minded democracies, used to oversee the global economy. Now that role is played by the G-20, a much more unwieldy group in which Washington has considerably less influence. And it is hardly business as usual when foreign countries lay claim to nearly 50 percent of publicly held U.S. government debt, with an emerging rival—China—holding about one-quarter of the American treasuries owned by foreigners....
Finally, Kagan’s timing is off. He is right that power shifts over decades, not years. But he underestimates the speed at which substantial changes can occur. He notes, for example, “The United States today is not remotely like Britain circa 1900, when that empire’s relative decline began to become apparent. It is more like Britain circa 1870, when the empire was at the height of its power.” After two draining wars, an economic crisis, and deepening defense cuts, this assertion seems doubtful. But let’s assume that the United States is indeed “at the height of its power,” comparable with Britain circa 1870.
In 1870, British hegemony rested on a combination of economic and naval supremacy that looked indefinitely durable. Two short decades later, however, that picture had completely changed. The simultaneous rise of the United States, Germany, and Japan altered the distribution of power, forcing Britain to revamp its grand strategy. Pax Britannica may have technically lasted until World War I, but London saw the writing on the wall much earlier—which is precisely why it was able to adjust its strategy by downsizing imperial commitments and countering Germany’s rise.
In 1896, Britain began courting the United States and soon backed down on a number of disputes in order to advance Anglo-American amity. The British adopted a similar approach in the Pacific, fashioning a naval alliance with Japan in 1902. In both cases, London used diplomacy to clear the way for retrenchment—and it worked. Rapprochement with Washington and Tokyo freed up the fleet, enabling the Royal Navy to concentrate its battleships closer to home as the Anglo-German rivalry heated up.
It was precisely because Britain, while still enjoying preponderant strength, looked over the horizon that it was able to successfully adapt its grand strategy to a changing distribution of power. Just like Britain in 1870, the United States probably has another two decades before it finds itself in a truly multi polar world. But due to globalization and the spread of new manufacturing and information technologies, global power is shifting far more rapidly today than it did in the 19th century. Now is the time for Washington to focus on managing the transition to a new geopolitical landscape. As the British experience makes clear, effective strategic adjustment means getting ahead of the curve. The alternative is to wait until it is too late—precisely what London did during the 1930s, with disastrous consequences for Britain and Europe. Despite the mounting threat posed by Nazi Germany, Britain clung to its overseas empire and postponed rearmament. After living in denial for the better part of a decade, it finally began to prepare for war in 1939, but by then it was way too late to stop the Nazi war machine.
Even Kagan seems to recognize that comparing the United States to Britain in 1870 may do his argument more harm than good. “Whether the United States begins to decline over the next two decades or not for another two centuries,” he writes, “will matter a great deal, both to Americans and to the nature of the world they live in.” The suggestion here is that the United States, as long as it marshals the willpower and makes the right choices, could still have a good 200 years of hegemony ahead of it. But two decades—more in line with the British analogy—is probably the better guess. It strains credibility to propose that, even as globalization speeds growth among developing nations, a country with less than 5 percent of the world’s population will run the show for two more centuries.
Whether American primacy lasts another 20 years or another 200, Kagan’s paramount worry is that Americans will commit “preemptive superpower suicide out of a misplaced fear of their own declining power.” In fact, the greater danger is that the United States could head into an era of global change with its eyes tightly shut—in denial of the tectonic redistribution of power that is remaking the globe. The United States will remain one of the world’s leading powers for the balance of the 21st century, but it must recognize the waning of the West’s primacy and work to shepherd the transition to a world it no longer dominates. Pretending otherwise is the real “preemptive superpower suicide.”'
Charles Kupchan. "Second Mates: Yes, the United States will remain one of the world's most influential nations. But let us stop pretending it will dominate forever." The National Journal. 15 March 2012, in www.nationaljournal.com.
"Kupchan, undeterred, argues the opposite: America’s decline will result from the failure of this erstwhile European competitor. He acknowledges it’s “true that economic strength and military superiority will preserve U.S. influence over global affairs for decades to come,” but he says that “global power is undeniably flowing away from the West.”
There are two problems with this argument. First, although Europe’s and Japan’s share of global output is declining, it is absurd to argue that they are ceasing to be very influential players on the world scene—let alone that they are being surpassed in global influence by the likes of Brazil and Turkey, or even by India and China. Europe’s economy remains vast, and the influence it wields on the world stage on a broad range of issues remains greater than that of China. The United States and Europe, working together, have outmaneuvered both China and Russia on issues such as Iran, Libya, and perhaps increasingly Syria, pushing both powers toward positions that they would not otherwise have taken. In East Asia, Japan remains a major player, especially now that active American diplomacy has helped link Japan with India and others in an increasingly effective regional network. No one looking at the diplomatic score sheet of the past two years, whether the issue has been the South China Sea or North Korea, would argue that China has gotten the upper hand. There is more to international power than the size of a nation’s gross domestic product....
Kupchan seems to misunderstand the point I make about Great Britain in the last three decades of the 19th century. I cited the British example to show that decline is more than just a four-year affair, but I also wanted to show that when a nation does decline over time, there are measurable indicators. Britain went from unrivaled dominance on the high seas to one among equals. It went from No. 1 to No. 3 in overall economic output. My point was that until such measures of decline start appearing for the United States, it is premature to talk about inevitable decline. Kupchan agrees with me that no such declines have yet been visible.
We do disagree about the meaning of that British example, however, and about the history of the past century more generally. Kupchan, like many professional declinists, takes a rosy view of the past in order to make invidious comparisons with the present. He really does seem to think the world was better, and better for the United States, when a totalitarian government possessing massive conventional forces and an equally massive nuclear arsenal occupied half of Europe. He somehow finds the rise of Brazil more ominous for the United States. I personally would prefer Brazil’s challenges (if they can be called that) to a half-century of Cold War standoff....
Kupchan also looks back favorably on British foreign policy at the dawn of the 20th century, praising London’s strategic adjustment to new geopolitical realities. He wishes the United States would do the same, even before, as he admits, there are any visible measures of actual American decline. But somehow he ignores Britain’s failure to avert World War I, the greatest strategic and human calamity in recorded history—that is until World War II, which Britain also failed to avert. Whatever wisdom the British showed in adjusting to new realities, I hope the United States will do better".
Robert Kagan. "A Reply to Charles Kupchan." The National Journal. 15 March 2012, in www.nationaljournal.com.
The Kupchan-Kagan exchange highlights the differing arguments and premises of the newest version of 'is American in decline' debate. A debate which has been going on, for upwards of almost thirty years. With that being said, purely on point-scoring who trumps who? Reluctant to admit the same, given Kagan's hurrah-patriotismus sort of Neo-conservatism (which I find personally repellent), I must admit that Mr. Kagan scores more points on both the historical and contemporary levels than does Professor Kupchan. How so? Au fond, Kupchan basic argument is a materialist one that 'base' (economic power) determines or over-determines 'superstructure' (foreign & military power). Which at some underlying level is of course correct. The United Kingdom of 1946, could not, due to reasons of a war-ravaged economy continue to be a Great Power on the level of the USA or Sovietskaya Vlast. Quite simply impossible. However, Mr. Kupchan is not referring to that episode in the United Kingdom's history. What he instead focuses on, is the forty sum years prior to the Great War: 1870-1914. When (using his narrative), the UK went from unrivaled economic and military power to that of declining power who had to 'make accommodations' to rival, rising powers like the USA and Japan. This story is an old one, and like many old stories, is not entirely, indeed mostly accurate. How so? Simply put, it overestimates the nature of Pax Britannica, both at Britain's height (circa 1815-1870) and during its alleged decline. Firstly, as Bernard Porter, has correctly shown a few years ago, there are very stark differences indeed, between the power potential vis-`a-vis its rivals, of the Pax Britannica and Pax Americana. To assume that the two are somewhat similar in nature, completely mis-understands the nature of British power in the one-hundred years after the Battle of Waterloo. American military power was and is greatly vaster both in its scope and depth than that of the United Kingdom 1. Secondly, as the Bismarckian diplomat, Friedrich von Holstein, noted in the late 1890's, Great Britain outside of the European continent, for most of the 19th century, enjoyed unrivaled power 2. It very much did not enjoy anywhere near such power on the European continent. Hence, the twin events of the year 1870, when the Germany Empire was created by the defeat of Bonapartist France, by Prussia and by Russia's denunciation of the Black Sea clauses of the treat of Paris of 1856. Two very important events which saw Britain completely on the sidelines and unable to influence seriously the course of events.
Whereas, circa the beginning of the twentieth century, the UK, via its ties with Japan and the Dual Alliance, was able to construct, what was seen as an 'encirclement' of the German Reich. So much for a declining power / hegemon. As anyone who has read the Riezler diaries has noted, notwithstanding the fact that Imperial Germany had a larger GDP than Britain, and was outproducing her in the production of steel, et cetera, it was the former and not the latter who felt that the current was running against her. Hence the fact that for the Kaiserreich decision-making elite, the decision to go to war in July 1914, was very much one of flucht nach vorn. As the Imperial Kanzler, Theobold von Bethmann-Hollweg was famously quoted in July 1914, by Riezler to the effect that:
"Russia is the land of the future. Whose great growth and colossal demands, dwell upon us, as an ever more terrible nightmare ,3.
The point I am trying to make is simply that, notwithstanding the fact that in certain economic indexes, the UK was no longer as powerful as it was forty year previously, it was still in the extra-European world, the prime, if not hegemonic power. And in the European theatre, it was in a more powerful position than at anytime since the 1840's if not earlier. Here, pace Kagan, politics and policy-making, trumps economics. In that respect, Kagan had indeed the better of the argument over Kupchan. Who as Kagan points out, in the past has tended to endow whatever latest trend or power (in the past the EU, now the PRC), as being 'the coming wave', which the USA will inevitably lose out to. Per se, of course if the USA, does indeed commit 'suicide' as a Great Power, than it will indeed lose its global primacy and hegemonic status. No one can gainsay that. The question is merely that even if the PRC, does by years 2018 or 2030, have a larger GDP than the USA, that will not change necessarily the power-equation because: i) the USA will still be a much, much wealthier country than the PRC, by a variable of three to four; ii) the PRC's current political and economic set-up is still highly unstable and thus not the best foundation for a hegemonic power; iii) unlike either the UK in the 19th century or the USA in the 20th century, the PRC is surrounded by powers who are opposed to it and have quarrels with it. In short, the PRC lacks perhaps the first basis of a global hegemon: a protected and safe backyard / immediate neighborhood. Something which is unlikely to change in the very near future. A situation which actually replicates to a good degree, Imperial Germany's situation ex-ante the Great War. Of course, Kupchan's point that the USA will never be as strong as it was circa 1991 or even earlier is correct. However, this truism overlooks the fact, that as David Stevenson's recent book on the end of the Great War, endurance and the ability to fight to the last man, is not something which can be measured as an mathematical formula. It is based fundamentally upon the inner strength of the society in question. And to that extent, Great Britain and even France, fought above what their material and even historical bases would argue that they could. Whereas Imperial Germany, the Dual Monarchy and Tsarist Russia all fought beneath what material bases would suggest 4. The real question that Kagan discusses but does not even endeavor to answer is: given its multi-cultural fabric, its rampant consumerism as well hedonistic culture overall, does the USA have the basic, inner strength to 'wield the sledgehammer' (to employ a Bismarckian phrase). When one looks at the contemporary political scene in the USA, and indeed in most of the other countries of the Western world, one is very hard put to answer 'yes'.
1. Bernard Porter. Empire and Superempire: Britain, America and the World. (2006). Where the limitations of the Pax Britannica as compared to the Pax Americana are fully explored.
2. Holstein's exact words, in a conversation with the British journalist and unofficial 'go-between', Sir Valentine Chirol, were that: "At the close of the Napoleonic era about a century ago and even later, England had been the paramount Power in every part of the world outside of Europe." See, "Memorandum by Baron von Holstein," 31 October 1901, in German Diplomatic Documents, 1871-1914, Volume III. Edited and Translated by E.T.S. Dugdale. (1930), p. 148. For a truer understanding of Britain's pre-Great War, 'Pax Britannica', see: John Darwin. The Empire Project: the rise and fall of the British World-System, 1830-1970 (2010), pp. 23-300 and passim.
3. Quoted in Fritz Stern. The Failure of Illiberalism. (1972), p. 91 & passim.
For this feeling that notwithstanding the fact that Germany's economy seemed to be going from strength to strength, its power position was in decline, see:
Fritz Fischer. The War of Illusions, German Policies from 1911 to 1914. Translated by Marion Jackson. (1975), pp. 291-403 and passim.
4. David Stevenson, With our backs the Wall: Victory and Defeat in 1918. (2011).