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What Does This Mean For The United States? Print What Does This Mean For The United States?

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"Five hundred years of history tell us that when a dominant power is faced with the rapid rise of another nation, things will not go smoothly. Today, everyone agrees that China, India, even Russia, are regaining power across many dimensions. What this means for America, though, is the subject of intense debate," write Nina Hachigian and Mona Sutphen in a Stanley Foundation report titled “The United States, Pivotal Powers, and the New Global Reality.”


"Three schools of thought compete," they continue. "Some argue that because America is still the world’s only superpower, with military strength head and shoulders (actually torso, head and shoulders) above the rest, America has what it needs to keep its citizens safe so long as it retains this primacy. Next are the 'offensive realists,' who argue that in a future multi-polar world, a clash between America and other strong powers is inevitable. Finally, there are those who predict a 'clash of civilizations' in which powerful, illiberal regimes like China and Russia will join forces and clash with the liberal West. Beyond these theoretical debates, Americans and their policymakers worry that a world with multiple big powers will reduce America’s geopolitical freedom, give solace to its enemies, and reduce the sway of liberal democracy."

"Because so few Americans alive today remember a time when their nation was not a great power, it is easy to forget just how limited our experience is. And how peculiar. During most of the time that the United States exercised global leadership, we and our partners faced an evil and aggressive opponent. Even when America was clumsy and heavy-handed, the alternative was worse. Our partners—who depended on us for their security—tolerated much. This, we Americans came to believe, was the natural state of affairs," according to Professor Steven Metz of the US Army War College. Metz shared these thoughts in a working paper he drafted for the Stanley Foundation titled, "Beyond the War on Terrorism."

Metz goes on to say that Americans want to be both feared and loved around the world. And we care about what our global allies think of us. "We lack the egotistic self-confidence that characterizes the great imperial powers of the past. This does not automatically exclude us from global leadership. But it means that we must exercise a specific type of leadership based on cooperation with partners. As with any collaborative endeavor, this can be difficult, requiring regular compromise and a sustained effort to coordinate priorities and objectives," according to Metz.

"Somehow, though, we lost sight of this, believing that the deference which characterized the Cold War and even the years after the demise of the Soviet Union reflected a permanent change in the world," says Metz.

History continues, and great powers will rise and fall as they always have. But does this mean America’s moment in the sun is inevitably coming to an end? Today? Next year? In ten years?

An army of commentators and analysts argue US global power still has a lot of life left in it. "Which brings us to the fashionable notion of eroding US power. This school, in which wishful thinking often masquerades as analysis, is enjoying a heyday as military strains in Iraq and Afghanistan, a credit crunch, spiraling debt and the specter of recession form a picture of American overreach and decline," writes Roger Cohen in The New York Times, January 21, 2008.

Cohen adds, "There will certainly be new military and financial constraints on the next president after the incompetence and profligacy of the Bush years. But those years have also shown how little of significance happens without American leadership. That’s as true of Israel-Palestine as of the environment or Kosovo. As this election campaign is demonstrating, the United States remains the most vital, open, self-renewing and democratic society on earth. In December 2007, there were 1,059,793 naturalization applications pending: one million people are not clamoring to join a nation in eclipse.

"To imagine that a European Union plagued by self-doubt and existential uncertainty (where are Europe’s borders?), or a China of treacherous internal contradictions, can become powers of influence equal to the United States within the next half-century is implausible. America must work closely with them, but inspiration and leadership are unlikely to come from them."

These rising powers are fighting an uphill battle in taking influence away from the United States, according to author and analyst Walter Russell Mead. “These countries will have to get better and better at a game that is not their own,” said Mead, quoted in a February 2008 article by the Pacific Council on International Policy. "While China’s rise will undoubtedly be a major factor in world affairs, 'The most likely outcome is that the U.S. will retain a unique international role.'"

A 2005 report from the government's National Intelligence Council echoes this thought: "The international order will be in greater flux in the period out to 2020 than at any point since the end of the Second World War. As we map the future, the prospects for global prosperity and the limited likelihood of great power conflict provide an overall favorable environment for coping with the challenges ahead. Despite daunting challenges, the United States, in particular, will be better positioned than most countries to adapt to the changing global environment."

Dilip Hiro, an Indian journalist and analyst, argues that the United States is already in decline. He writes, "When viewed globally and in the great stretch of history, the notion of US exceptionalism that drove the neo-conservatives to proclaim the Project for the New American Century in the late 20th century—adopted so wholeheartedly by the Bush administration in this one—is nothing new. Other superpowers have been there before, and they too have witnessed the loss of their prime position to rising powers."

"No superpower in modern times has maintained its supremacy for more than several generations," continues Hiro. “And however exceptional its leaders may have thought themselves, the United States, already clearly past its zenith, has no chance of becoming an exception to this age-old pattern of history."

“In failing to understand the inherent limits of US global power consequent upon deeper, though seemingly unrecognized, longer-term global trends, the Bush administration hugely overestimated American power and thereby committed a gross act of imperial over-reach, for which subsequent administrations will pay a heavy price,” writes Martin Jacques, research fellow at the London School of Economics. “Far from the US simply conjoining its pre-1989 power with that of the deceased USSR, it is increasingly confronted with a world marked by the growing power of a range of new national actors, notably—but by no means only—China, India and Brazil.”

“Just six years into the 21st century, one can say this is not shaping up to be anything like an American century,” says Jacques. “Rather, the US seems much more likely to be faced with a very different kind of future: how to manage its own imperial decline. And, as a footnote, one might add that this is a task for which pragmatists are rather better suited than ideologues.”

"We will not know for years or decades if the United States actually is in sustained decline; we have seen examples of decline before, such as in Vietnam, and this did not automatically lead to a major power shift," said a conference participant quoted in a Stanley Foundation policy dialogue brief titled, "After the Unipolar Moment: Should the US Be a Status Quo Power or a Revolutionary Power?"

"Thus the key may not be to determine whether or not the United States is in decline, but rather how to assess emergent changes and, from that, how to determine the US role," the brief concludes. "US policymakers do not need a definitive assessment of the state of US power in order to begin developing sound policies. One participant noted that fundamental strategic premises are difficult to discuss in a group as politically diverse as the participants in our meeting. However, these policy challenges can and must be tackled if we are to successfully navigate the evolving international order."

Whether or not the United States is in decline may not be the right question. There is little doubt that a more diffused, multipolar world is emerging. And, in decline or not, the United States has its own national interests and citizen well-being to protect. So what is the proper American response to this new global reality?

A number of analysts have recently developed recommendations for US foreign policy in this transitional moment:

The world is already made up of three superpowers: the United States, China, and the European Union, according to policy analyst and author Parag Khanna. In a new book and January 2008 article for The New York Times Magazine, Khanna said these three will be simultaneous friends and enemies. And the sooner US policymakers embrace this reality the better. He laid out five steps for American leaders to take right now: talk only of "global interests" not "US interests," give more money and clout to the US State Department, send more Americans and American aid overseas, channel global (particularly Asian) money into our own public infrastructure, and convene summits of the three superpowers.

"A new set of U.S. leaders will need to take a level-headed look at these emerging threats and listen to the real anxieties of the American people," write Ambassador Nancy Soderberg and Brian Katulis in a new book titled The Prosperity Agenda. The authors do not declare any new superpowers, as Khanna does, but they do call for greater cooperation with a variety of new and emerging powers. "They [US leaders] will then need to lead the country back to the path that has made the United States an unrivaled power and a force for good in the world. As the torch is passed to the next administration, US leaders will need to work with the leaders of other global powers—both the traditional powers in Europe and emerging powers such as China and India—to forge a new compact between the haves and the have-nots, between the developed and the developing world.

"We must once again reorient our policy to reflect the fact that the vast majority of people want a life of basic order and decency, one that gives them the opportunity to fulfill their families’ basic needs and a greater chance at happiness. Much as did Wilson, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Reagan, and Clinton before them, these new leaders must recognize that America’s security and prosperity depend upon the needs and the interests of others," say Soderberg and Katulis.

"We now have two options," according to Professor Steven Metz of the US Army War College and author of a Stanley Foundation working paper titled, "Beyond the War on Terrorism." "One is simply to continue along the current path, accepting a long term decline in our influence and global role, sustaining partnerships only with other states who see the world as we do. The other might be called 'cooperative leadership.' In this approach, the United States would use its power, both hard and soft, to bolster regional security arrangements and solutions largely defined by the states in a region. We would exercise peer rather than hierarchical leadership in most regions of the world. We would reach agreement with partners on the extent and nature of the threat and the appropriate response rather than simply dictating to them. This would be more than just a change of style. A grand strategy of collective leadership would also require adjustments to American military strategy and posture," writes Metz.

In an article titled, “Is the Sun Setting on US Dominance?” Harvard researcher and physicist Jiang Qian examines Europe, China, India, and Japan and finds no true threats to American dominance. “This leaves the US, secure in its isolation, the only country with a true global horizon. Throughout the 19th century, Britain played the dual role of a global power and an island balancer: It aimed both to ensure command of sea and to prevent the dominance of the continent by a single power. A realist US foreign policy today would play a similar game on a larger scale, aiming to hobble rising powers in their own regional niches in the Eurasia continent. With this goal, local alliances like that between the US and Japan will be more crucial than global contests for influences. This is not a ‘Great Game’ played by a number of true global powers in a ‘multipolar world,” writes Qian.

“More fundamentally for a realist, however, is a need to define strategic interests in this new century. Are they raw materials, territories or sea lanes, allies or ideological influence? What kind of allies, military or commercial? Until these questions are answered, we do not yet know what the shape the future realpolitik will take, for the simple reason that we do not know what constitutes ‘core interests’ for the US and the regional giants,” according to Qian. “But one thing is clear: As long as the rising powers compete with one another regionally, the US will hold the key as the dominant balancer even in its perceived decline.”

“We live at an extraordinary moment in history when the strongest powers of the world—China, Europe, India, Japan and Russia—can align on the issues most critical to American safety, freedom, and prosperity. Rather than worrying about these powers’ relative gains, we think that the United States should focus on renewing itself, and take advantage of this moment to work with them to solve humanity’s pressing problems. Viewed through a pragmatic lens, the growing strength of the pivotal powers offers opportunities even with the challenges,” write Nina Hachigian and Mona Sutphen in a Stanley Foundation report titled “The United States, Pivotal Powers, and the New Global Reality.”

Hachigian and Sutphen add, “While the U.S. needs a specific, nuanced bilateral strategy toward each pivotal power, we suggest here an overarching framework to take most advantage of this convergence.” Their “strategic collaboration” plan for the six pivotal powers has four elements:

This means getting our own house in order by improving the economy, healthcare, and infrastructure; reducing oil dependency; addressing climate change; redesigning the military; and more.

Keeping these relationships positive and constructive means thinking creatively and flexibly about how to cope with the chronic irritants in big power relations.

Create a permanent, standing forum (or use a reformed UN Security Council) to institutionalize cooperation among the six pivotal powers.

This means maintaining the diplomatic and military leverage necessary to keep any power center from disrupting the global order or harming core US interests.

Please send us your thoughts on the changing global order and the materials offered here. All comments may be reprinted on this Web site and in related materials.

This page is part of Rising Powers: The New Global Reality, a project from the Stanley Foundation.

The Stanley Foundation is not responsible for the content of external internet sites.

The global order is changing. The 21st Century will be marked by many competing sources of global power. Across politics, economics, culture, military strength and more, a new group of countries have growing influence over the future of the world:



South Africa
European Union

South Korea


Other Countries

Big issues are also playing a cross-cutting role in this changing global order:


Nuclear Nonproliferation
Nonstate Actors

Global/Regional Systems

And this changing global order has implications for the United States.

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