What Problems Would Be Easier to Solve if the United States Declines?

Joseph Nye has said security is like oxygen: everyone enjoys it when it is present and few fully appreciate it until it is absent, at which point regaining it becomes an all-consuming obsession.

At a recent workshop on grand strategy, one of my colleagues observed that American power may be like gravity: it is hard to evaluate its reach and impact until it is gone, at which point we are likely to miss it acutely.

He is on to something that policymakers have recognized but have struggled to articulate in a way that won’t get mocked by academics (cf. “indispensable power”).  Certainly the United States has not always wielded its power perfectly, and there are doubtless instances when some (perhaps many) other international actors would have preferred “less United States involvement.” But the United States has been a critical provider of global public goods, especially global public goods in the security sphere and a world where the United States is both unwilling and incapable of providing those public goods is likely to be a world far less congenial for many global actors — including, ironically, many who have made a cottage industry of blaming America first for the world’s problems.

Perhaps the question is best put this way: what global problem will be easier to solve if the United States is weaker relative to other countries and, feeling that weakness, is less-willing to engage globally?

By pfeaver Posted in GT2030

2 comments on “What Problems Would Be Easier to Solve if the United States Declines?

  1. Pingback: “Global Trends”-Prognose der US-Geheimdienste: Asien überflügelt USA und Europa. Zum ersten Mal überhaupt wird eine Mehrheit der Erdenbewohner 2030 nicht mehr in Armut leben, “erstmals wird die Mittelschicht in den meisten Ländern da

  2. Professor Feaver poses a good, hard question here. What global problem will be easier to solve if the United States is weaker relative to other countries and, feeling that weakness, is less-willing to engage globally?

    I want to be careful about how I answer this, because I agree with much of what appears in Peter’s post. Though the US has not always wielded its power perfectly, the US certainly “has been a critical provider of global public goods, especially global goods in the security sphere…”

    My first inclination is to try to take the perspective of a person or group that may have been on the receiving end of American power – and maybe not in way that has proven beneficial for them. I’m reminded of a conversation I had with an Iraqi shopkeeper when I was studying in Damascus in 2010. We were talking about the war in his country, and he explained to me that before the war everyone had one enemy, and they knew his name (Saddam). Now, he said, people have lots of enemies, and they don’t know who they are. In his judgement, people were worse off seven years into the war than they were before the war.

    I do not want to argue that if the United States were relatively weaker, and if it were less willing to engage globally, then the world would be a better place. I actually think the opposite is true. It does occur to me, though, that as other powers rise and as the the US proportion of global power recedes, the US will be constrained in ways that it has not been during its unipolar moment. Depending on the speed of the relative decline, many will see this as a positive development. We can’t know if the Iraq war would have happened if the US were relatively less powerful than it was at the time of the invasion, but there is reason to believe that a relatively less powerful state would have more difficultly marshaling support for the kind of war that the US ultimately waged (i.e., preventive rather than preemptive, without the blessing of the UN security council, etc.).

    Harvard’s Steven Pinker has suggested that we may be living in the most peaceful times in recorded human history. As Charlie mentioned in a recent post (above), conventional war – the most destructive kind – is generally on the decline. So an interesting question might be, if the international system does evolve into multi-polarity (where US power declines relatively but remains among the strongest in absolute terms), is the world likely to become more violent?

Leave a Reply (See Blog and Comment Policy)

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s