Friday 03 Apr 2020 | 00:52 | SYDNEY
Friday 03 Apr 2020 | 00:52 | SYDNEY

Declinism again: This time with facts!


Sam Roggeveen


22 January 2009 14:13

This essay by Professor Robert Pape gives some statistical backbone to the argument Hugh White made in our most recent exchange on whether the US is in decline. Hugh acknowledged that we'd all heard talk of US decline before, but argued that the decisive difference this time around is relative economic strength: 'No country since 1945 has looked as likely as China does today to overtake the US in GDP to become the largest economy in the world.'

The graphs and tables in Pape's essay are maddeningly difficult to read on the screen, but his text is clear enough, and he makes Hugh look like a fence-sitter:

The United States has always prided itself on exceptionalism, and the U.S. downfall is indeed extraordinary. Something fundamental has changed. America’s relative decline since 2000 of some 30 percent represents a far greater loss of relative power in a shorter time than any power shift among European great powers from roughly the end of the Napoleonic Wars to World War II. It is one of the largest relative declines in modern history. Indeed, in size, it is clearly surpassed by only one other great-power decline, the unexpected internal collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Pape also addresses a point I made against the declinist thesis: that in strictly economic terms, America was at its peak in 1945 and went into relative decline soon after, but that the US nevertheless maintained its status as a superpower for the entire Cold War period. My argument, then, was that relative economic standings could not fully explain America's enduring superpower status.

But Pape doesn't agree that the Cold War as a whole was a period of US decline. He identifies two distinct periods of Cold War US decline — 1948-1962 and 1970-1980 — meaning that, for Pape, the intervening periods were of relative US growth. This suggests that relative economic standings do explain America's enduring superpower status.

It is also interesting to note that Pape sees a causation between the two periods of US decline and a number of Cold War crises — 'decline breeds instability' is the sobering theme of his essay.

There's a slightly scattershot critique of Pape's essay on the excellent American Scene blog, from which one point is worth repeating: America did not just endure relative decline during the Cold War, it positively encouraged it, because it was ultimately in US interests for Europe and Asia to prosper.

The same is true of America's relationship with China today, and given America emerged from its Cold War decline(s) in pretty good geopolitical shape, we should be cautious about predictions that the current period of relative US decline will inevitably lead to new global strategic order.