The second decade of the 21st century appears to be rough for the U.S.. Could it mean that American power is waning? The question of a putative decline of the U.S. regularly emerges in international relations and in the media since at least the 1970s (Kenneth Waltz; Theory of International Politics, 1979: 177-178). However, each time, so far, it has been proven wrong. But what if, this time, it were true?
This series of three articles examines three dimensions of U.S. decline as perceived – publicly – by the U.S. National Intelligence Council (NIC), part of the U.S. Office of The Director of National Intelligence (ODNI). Here we shall start by examining what is meant exactly by a U.S. decline and its onset. Then, in the second article, we shall focus on the sources of American decline and power, as identified by the NIC, which will also give us indicators to monitor the decline. Finally, in the third article we shall point out the paradoxical character of a U.S. decline, and address the inability of the U.S. to accept its demise as superpower.
In this article, we shall outline first possible impacts of U.S. decline, and explain why we need to consider the very perception and actions of the declining power, in our case the U.S., as well as present the U.S. I.C. document used for our analysis. Then, we shall show that the report indeed stresses that we are faced with the end of the U.S.-led unipolar world. However, we shall point out that the onset for the end of the dominance assessed remains uncertain, and look at the challenges that this uncertainty introduces.
Possible Impacts of American Decline
Should there be decline, the waning of American power, and its characteristics would have a mammoth impact on the international world, its equilibrium and its members (states), as well as their inhabitants, from citizens to corporates.
Alliances would change. Those countries that had followed the U.S. lead would have to completely revise their policies. Economic dynamics and flows would be redesigned, notably as the U.S. dollar supremacy would most probably wane in the meantime. The types of sanctions lately favoured by the U.S., for example forcing countries and the corporate sector – indeed any “entity” – to choose between trading with the U.S. and trading with countries displeasing the U.S. (Joseph Dethomas, “The New US Sanctions: Moving From Sanctions to Economic War“, 38North, John Hopkins SAIS, 22 Sept 2017) would increasingly lose strength until becoming meaningless. Cooperation across sectors, within and without state administrations, from intelligence sharing to aid, would have to be revised. New sets of ideologies could settle.
A whole new world would emerge.
Ultimately, although there is no fatality, war could occur. Indeed, for example, we could see the Thucydides trap triggered between the U.S. and China – i.e. when the rise of a new ruling power, here China, threatens an existing and possibly declining one, here the U.S., war is highly likely to ensue (see the Harvard Thucydides’s Trap Project for cases, methodology, etc.).
The Thucydides trap alerts us about a key component of the decline of a ruling power: how the said ruling power handles its own evolution. The way the U.S. perceives and reacts to its own possible decline could accelerate this very decline, slow it, postpone it or, on the contrary, revert it.
The declining power’s reaction also influences the impact of the transition, as decline could lead to war – as with the Thucydides trap – or to milder – but by no means inconsequential – forms of transition. For example, the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991, however traumatic for Russia, did not lead to global war (for an interesting individual account by an Associated Press journalist Nataliya Vasilyeva, “A post-Soviet generation endures poverty, chaos, opportunity“, Daily Mail, 22 dec 2016; among many, Joseph Stiglitz “The Ruin of Russia“, The Guardian, 9 April 2003).
Considering thus the crucial importance of a U.S. decline and of the way American political authorities perceive and handle it, we need to find out not only what could be the signals of change and likely signs of a lowering influence of the U.S. in the world, but also how these are perceived by the U.S..
As insight and proxy into the way the U.S. perceives its own decline, anticipate it and thus potentially acts on it, we shall use the unclassified (public) version of Global Trends: The Paradox of Progress (GT), the quadrennial Strategic Foresight report produced by the National Intelligence Council, part of the U.S. Office of The Director of National Intelligence for the new President elect, published in January 2017 (for the public version).
The introductory letter to the report by then Chairman of the NIC Greg Treverton stresses that the report “does not represent the official, coordinated view of the US Intelligence Community nor US policy” (p.vii). However, taking into account the way the U.S. Intelligence Community functions, the coordinating role the NIC and ODNI have, the need the NIC and ODNI have to keep functioning relationships with other agencies part of the U.S. I.C. and thus not to be completely at odds with them, as well as the way the report is domestically and internationally publicised and promoted, we shall consider that the GT report is a proxy that is good enough to give us insights into the perception from both the U.S. I.C. and more largely the U.S. political authorities, at least as far as a vision of U.S. decline is concerned.
It should also be noted that this edition of Global Trends, the sixth one, presents, for the first time in the series started in 1997, a shorter term outlook over the next five years (i.e. up to 2021), in addition to the classical 20 years foresight.
The end of the U.S. led unipolar world… but when?
Most strikingly, GT considers that the American leadership is about to end: we are hardly any more in a unipolar world led by the U.S., or we are about to leave this world.
The NIC is here scarcely making a judgement on the future. It seems to be rather acting something that is happening, and is stressed as such in the third paragraph of the executive summary (p. ix) and, for example, twice in the first chapter describing the trends shaping the future of the global landscape (p. 6 and p. 26), while also being reasserted again in the longer term scenarios, notably in “Orbits” (pp. 54-57).
Asserting the decline
A phase of American decline, seen in terms of relative distribution of power, is happening and, according to the way it is worded, most probably cannot be reverted. It is the step that led America from being the sole superpower after the end of the Cold War to December 2016 (when the report was presented to the President-elect), when it is not anymore, or will soon not be anymore, this unique superpower (pp. ix, 6, 26, 54).
The strength and importance of the statement made by the NIC in GT is also underlined by the way the end of American dominance is presented as “the bottom line” for the new trends that will shape the future to 2035:
“Between states, the post-Cold War, unipolar moment has passed and the post-1945 rules based international order may be fading too” (p.6).
Timing the decline
Yet, however strongly the end of the U.S. superpower status is initially asserted, its timing remains unclear.
The end of U.S. dominance is about to take place, but we do not know when (pp. ix, 6, 26).
The uncertainty regarding the fateful timing for a U.S. decline is further stressed in the shorter term foresight, i.e. the chapter about the “near future” or future over the next five years (pp. 32-34). There, any mention that the status of the U.S. as superpower would have been lost, or is being lost, has disappeared. What is emphasised is that other actors have become uncertain about the U.S. status. The reader thus remains unsure of what is being said.
If we continue reading and hope to find more explanations regarding onset of decline by turning to the three long-term scenarios, we find in the narrative of the second one, “Orbits”, that retrenchment from the world stage – and thus de facto end of dominance – is assessed to happen “in the early 2020s” (p.54). This would thus mean that the onset of the end of dominance could take place at the end of the “near future” period or right after it.
Assessing time is extremely difficult and an exercise that is rarely done in strategic foresight (see Helene Lavoix, “Enhancing Foresight with the Temporal Dimension“, The Red (Team) Analysis Society, 22 June 2015). Yet, uncertainty about the onset of an event creates many other challenges. Here the uncertainty about the onset of decline creates another one about perceptions of decline and thus about assessment of the world around us, this very world we need to understand and assess to take proper decisions.
Are we looking for and then monitoring a decline that takes as starting point a U.S. global leadership and then identifies the moment when it will still be dominant but less so? Or are we trying to assess and monitor the decline from U.S. superpower to major power? Or, shall we take as starting point the U.S. as one of the most powerful states among others, which could decline and lose power even further?
We have summarized in the graphic below the various starting points, meanings, timings and paths to decline as revealed by GT uncertainties.
In analytical terms, the identification of indicators and the evaluation of decline resulting from the indicators’ monitoring will vary according to the different cases. Indeed, what could be an evidence of loss of power for a sole superpower, could be a proof of strength for a very powerful power among others. Hence GT in this regards introduces actually a difficulty, should analysts not pay close attention to what they are trying to watch. Meanwhile, assessments of U.S. decline can also become muddled.
Then, where we stand and thus the different paths ahead have different impacts both in domestic terms for the U.S. and in international terms for the world.
Uncertainty regarding the onset of decline, as we shall stress further in the third article on the paradox of U.S. decline, tends to minor and even contradicts the “fatality” of the “end of the unipolar moment” as emphasised in GT. This, in turn, promotes policies aimed at increasing U.S. power. Should, thus, and as we shall see in the next articles, the U.S. choose not to accept “decline” but try, on the contrary, to revert it, knowing where one stands exactly and what one tries to achieve would be of a crucial importance. The wrong choice of evaluation may lead to the wrong choice of objectives and, as a result, to failed policies. In turn, decline could be accelerated.
About the author: Dr Helene Lavoix, PhD Lond (International Relations), is the Director of The Red (Team) Analysis Society. She is specialised in strategic foresight and warning for national and international security issues.
Featured image by Bruce Emmerling, Public Domain, Pixabay
Adizes, Ichak Kalderon, “The Decline of the United States“, The WorldPost, Berggruen Institute and The Huffington Post, 15 May 2015.
National Intelligence Council, Global Trends: The Paradox of Progress (GT), Office of the Director of National Intelligence, (for the public version, January 2017).
Stiglitz, Joseph, “The Ruin of Russia“, The Guardian, 9 April 2003.
Vasilyeva, Nataliya, “A post-Soviet generation endures poverty, chaos, opportunity“, Daily Mail, 22 Dec 2016.
Waltz, Kenneth, Theory of International Politics, Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1979.
Read a summary of Waltz’s theory in the Korab-Karpowicz, W. Julian, “Political Realism in International Relations“, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).