Is America Really On the Decline?

Financial crisis. Two wars. Rising rivals. And talk about whether the American era is coming to an end.

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Nor, in general, should the rise of others stir angst, say the anti-declinists. It reflects, by contrast, the near globalization of the U.S.-initiated postwar system, whose very openness should accommodate the peaceful rise of newer powers. "It was American strategy to see them get stronger," says Robert Kagan, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment and author of The Return of History and the End of Dreams.

The interdependence woven into the existing system creates mutual vulnerabilities that might deter efforts to weaken the United States directly. John Bruton, the European Union ambassador in Washington, says, "If the West goes into decline, so do they." U.S. policy aims to make China a "responsible stakeholder." If China were to sell off its trove of U.S. public debt, it would undercut the value of its own assets. More likely, Beijing sees buying treasury bills as both a good investment and a way to balance a relationship in which it has to sell to the American market to make its long climb out of poverty. "The Asians are not happy about America being so weakened," says Mahbubani.

The anti-declinists, meanwhile, also count America's demographics as a key source of vigor. Through its acceptance of immigration and its higher birthrates, America's population is projected not only to grow but to avoid taking on the aging profiles of China, Russia, and Western Europe. Russia's population is shrinking by 720,000 people per year—hardly the way to great-power status. China is also graying quickly, in part because of its one-child policy. They both face underdevelopment in their vast countrysides, ethnic tensions, environmental constraints, and the perhaps inevitable return of political pressures for democratic change. Neither country will find that its path to restored greatness is clear and smooth.

Nor, in the end, is America without geopolitical options. It has forged a strategic tie to the South Asian giant of India that reflects democratic and multicultural affinities. But it is also a de facto hedge against the strengthening of still-authoritarian China. U.S. strategists welcome a closer relationship with moderate Brazil, in part as more hedging, this time against anti-U.S. leaders in Latin America. Bush and a new set of more pro-American European leaders have been setting aside scraps over Iraq and other issues, and East European countries are looking to Washington for reassurance against a more assertive Russia. In East Asia, the United States remains the ultimate balancer to China. "We are still the glue that holds things together, despite the opinion polls," reckons Kagan.

Few doubt that America's global position will experience "relative shifts," to use the diplomatic language of State's Cohen. But, he insists, "there is no other country's hand I'd rather play." Says a senior U.N. diplomat, "Bet against America at your peril." Even so, in the 21st century, it might be prudent to spread a few wagers on others as well.

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