During the Donald Trump presidency, the United States began to withdraw from the world. This withdrawal was accompanied by destructive chaos, turmoil and division within American society. Will the U.S. manage to halt this decline or allow it to continue? Or could the U.S. seize the opportunity to reverse course entirely and rebuild? These are the questions that must be asked by the Biden administration.
The U.S. has dealt with the question of decline more than once in the postwar era. Even in the immediate postwar period (which in retrospect marked the pinnacle of American power), whispered suggestions of impending decline accompanied various setbacks, including the success of Soviet nuclear tests, the Korean War stalemate and the 1957 Sputnik shock when the Soviet Union launched the first satellite into orbit.
The U.S. remained mired in the Vietnam War throughout the 1960s, with the fall of Saigon in 1975 prompting a widespread sense of weariness and decline within the American public and helping to usher in the Jimmy Carter administration. During the second oil crisis of 1979, President Carter urged Americans to overcome a so-called “crisis of confidence,” but went on to lose to Ronald Reagan in the 1980 presidential election.
Although the subsequent “Reagan revolution” seemed to revive America’s fortunes, during the same period Japan overtook the U.S. both economically and technologically — renewing talk of an American decline. Paul Kennedy’s “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers,” published in 1987, warned of the dangers of “imperial overstretch.” In Kennedy’s opinion, “the sum total of the United States’ global interests and obligations is nowadays far larger than the country’s power to defend them simultaneously.”
However, the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations witnessed a rapid succession of historic events: the Tiananmen Square protests (June 1989), the Gulf War (August 1990 – February 1991), and the collapse of the Soviet Union (December 1991).
The heyday of the United States’ unipolar world structure did not last long. The prestige and power of the United States has been severely damaged by yet another series of events: the conflict in Afghanistan — the longest war in U.S. history; the Iraq War and post-occupation that created a failed state, which has also only served to increase Iran’s power; and the Lehman shock that exposed the failings of American capitalism and corruption within the financial industry. So once again, people are busy hailing the advent of American decline.
Nowhere has the idea of American decline been discussed more avidly than in China. In 1991, Wang Huning, a leading political theorist for the Chinese Communist Party who has worked under three successive leaders (Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping) and who now sits on the Politburo Standing Committee, published “America Against America.” Wang’s America is the reverse mirror image of Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America.” The turmoil that has erupted under Trump’s leadership lends credence to Wang’s theory of an America in decline. China sees the three pillars of the present Pax Americana to be the United Nations, military alliances and values. The withdrawal of the U.S. from U.N. (institutions), or a declaration of its intent to withdraw, tensions within alliances and the turmoil unleashed by waves of populism in democratic countries are all seen to be “accelerating the decline of the United States.”
Then came the COVID-19 crisis. The misery inflicted by the virus across the United States and the government’s failed response has spread the idea of America’s decline even further among the general public globally. “When it comes to the question of global leadership, this is America’s Waterloo,” noted one Chinese blog post. This type of commentary reflects the belief that America has just lost as decisive a battle as Napoleon did in 1815, when his army was defeated by a coalition of British and Prussian forces at the Battle of Waterloo.
While China still respects American military power and the dominance of the U.S. dollar, its response to both threatens to plunge the U.S. into greater decline. China has developed and deployed what have been dubbed “aircraft-carrier killer” and “Guam killer” ballistic missiles to counter the U.S.’s technological advantage in advanced armaments such as its aircraft carriers and the F-35. Its response to the dominance of the dollar and financial investment restrictions is to employ a “leapfrog” currency strategy through the introduction of a digital yuan.
Yet it would be dangerous for China to view America’s decline as inevitable. If China convinces itself that the U.S. will continue to decline, it might decide the U.S. is capable of little more than defending itself in the face of an attack and attempt to win a confrontation by launching a preemptive first move. Meanwhile, if the U.S. believes its continued decline is inevitable, it might also be tempted to launch a first strike against China to maintain its dominance while it still holds a relatively advantageous position.
The U.S. must regain its national strength. Investing in infrastructure; providing universal health coverage; ensuring equal opportunity in education; bolstering the manufacturing sector; checking financial excesses; rebuilding the middle class and reviving a more centrist form of politics, these are projects that will likely require a generation to complete. Yet it remains as true today as when President John F. Kennedy said it: “A nation can be no stronger abroad than she is at home.”
Demonstrating such resolve both domestically and internationally is the most effective means of countering or deterring the risk of a miscalculated Chinese move against the U.S. predicated on the theory of American decline.
Yoichi Funabashi is chairman of the Asia Pacific Initiative and a former editor-in-chief of the Asahi Shimbun.
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