America's superpower status is about to end
- I'm not normally one for predictions of doom (well
occasionally I am), but I don't think that's quite
what this article is anyway, and it has interesting
thoughts about the Bush administration's motives.
There are two common ideas on the administration's
motives: that either they're evil bastards out to
steal as much from the rest of the world as they
possibly can while forcing a semi-religious police
state upon America, or that they have the highest
moral principles possible and truly are trying to save
the world. This article has an idea a bit different
from either of those, and I think it's worth
America's superpower status is about to end
By Gwynne Dyer
Assume that the people who run defense and foreign
policy in the Bush administration are as ferociously
intelligent as they think they are.
What would their grand strategy be?
The very phrase "grand strategy'' has a antiquated
ring; enlightened modern opinion rejects the notion
that relations between the great powers are just a
zero-sum game. But this is a group of people who are
steeped in traditional modes of strategic thought:
Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Stephen
Hadley and Condoleezza Rice would all have worked
quite comfortably for Cardinal Richelieu or Count
Bismarck. (Whether they would have been hired is, of
course, another question.)
They are, in addition, patriotic Americans who are
firmly convinced that U.S. power is an instrument for
good in the world. And they all know that the days of
the United States as the world's sole superpower are
They must know it. They cannot be unaware of the
statistics the rest of us know: a Chinese economy that
has been growing over twice as fast as the U.S.
economy for almost two decades now, and an Indian
economy that has been growing at around twice the U.S.
rate for almost a decade already.
And they surely understand the magic of compound
China's economy will overtake that of the United
States in one long generation if current trends
continue. (Goldman Sachs predicted in 2003 that
Chinese GDP would surpass that of the U.S. in 2042.)
India, starting later and growing slightly slower,
will not reach the same milestone for a further decade
or more, but both Asian giants will be nipping at
America's heels long before that. And economic power
is the source of most other kinds of power.
Per capita income in China and India will still be
much lower than that of the United States, but it will
not be that low: Goldman Sachs predicts a Chinese per
capita income in 2042 comparable to that of Western
Europe today. Combine this wealth with populations
that will be three or four times bigger than that of
the United States in the 2040s, accept that there is
unlikely to be any remaining innovation gap, and
Washington will be facing a formidable pair of
Most people are not panicked by this future because
they assume that there will no longer be a Communist
regime in China 35 years from now, and they know that
India is a democracy already. There is nothing in
either country's history or current behavior to
suggest that they would behave less responsibly than
the existing great powers have done (though admittedly
the bar has not been set very high). But seeing the
United States reduced to only one great power among
others cannot be a prospect that appeals to American
strategic thinkers of a traditional bent - so what is
their grand strategy for averting it?
They must have one. Paramount powers facing relegation
always have one, although it rarely stays the same for
long and it never, ever works.
In the past four centuries we have observed three
other "sole superpowers'' of the age slide down the
slope of (relative) decline - Spain, France and then
Britain - and none of them even came close to solving
the problem: economics trumps everything else in the
People who search for a long-term strategy in
neo-conservative policies invariably end up thinking
there is none, but that's because they are looking for
coherence. They expect too much.
When strategists are confronted with an insoluble
problem, they generally try to solve it anyway, and
they are not above using irrational assumptions to
stick the bits of rational analysis together.
Great powers on the brink of decline typically have
incoherent and foredoomed strategies to ward off their
fate, simply because no better strategies are
available. "I have not become His Majesty's first
minister to preside over the dissolution of the
British empire,'' Winston Churchill harrumphed in 1940
- but from the Spanish armada of 1588 to the
Anglo-French invasion of Egypt in 1956, the flailing
efforts of paramount powers to ward off impending
demotion from "superpower'' status have generally just
hastened the process.
How might this apply to the senior people inside the
Bush administration? Some of them clearly believe
exactly what they say, no matter how simplistic and
delusional it may appear to outsiders, but others
genuinely are strategic thinkers. These people will
not speak in traditional power-political terms in
public - instead they will use the "terrorist threat''
or any other excuse that comes to hand to justify
their strategies - but they know about the coming
erosion of American power and they will be desperately
seeking ways to avoid it.
Is the invasion of Iraq, and the whole project of
resurrecting Pax Americana that lies behind it, just
such an attempt to head off impending relative decline
by putting the U.S. back in the global driving seat,
as much the "leader of the free world'' as it was in
the halcyon days of the Cold War? Very likely.
Will it work? Don't be silly. It never works:
economics rules, and there is no way of stopping China
and India from catching up with the current Lone
Superpower short of nuking their entire economies.
And no: I don't think they'd do that. But their little
adventure will almost certainly have the long-term
effect of hastening America's relative decline. That
sort of strategy usually does.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent columnist.
Publication date: 03-29-2005
> state upon America, or that they have the highestQuite sarcastic. But should sound natural to the true believers. :-)
> moral principles possible and truly are trying to save
> the world. This article has an idea a bit different