Is the U.S. on the wane as a superpower?

The U.S. has an unparalleled position militarily and economically, but faces an ideational problem

October 30, 2020 12:15 am | Updated December 05, 2021 08:53 am IST

FILE - In this Oct. 14, 2020 file photo, pedestrians pass the New York Stock Exchange in New York. Stocks are opening higher on Wall Street Tuesday, Oct. 20 as traders look over several solid earnings reports from U.S. companies. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II, File)

FILE - In this Oct. 14, 2020 file photo, pedestrians pass the New York Stock Exchange in New York. Stocks are opening higher on Wall Street Tuesday, Oct. 20 as traders look over several solid earnings reports from U.S. companies. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II, File)

Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed that China and Germany are soon going to be superpowers as U.S. influence wanes globally. Today as the U.S. is poised on the cusp of a new presidency, after a remarkable almost four years under President Donald Trump. It is worth examining whether its superpower status endures in the realms of politics, economics, military and diplomatic power and culture. Two experts on this subject, Professor Richard Lachmann from the University at Albany, of the State University of New York, and Professor Robert Lieber of Georgetown University’s Government and International Affairs Department, shared their insights with Narayan Lakshman . Edited transcript:

Some have argued that for the U.S. to have been a robust superpower, it should not have tried, in the post-Cold War era, to adopt a grand strategy of liberal hegemony, spreading democracy markets and other liberal values abroad, seeking to bring the whole world into a liberal order that it designed and led, especially not when it was driven by partisanship and conservative ideologies at home, which constantly tried to shrink the size of the state. Could this apparent contradiction and growing fiscal stress stemming from polarized partisan deadlocks in Washington DC, be the undoing of the U.S. as a superpower?

Richard Lachmann: For much of the Post-War period, there was bipartisan support for an aggressive U.S. foreign policy, members of both parties supported large military budgets for most of the wars that the U.S. initiated, and certainly most of the smaller interventions were supported by both parties. The only breaks for that came well into the Vietnam War when some Democrats and fewer Republicans opposed that war. And then with the Gulf and Iraq wars, there was a good bit of opposition by Democrats, but certainly enough support so that presidents were able to move ahead with those ventures. To the extent that there's a challenge to U.S. taking an aggressive position around the world, it's come now, from Mr. Trump. This is the real break in the bipartisan support for U.S. intervention around the world.


Robert Lieber: I see that question as problematic in itself. First of all, the Putin quote is typical Moscow disinformation, claiming that Germany will be a superpower is an insidious effort to puff up Germany, which the Russians are trying to peel off from its western neighbours politically and economically. There is no way Germany can or will be a superpower. Its people don't want it, its institutions won't handle it. And the nature of its coalition governments would make it impossible in any case. What Putin longs for is to cripple the European Union, as well as cripple NATO.

Second, Russia cannot be a superpower. Its economy remains a basket case. The only thing it produces that anyone wants, involves raw materials and energy. It's run by a corrupt thuggish mafia state. More than half the economy is controlled through outfits nominally under the state, but which are really are tied to Putin and his cronies. The one thing the Russians do have modern weaponry, and a rebuilt Armed Forces, but they completely lack the attributes to be a great power. The real question is China, no doubt we'll talk about that at greater length.

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Let me therefore respond just to the one part of your multi part question about the U.S. To describe the U.S. foreign policy up until Mr. Trump as a policy bent on liberal hegemony is a is a slogan used by neo-isolationists and realist scholars, that bears little relation to reality. It's certainly true that, as Professor Lachmann has said, the U.S. interventions had bipartisan support. But the fact is that already in the last days of President George W. Bush, and throughout the presidency of Barack Obama, those two presidents and then Mr. Trump in his own unique way, were seeking to retrench or pull back from America's extensive overseas involvements. Those involvements, however, had to do, above all, with seeking to sustain a rules-based international order, which the U.S. and his allies had done so much to construct, but which was increasingly under siege, from both Russians and Chinese, as well as from forces unleashed by globalisation itself – economic change and technology.

Comment | China-Russia ties as a major determinant

Even if there was bipartisan consensus in terms of the manner in which the U.S. intervened abroad, was there sufficient state capacity afforded to the machinery of the government, including from the domestic fiscal angle, having the economic muscle to intervene to spread its liberal values abroad?

Richard Lachmann: Certainly, the military budget has been more than ample throughout the Post War period. To the extent that the U.S. military has been unsuccessful abroad, it's not from lack of money. It's from poor strategy or trying to push policies in certain countries that there was no local support. The one thing that's changed is, since the Vietnam War, it's been impossible in the U.S. to draft citizens into the military. So the U.S. military has had to operate with a much smaller number of soldiers, and that certainly affects strategy. Domestically, from the Reagan era, there have been very sharp cutbacks in government spending. So the U.S. government's capacity to deal with domestic issues to provide for its citizens has been declining, and that certainly has an effect on the U.S. and weakens it even if it doesn't directly affect foreign policy.

Robert Lieber: This connects closely to a book that I'm nearly finished writing, with the working title Indispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in a Turbulent World . In it, I asked three questions. First, is the U.S. world role one of deep engagement and periodic leadership, essential for a decent, rules-based international order? It may or may not be, but I asked that question. The second question is, if the U.S. role is indispensable for that order, is it the case that much greater challenges abroad from hostile great powers – China, Russia, Iran, and so forth – coupled with important changes and challenges domestically, including polarisation and division, no longer make it possible for U.S. to play that role in some way? The third question I ask is, if the U.S. cannot play that role, what will the consequences be. My answer to the first question is yes, the U.S. is still as indispensable, and I'd be glad to state numerous examples of why. Second, the problems abroad and home are very real: the U.S. faces much greater obstacles to playing that role than it had, say, after the end of the Cold War for about two decades. And third, if the U.S. is unwilling or unable to play that role, I would argue that the consequences are likely to be quite nasty. The reason has to do with what are called collective action problems. That is to say, it's all well and good to say that if the U.S. pulls back from its commitments, other countries will band together to counterbalance Russia or Iran, or China. But it doesn't work that way. It has to do with problems of free riding, and the fact that collective action problems almost inevitably require that there be somebody to act as the catalyst, organiser, galvaniser of this, and this is far more than the issue of merely sending in the Marines. So if the U.S. continues to pull back, the consequences in terms of disorder, conflict, war, regional upheavals, and human rights as well as economic prosperity would be very unfortunate.

Do you think then at the present juncture, the U.S. is moving toward a more isolationist model, even as rising powers in other regions are starting to become more assertive and squabble with each other? Does it matter that this is happening even as the world faces a blowback on decades of globalisation dogma?

Richard Lachmann: It depends on which realm you refer to. In terms of global finance and regulating the global economy, the U.S.’s, powers have, if anything become greater. Since the 2008 financial crisis, the Federal Reserve is looked to by central banks and governments around the world as the stop gap, the one institution that can generate enough money to sustain the global economy. In that area, the U.S. remains indispensable, is recognised by other countries as indispensable, and the Federal Reserve has enough autonomy within the U.S. to play that role.

In the realm of military, the U.S.’s lack of success in Afghanistan and Iraq has had a profound effect. It has led to governments elsewhere in the world to feel that they have more room to challenge the U.S. without having to worry as much about consequences. That will lead to the sort of instability that Professor Lieber is talking about. It's important for us to recognise that the decline of the U.S. doesn't necessarily mean that another power will take its place. We could move into a world where you have regional powers exerting influence. You have a number of strong countries, challenging each other, hopefully without direct military clashes. Professor Lieber was exactly right in explaining why neither Germany nor Russia can replace the U.S. With China, it's too early to tell. Perhaps at some point, China will be able to step in if the U.S. declines precipitously.

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In the realm of culture and championing democracy, the U.S. has had a double role. On the one hand it certainly has been a champion of democracy and liberal values around the world even though in a number of countries the U.S. has fomented coups and suppressed democracies. That is something has happened under both parties. If we look at Latin America, one of the ironies of the Post War period is that it was under Presidents John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and Mr. Obama, the most liberal U.S. Presidents, that you had waves of coups in Latin America. If Mr. Trump is re-elected, this will be a blow to American prestige, the image of the U.S., that it won't be able to recover from. Somebody, like that can be elected President once, by mistake, but if they're re-elected, that's a sort of endorsement, and that would make a statement about Americans and their values that the rest of the world will recoil from with horror.

The U.S. national debt is something in the range of $16 trillion and growing, real wages are falling, productivity growth is down, some U.S. companies are losing their competitive edge in in global markets to rising powers, the nation's infrastructure is not in good shape, nor is the healthcare system, some cities and regions are unsafe schools are not delivering quality education to children, and inequality is rising. Given that countries such as China and India have engines of growth, a young population, a growing manufacturing base, and a culture of innovation taking root there, does the U.S. risk losing its global economic pre-eminence to these countries?

Robert Lieber: I agree fully with what Professor Lachman said about the role of the U.S. dollar, the Federal Reserve, and the importance of the U.S. economy. The U.S. and the Fed remain effectively the world's central bank. Despite the rise of China, the U.S. still possesses advantages almost across the entire spectrum by which power is measured, that are largely unmatched elsewhere. Natural resources, population, population size and scale, inventiveness, flexibility, entrepreneurial skills, high tech, great research, universities, energy and natural resources, agriculture, and resilient institutions. The problem for the U.S. is not so much in the material realm, but in the ideational. It has to do with will public consensus, human beliefs and so on. The issue right now is that of polarisation, and bitter and deep domestic dissensions. The confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett was without a single vote from the opposition party, the Democrats. Not since the year 1869, under newly elected President Ulysses Grant, has a Supreme Court justice been confirmed by the Senate without at least some bipartisan support.


Finally, there's one more factor which is social and cultural change in the U.S., not only demographic. The generation of the 1960s with its views that are largely condemnatory of the U.S. and our avant garde and social issues have prevailed in America's leading cultural institutions, foundations, much of the press, and universities. They have brought to maturity, a generation that simply lacks an understanding of America's historical role, that focuses exclusively on its merits and faults.

A final word here: The U.S. has many shortcomings. But you have to ask, compared to what? If you look at other great powers, now, in the recent past, or historically, the U.S. has had a far more benign impact, both for its own population and for much of the rest of the world. That gets lost in current domestic debates.

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Professor Lachman: The U.S. certainly has an unparalleled position militarily and economically. What is worrisome are the trends, the direction in which things are going. I don't think the large government debt is an issue, because the U.S. is unique in that the dollar is the world currency and through the Federal Reserve, most of that debt can be dealt with by just the Federal Reserve creating more dollars. Up till now, the inflation rate is so low that that danger doesn't exist. If anything is dangerous, it is not too much spending but too little or spending that goes in the wrong direction. The book that I published earlier this year, First Class Passengers on a Sinking Ship: Elite Politics and the Decline of Great Powers , makes that point.

We see that directly in healthcare: the U.S., both in actual amounts, and as a percentage of GDP, spends much more unhealthy than any other country in the world without getting results to justify that sort of spending. Countries that spend a lot less have longer life expectancy, less illness. The only way to explain that is that healthcare is delivered in a way that allows all sorts of providers to collect enormous sums, in essence, to loot the health care system.

We can look in other areas and see the same thing. If we look at the military, this is enormous spending, but the U.S. does have the sort of military that would justify that. That in part is because parts of the military budget go to buy weapons systems that are good for contractors, good for the careers of senior officers, but don't fit it all with the sorts of wars that the U.S. fights or might be fighting in the future. If we look in other realms, such as U.S. universities that are still leading, spending in the public sphere has been dropping, and those universities are doing less well.

The U.S. is facing a mortal threat if Mr. Trump is re-elected, and the limits on foreign students coming to the U.S. are sustained, and especially in the sciences at the graduate level. Not that many Americans want to study science and technology, they want to go into finance. The U.S.’s edge in science and technology is sustained almost entirely by international students come to the U.S. The day when they're not allowed in or they decide they want to study elsewhere, or they want to remain at home, the U.S.'s edge in technology will very quickly evaporate.

These are serious dangers that could undermine the U.S’s huge advantages that have lasted up till this moment.

Comment | Russia then, China now

During the first term of Mr. Trump, the U.S. has steadily been retreating from prior engagements with multilateral forums and withdrawing from treaty agreements and accords, including the Trans Pacific trade pact, the Paris Climate accord, the Iran nuclear freeze agreement, sort of close ties with NATO allies, diplomatic relations with Cuba, and even the diplomatic pivot to Asia, which was gaining momentum earlier. Earlier, the U.S. was facing blowback in Afghanistan and Iraq, more recently, Syria, the Arab Spring, and Washington's failure to curb the aggressive rise of China as an Asian hegemon. To remain a viable geopolitical superpower, is it necessary for the U.S. to rethink how it engages strategically with allies and foes?

Robert Lieber: The U.S. has these enormous capacities, pretty much across the board. There are certainly some worrying trends. Professor Lachmann has rightly pointed out some of them. Are they irreversible? No, I don't think so. But we also have to ask ourselves what American engagement and leadership mean. The U.S. cannot do everything. It's worth recalling even at the height of America's power, that is, after WWII ended in 1945, and again, after the end of the Cold War, when U.S. was the lone superpower, America was never omniscient, nor omnipotent. Throughout those periods of time, the U.S. perennially faced issues, problems, crises, conflicts, where, what it wanted to happen didn't happen, or it suffered reversals. So the question is, is the U.S. in the changing circumstances now in front of us, compared to even 20 years ago, still capable of exercising leadership? The answer is yes. But one has to understand what that means. That means leadership in galvanizing like-minded countries, with shared interests, for example, on China, which has been predatory economically, militarily and against its neighbours territorially, and against the world in the use of its economic and trade muscle. It is blatantly cheating on the rules of the road for trade, investment, technology, intellectual piracy, and so forth. We can only be effective if we do it in collaboration with our friends and allies. The Trump administration could have been far more effective if it had dealt with China, together in coordination with the European Union countries and with Asian allies.

If you don't do that, then you leave China in a position to pick off individual countries by using blackmail. So for example, the Australians call for an investigation into China's role in the spread of the coronavirus, which is really quite scandalous. The Chinese retaliated by blocking or threatening to block exports of agricultural goods and coal from Australia, which matter a great deal. That is just but one illustration. If you approached China with a more common shared response, you have far more leverage, and are likely to be far more effective in providing incentives as well as disincentives for China to play by the rules, which they manifestly do not do now. But that type of leadership will be rather different from the ability in the past, whether for good or ill to act more unilaterally.

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Richard Lachman: I certainly agree that the U.S. will only be able to counter shine if it has allies. If we look back at the whole Post War period, one of the big advantage of the U.S. had was that its allies were much wealthier and much stronger than those of the Soviet Union. Western Europe was able to contribute much more to NATO than the countries of Eastern Europe were able to contribute to the Warsaw Pact. The U.S. was able to maintain these allies by genuinely offering advantages and not trying to press to constantly have the U.S. benefit at the expense of its allies. What is worrisome now is that there's a view of trade agreements or even military alliances, that they need to work entirely for the U.S. and that if the U.S. is having to make contributions to sustain the alliance, that somehow it's being ripped off. That's certainly the way Mr. Trump presents it. But even before him, there was an element of that. It's certainly something that appeared in U.S. politics in earlier decades, but it was something that was overcome by a strong consensus around the need for U.S. leadership in the world. That's something that's appears to be coming apart, and, and I'm not at all confident that it can be reconstituted.

Robert Lieber: If I can answer here, we haven't given enough attention to certain advantages the U.S. still retains, despite going through a really bad patch these days. That has to do with values. Joseph Nye of Harvard referred years ago to soft power. The U.S. certainly has hard power. But soft power means values and whether the country shares those values and preferences with other countries. There's some skepticism about it, especially on the left, but ask yourself a simple question: do people want to go as refugees to China, Russia or Iran, or would they much rather come to Western European countries and the U.S.? Were it not for our unwise barriers to immigration these days, the answer is by far the U.S. Despite the blows we've taken, a lot of that is eminently repairable. It's worth remembering that despite what in some quarters is hysteria, about the threats to the American political system, the U.S. has sustained itself through challenges worse than these, the 1930s, the Civil War, and so forth. America's political institutions are very deep and resilient. The longer term prospects are the reasons to be cautiously optimistic, provided the U.S. has political and economic leadership that has a decent understanding of the stakes and the nature of America's world role, and the need for cooperation with allies. Now, let me say that cooperation can in some places involve cooperating with international institutions. In other cases, the answer is no, for example, because Russia and China vetoes on the UN Security Council, so we have to be rule or goal-oriented, rather than looking solely at the organisational standpoint.

Would you like to add to that, Professor Lachmann, also bearing in mind also that serious questions relating to racism, hate crimes, rising violence, divorce rates, and teenage suicide rates, predate Mr. Trump? Do these things matter to the definition of the U.S. as superpower nation?

Robert Lieber: If I can add something here, the I agree with some but not all of what Professor Lachman has said, China is notorious for a manipulating its statistics about its own population, its economy, its growth rate, and so forth. For example, pretty neutral, and authoritative site, the Economist magazine has made that point. And they're not the only ones. some of what's said about China, especially by the Chinese authorities themselves, is exaggerated. The Chinese GDP per capita is only slightly above that of roughly in the range of Mexico, for instance, although their overall GDP is quite large. Nonetheless, if you measure GDP, by market exchange rates, which the IMF said is the proper way to compare countries, he was still remains substantially ahead of China. The so I saw , to some extent, there's too much pessimism about the social situation, the economic inequality, race and so forth in the US. Some of it is wildly exaggerated, like the claim of systemic racism, , is frankly a a misnomer, although it's, you can't say that in public too readily. If you look at U.S. statistics, and he was situation just before the pandemic hit, levels of employment, prosperity, growing economic equality, especially for less paid workers, blue collar, lower white collar, share of the workforce, gainfully employed, and so forth. Those numbers were looking much better than they had in at least for four decades. And the COVID-19 pandemic, delt U.S. a body blow. that's reversible. Second is the very worrisome issue about America's image abroad, which right now is terror. But that's reversible. Assuming which is a risky proposition, but assuming a Biden election, I suspect the opinion polls will do a turn around very quickly. The same thing was true under fire less extreme circumstances in the shift after George W. Bush's end of his presidency and the onset of Barack Obama, for instance. And you'll find that if Mr. Trump is defeated, and Mr. Biden takes over, you'll see a similar switch. The frankly, most of our democratic liberal rules based allies would love the U.S. to do a turnaround and the poll, the opinion poll attitudes tend to swim oscillate from one extreme to the other. My guess is, again, with a huge caveat that if Mr. Trump loses the election, you will see such a swing in the coming months.

Also read: Two rising powers in two different eras

Richard Lachmann: It definitely does. I mean if we look back at the civil rights era that part of the motivation among white public officials was their worry about the Soviet Union's you know, very effective use of racism to make propaganda points and so we know that supreme court justices before they ruled that school segregation was unconstitutional. We're directly talking about that saying that if we continue to allow segregation, the Soviets will be able to make hay out of that. And if we look at the current period, the U.S.'s failure to deal with coronavirus this sort of open conflict, militia is going around with automatic weapons declining educational attainment, drug addiction there are all sorts of problems they, some of them wax and wane over time. But certainly, in recent years, many of these problems have been getting worse and inequality in the U.S. has been rising now for the past 40 years. And I certainly couldn't argue that everybody around the world is aware of that. But the people who shape opinions in other countries are aware of that they do talk about it. And the view in much of the world is the U.S. is much less capable of dealing with its domestic problems than it once was. And that undermines U.S. prestige, certainly not the whole image of the U.S., but it's an important one. And one of the strongest arguments China has is that even though they don't have democracy, they're very effective and dealing with some of their social problems yes. They were incompetent, if not criminal in their lack of response to the initial outbreak of coronavirus, but they now have suppressed it. And we see, there's one case in a city and within a few days, they've tested 5 million people, and isolated all the people have that that certainly adds to China's prestige and people around the world who are unsure of what's the model they want to follow? In addition to looking at is their democracy are dissidents thrown in prison, also look at government's abilities to address their citizens’ needs. And in some realms, China now is doing better than the U.S.. And that's a disgrace

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