Assessing whether the U.S. is in decline requires a better sense of what it is that is declining and compared to who or what. This revolves around the question of state power — what is it, how can it be measured, and how is it different from the past? From about the middle of the 17th century until the end of the last, we had a rough sense of how these things worked. Core state power was some combination of wealth, geography, and population that could be translated into military power, which is what really mattered in world politics. This military power was used either to conquer other states, so that the territory and population could be added to the invader's aggregate power, or to defend or deter such an attack. There were rough measurements of these kinds of things: the soldiers, tanks, ships, sea port access, land mass, rivers, mountains, population and natural resources, etc. within a state could be counted and compared to others, and one could get a sense for which of the powers was rising and which was declining. The U.S. was obviously endowed with great assets in this system, and was the greatest world power throughout the 20th century.
But how we think about power — its sources, its uses, its measurements — has changed dramatically in the past few decades. The most important reason is that both the sources and purposes of state power have changed. Wealth still matters, though how it is created and distributed have changed significantly. But it is not clear that land and population figure into the formula in the same way it did historically.
Take geography: there are a number of reasons it is less important than it was in the past. First, the agricultural revolution of the 20th century and globalization's ability to create an efficient global market for food, commodities and finished goods means that a state needs far less land to thrive than it did in the past. Combined with a dramatic drop in birth and death rates, the wealthier countries of the world don't face the kinds of scarcity that drove fear and conquest in earlier centuries; if anything, their problems are ones of plenty. Second, conquest is far more difficult than it was in the past. Nuclear deterrence makes great power war absurd. But even in non-nuclear countries, invasion and occupation — as we found in Iraq and Afghanistan — are costly and counterproductive. Conquest and empires don’t pay like they used to. In the 21st century, it may be better to be Singapore than Russia.
Nor is it clear that population works like it once did. Will China and India's 1 billion-plus people add to their state power? Part of the answer depends upon the demographic composition of the citizenry and how prepared it is to contribute to the economy. Will they be an older population, more likely to pressure expensive social welfare and health systems than to innovate, as could be the case in China, Europe and Japan in decades to come? And in states where the population is younger, will they be healthy and educated in a manner that allows them to add to a nation's wealth, as opposed to being a source of instability? Whether fast growing states in South Asia, the Middle East and Latin America can create the infrastructure necessarily to prepare the majority of their younger populations (and not just an elite minority) to compete in and benefit from a globalized world is an open question. Even in the realm of military power, the sheer mass of high-population states matters less than having an integrated, educated, well-trained force armed with the latest technologies (outside of the U.S., how many militaries around the world could prevail in a contest with the tiny but highly effective Israeli Defense Force?).
For those that are skeptical that the sources and nature of power have changed dramatically, consider the following thought experiment. Which would be more likely to harm U.S. power: reducing the U.S. military budget to zero (yes, zero) for a year, closing Wall Street for twelve months, shutting down Silicon Valley until next summer, shuttering the Ivy League plus Stanford and MIT, or putting Hollywood on hold for the same length of time? While in some ways an absurd exercise, just thinking it through reveals how much the source and uses of power have changed in recent times. A zero military budget would be unlikely to lead to an invasion of the US by China or Russia.
This exercise also highlights the importance of a particular kind of wealth. In the past, harvesting wheat, mining coal and producing steel formed the basis of state power. Today, the ability to finance, insure, and fund much of the word's economic activity, to create and distribute cutting-edge technologies, to educate and retain the globe's best minds and to influence the world's culture — these matter more now than arming a levee en masse to conquer an undefended Canada.
Despite enormous problems, the U.S. is actually well placed to thrive in this new world against its competitors. While it can create countless low-level engineers, it is not clear that China can produce the sustained culture of innovation, transparency, and accountability that creates high-end wealth. Europe and Japan face fiscal crises worse than ours, with a less favorable demographic pattern to boot. Other potential competitors — India, Brazil, Turkey — have their merits but are still far from being consequential actors on the world stage. And should military power once again become the thing that matters most in international affairs, the U.S. is in a far better position than anyone.
We should not rest on our laurels, of course. Under these new metrics of power, having a highly-educated, healthy, adaptable and tolerant population with faith in the institutions that produce stability and encourage robust wealth-production and its fair distribution (such as local, state, and national government, schools, universities, banks, investment firms, media, major corporations, etc.) is paramount. There is much work to do to achieve these goals, but fortunately, the U.S. has both a head start and built-in advantages that provide a large and potentially growing lead over any potential rival.
Francis J. Gavin is the Tom Slick Professor of International Affairs at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and the Director of the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law at the University of Texas at Austin.