Mapping Decline: The History of American Power

By White, Donald W. | Harvard International Review, Fall 2005 | Go to article overview

Mapping Decline: The History of American Power


White, Donald W., Harvard International Review


"Great empires of history do decline and have declined, as Spengler
showed, but no law of history allows accurate predictions of when or how
these declines take place ... Those who point to a recent American
decline are correct, but prophecies of America's impending demise as a
leading force in the world remain untested and unproved. The United
States has declined from the position of preeminent power it had reached
in the middle years of the twentieth century. Future historians may well
record that this extraordinary era of American preeminence was when the
United States had its greatest influence on the world's peoples,
nations, and history."
"Mutable Destiny: The End of the American Century?"
Winter 1998

In chronicling the rise, flourishing, and decline of the powers of the world as he knew it in the fifth century BC, the Greek historian Herodotus stated that he would tell of the small cities and the great, for the cities "which were great once are small today; and those which used to be small were great in my own time." Judging that "human prosperity never abides long in the same place," Herodotus set forth a pattern for the study of subsequent historical epochs. The United States assumed a position of preeminence during the twentieth century, succeeding Alexander the Great's Hellenistic Empire of the fourth century BC, the Roman Empire of the first century, the Chinese and Mongol Empires of the thirteenth, and the British Empire of the nineteenth century. The decline and fall of the empires of the past are recorded by historians, but the story of the world role of the United States is still being written.

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Few issues should matter more to the current phase of world history than whether the United States is rising or declining in power. After all, for the greater part of the past century, when the United States rose to a summit of wealth and power among the world's nations, US influence extended globally through the example of a democratic republic and through trade, currency, overseas credit, humanitarian aid, and military force. At stake is the kind of world Americans want and the kind of world it will be--whether, as envisioned by intellectuals, it will be the United States at the forefront of the clash of civilizations, a struggle of modernization against tribalism, or an interdependent dialogue among civilizations instead of unilateral action.

A debate has been waged for many years over the decline of the power that creates this US-led world. Only a short time ago, the United States was proclaimed a "hyperpower" or a global "empire" capable of exerting overwhelming force to ensure world order and market capitalism. The other side of the debate takes the position that the United States is a vulnerable military superpower riding for a fall, burdened by the costs of overreaching with its forces abroad and reduced to closing its factories at home and outsourcing jobs as it imports goods for consumption from once impoverished countries. While borrowing capital to pay for its wars and trade deficit, the country is consequently risking its standard of living and the wherewithal to pay for military force, let alone humanitarian aid.

Since decline is, by definition, a sense of contrast between existing vulnerability and the condition of strength in the past, the conclusion based on the historical record seems inescapable that the long-term relative decline of the United States as a world power is continuous. The United States has not ceased to be a world power. It has, however, fallen from the position of preeminent power it had reached in the middle of the twentieth century. The decline is not absolute but relative to other rising world powers. The trend is not inexorable, and the loss of any condition of power is not necessarily permanent, depending essentially on the will and actions of the society.

So what is the direction of US power? …

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