Talk of America's decline is overstated

By Lee Hamilton
Dec 16 2008

 We are coming out of a two–year election season during which no policy detail went unexamined. In a pressure–packed campaign, looking over the horizon often means thinking about tomorrow or next week. But in foreign policy, understanding how the long–term trajectory of world events and politics relates to present–day decisions is essential.

What are the major global trends for the next several decades? How are power alignments shifting? What are tomorrow's challenges? These are the questions the National Intelligence Council sought to answer in preparing its recently published report “Global Trends 2025: A Transformed World.”

We can expect shocks, surprises and uncertainty, the report concluded. The United States remains the world's most powerful country, but its power has declined in relative terms, as China, India and others have increasing economic and political clout. The United States will not be able to call the shots without the support of others.

In the economic realm, globalization will continue. In the past 30–plus years, globalization has facilitated an unprecedented transfer of economic power, roughly from West to East. Oil remains the source of extraordinary wealth in the Persian Gulf, as both advanced and developing countries fuel economic growth. The locus of manufacturing, and now services, is moving from North America and Europe to Asia.

Indonesia, Iran, Turkey, and Brazil will also flex their geopolitical muscles a bit more, and the rest of Latin America could see the rise of middle–income powers.

A central question is what political–economic model will emerging countries emulate: state capitalism, as exists in China, or market capitalism, as exists in the United States?

At the societal level, there will be changes on five continents. Demographically, population growth is less than 3 percent in Western Europe and Japan, which will translate to a decline in the working–age population down the road. The U.S. will fare better, with higher birth rates and immigration. The youth bulge of the so–called “arc of instability” — from Africa, to the Middle East, the Balkans, and South and Central Asia — presents unique challenges.

While the global population grows, the availability of resources will decline.

The spread of technology will catalyze innovation worldwide, but will also provide terrorists and threatening states access to dual–use technology, most worryingly related to WMD.

A further diffusion of authority, the emergence of multiple new international players, and non–state actors, including multinational corporations, NGOs and terrorists, will result in an exceedingly complex international system.

This raises the question of whether existing multilateral institutions can adapt and handle new missions and responsibilities. International institutions and mechanisms are declining in effectiveness. The U.S. will certainly play a leading role in shaping these institutions in the future, but it will not be in a position to dictate the results.

Nonetheless, the arguments that America is in decline, which cite the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the rise of China and India, and the economic crisis as evidence, have been overstated. The U.S. will remain the guardian of security and order in the world, and the only superpower.

My guess is that the U.S. will accept these challenges, make adjustments, and continue to lead for decades to come. Americans will also accept the economic, personal and political costs of being the world's leader. Our leadership, in this rare and challenging moment in history, can reshape the world for the better.

The aforementioned trends could bring order, chaos, or something in between depending on decisions taken by political leaders. Bad outcomes are not inevitable, and America's leadership will count.

(Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University and Director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.)