Recently I met a retired British diplomat who claimed with some pride that he was the man who had invented the phrase, “the management of decline”, to describe the central task of British foreign policy after 1945. “I got criticised,” he said, “but I think it was an accurate description of our task and I think we did it pretty well.”
No modern American diplomat – let alone politician – could ever risk making a similar statement. That is a shame. If America were able openly to acknowledge that its global power is in decline, it would be much easier to have a rational debate about what to do about it. Denial is not a strategy.
President Barack Obama has said that his goal is to ensure that America remains number one. Even so, he has been excoriated by his opponents for “declinism”. Charles Krauthammer, a conservative columnist, has accused the president of embracing American weakness: “Decline is not a condition,” he declared. “Decline is a choice.” The stern rejection of “declinism” is not confined to the rabid right. Joseph Nye, a Harvard professor and doyen of US foreign policy analysts, regards talk of American decline as an intellectual fad – comparable to earlier paranoia about the US being overtaken by Japan. Thomas Friedman, a New York Times columnist, has just published a book that is subtitled, “What went wrong with America – and how it can come back”.
What is not permissible, in mainstream debate, is to suggest that there may be no “coming back” – and that the decline of American power is neither a fad nor a choice but a fact.
Admittedly, America’s relative decline is likely to be much less abrupt than the falling-off experienced by Britain after 1945. The US is still the world’s largest economy and is easily its pre-eminent military and diplomatic power. However, the moment at which China becomes the world’s largest economy is coming into view – the end of the decade seems a likely passing point. Of course, it is true that China has its own grave political and economic problems. Yet the fact that there are roughly four times as many Chinese as Americans means that – even allowing for a sharp slowdown in Chinese growth – at some point, China will become “number one”.
Even after the US has ceded its economic dominance, America’s military, diplomatic, cultural and technological prowess will ensure that the US remains the world’s dominant political power – for a while. But although economic and political power are not the same thing, they are surely closely related. As China and other powers rise economically, they will inevitably constrain America’s ability to get its way in the world.
That is why America needs to have a rational debate about what “relative decline” means – and why the British experience, although very different, may still hold some valuable lessons.