Global power: Is the influence of the United States in decline?

Published: 2019/12/12 Number of words: 3511

‘The global power and influence of the United States is in decline and will be matched by other rising powers.’ Discuss.

This question will be discussed from two points of view: the first is represented by the declinists who argue that the position of the US as a global hegemon is now in jeopardy and its influence is in decline. This is due to increased levels of debt, the rise of other powers and the pursuit of global primacy in the post-Cold War era. On the other hand, there are the primacists who argue that the constraints on the US’s exercise of global power are fairly weak and the rising powers counterbalancing the US supremacy are not an issue at present.

A short introduction to the hegemonic stability theory will be given as well as brief description of US-Europe relations. The main argument will be supported by military and economic comparisons between the US and the other three potential rising powers: China, India and Russia. The essay will come to the conclusion that despite the fact that other countries have increased influence on the global arena, they are still far from challenging the US hegemony.

The Hegemonic Stability Theory

According to this theory, an open international economic system requires a single hegemonic power to perform military and economic tasks in critical situations. Militarily, the hegemon is responsible for stabilizing key regions and for guarding the global commons. Economically, the hegemon provides public goods by opening its domestic market to other states, supplying liquidity for the global economy, and providing a reserve currency’ (Lane, 2012, pp. 420).

The Declinist Argument

Before the Great Recession in 2007, most scholars interested in American security dismissed the idea that the US’s power and influence was in decline. However, in the following period doubts about the American economic power were raised and China`s rapid rise to the status of a great power backed up the idea that the geopolitical dominance of the US had eroded. One of the supporters of the declinist argument is Paul Kennedy, who in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, vigorously debated the decline of US power. Moreover, his arguments on the erosion of American economic power were supported by scholars such as Samuel Huntington (1988) and David Calleo (1982). The costs of the Cold War and the economic successes of West Germany and Japan were only a few reasons offered by Kennedy in his argument. On the basis of this, he was labelled by Joseph Nye as a declinist, not because he was analysing some worrisome trends in the US`s power but because he seemed an advocate of the American decline.

However, neither Kennedy nor the other scholars assumed that the US would suffer a catastrophic collapse; rather more of a slow decline due to increased expenditure and not enough savings, persistent trade, federal budget deficits and increasing external debt. The declinist debate became increasingly popular in the 1980s; however, with the misfortune suffered by the Japanese at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the declinist argument seemed to lose credibility. The end of the Cold War saw the transformation of a bipolar international system into one that was unipolar. Kenneth Waltz argued that this new unipolarity would merely be a short-lived transition from bipolarity to multipolarity, and it would encourage other countries to become great powers, counterbalancing the American hegemony.

Post 2007, Christopher Lane has also supported the idea that the US power and influence is in decline and brings up two factors contributing to this. Domestic factors such as the declining American economic power, the alarming fiscal crisis the US is facing and the ‘increasing doubts about the dollar`s long-term hold on reserve currency status’ (Lane, 2012, pp.413) as well as the emergence of new great powers[1] in the international arena are the drivers of the end of Pax Americana. Lane also states that during and since the Great Recession, the US has proved incapable of getting the global economy back on track, and has become the world`s largest debtor. Others, notably China, has had to step up and do so. In this respect, the US is no longer capable of acting as a global hegemon. Militarily, the US still guards the global commons and acts as a regional stabilizer, despite some debates over the outcome of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Noam Chomsky has offered arguments supporting the declinist position, stating that the US decline started from the high point of American power shortly after World War II and that the triumphalist rhetoric that followed was only self-delusion. However, he dismisses the idea that power will shift to China and India. He maintains that both these countries are poor and have severe internal problems (2011). According to Chomsky, with America in decline the world will become more diverse, but that in the foreseeable future, no competitor for the global hegemonic power will emerge. While agreeing that American power is in decline, he acknowledges that, at present, the US still remains the world`s most dominant power by a wide margin.

The Primacist Argument

Scholars such as William Wohlforth and Stephen Brooks support the idea that the decline of the US power may have been overstated for three main reasons: first, the extent and the rapidity of the shift in America`s power are overstated and the world remains unipolar. Multipolarity is far from being achieved; secondly, the nature and severity of America`s fiscal problems have been overestimated by analysts who also underestimate their reversibility; and thirdly, the main dynamics that have illustrated ‘the great-power politics that emerged with the advent of unipolarity two decades ago remain robustly in place (Wohlforth and Brooks, 2012, pp. 422). Moreover, when the four main actors who could be considered as challengers of US hegemony are compared with the US, it is apparent that they are no threat – at least not in the foreseeable future.

Europe and the US

Joseph Nye clearly stated that Europe is not a challenge to US power and influence. He supports his view by saying that despite the fact that Europe has a larger economy and population than America, the continent is stagnating. In 1900, one quarter of the world`s population were Europeans; by 2060 the number could decrease to only six per cent, of which one third will be older than 65. Mike Smith also discussed the relationship between the US and Europe and concluded that the relationship had developed over the past fifty years with Europe also becoming more dominant on the world stage. He also stated that the relationship between the two was based on political, economic and security interactions and although there had not been major tensions between the two, in the future, this may be different. In his opinion, the EU–US relationship might converge, thereby developing new and integrated transatlantic bargaining; diverge with increased tensions; drift, implying the growth of indifference and unevenness’ (Smith, 2012, 235).

China vs the US

At present the relationship between the US and China is one of the most significant yet complicated bilateral relationships in the world. In a recent interview, Chinese Vice Premier Wang Yang stated that China has ‘neither the ability nor the intent to challenge the United States’. This comment has stirred up debate among both scholars and policy makers; they claim that not only is it unusual for a Chinese leader to make such remarks but it is also surprising due to the assertiveness of China`s recent foreign policies. Therefore, many claim China wishes to replace the US influence in the Asian region and also become the new global hegemon.

However, according to The Diplomat, US mistrust of China`s long-term goals is not only misguided but also a threat to Asia`s stability if left uncorrected. According to the same source, the Chinese vice premier may have been both honest and right when claiming that China does not have the capabilities or the desire to remove the US’s status of global hegemon. This is supported by the following:

First, when looking at both China`s military capabilities and technology and its economic power, most Chinese analysts agree that the US still has the upper hand. Despite the fact that China`s military active manpower is 2,333,000, is almost twice that of the US (1.4 million), it lags behind in other military areas such as aircraft numbers, naval power and nuclear technology (, 2015). China has been increasing its annual defence spending by double digit figures year after year. However, this is far less than the defence spending of the US ($612bn a year).

Moreover, despite China’s economy surpassing that of the Americas in 2014, the quality of its economy is still a major weakness. With regard to purchasing power parity (PPP), China is close to surpassing the US in overall economic strength but much of China’s economic capability is related to its huge population (1.35 billion). In terms of GDP per capita, China is still well behind the US, Japan and most European countries with its population experiencing a lower standard of living (, 2014).

However, according to a survey by Pew Research Center, four out of seven European countries and some of America`s largest trade partners perceive China as the global economic power. This includes 51 per cent of those interviewed in France, 49 per cent in Germany, 49 per cent in Spain and 49 per cent in the UK. Moreover, countries with less enthusiastic opinions of the US, such as Jordan (47 per cent) and the Palestinian territories (46 per cent), also view China as the world`s economic leader. ‘In the last six years, across the 20 countries surveyed in both 2008 and 2014, the perceived economic balance of power has shifted dramatically. In 2008, just months before the onset of the Great Recession, a median of 49% across 20 countries said America was the leading global economic power, with only 19% picking China. Six years later, 40% say the US is the top economy while 31% say China’ (, 2014, p4).

Further, as DingDing Chen stated in The Diplomat, China has limited ambitions when it comes to global hegemony. Although China may have dreams of economic grandeur, it by no means desires to create a Sino-centric tributary system, where all the other Asian countries have to obey its orders. While the US analysts are accused of having a realist mindset where all countries seek power and influence, the Chinese analysts claim that in this new era of international politics dominated by rising nationalism, economic interdependence and nuclear power, the costs of hegemony outweigh the benefits. China is quite aware of this and therefore has decided not to seek global hegemony (, 2015).

India vs the US

India has a large population with more English speakers than any country[2], a prosperous, high tech sector, strong educational institutions[3] and a longstanding democratic system. These factors might elevate India to the status of a great power in the world; however, is it generally acknowledged by current scholarship that it will not overtake US as a world hegemon. The increasing economic power[4] and the size of the military and ongoing military technology modernization, may lead to a slightly increased global influence for India but political, cultural and macroeconomic factors are still obstacles in India`s development as a regional power.

When Narendra Modi became Prime Minister in 2014, he vowed to reform the Indian government and help to jumpstart its anaemic economy. His reforms are still in their early stages and it could be more difficult to eradicate government corruption than he anticipated, Further, he may find that his economic ambitions could fall in the face of the reality of poor infrastructure and widespread poverty. Moreover, the tensions between India and Pakistan and the growing military power of China could lead to increased military expenditure, create internal conflicts between the Hindu and the Muslim populations and distract India from other priorities.

India may be considered by some of its neighbours as a regional power, but when it comes to global hegemony, by comparison with the US, India lags far behind. Economically, the US has both a higher GDP and a GDP per capita as well as less unemployment and a lower inflation rate than India (, 2015). Paul Kennedy stated that there is a strong relationship between a country`s economic power and military strength. However, there are also exceptions to the rule, as is the case with Japan.

With regard to its military power, India `s fleet strength is less than half that of the US, it has ten times fewer aircraft carriers and it also lags behind in terms of other military technology. For almost twenty years India has tried to develop and deploy ballistic and other types of missiles; the US has the capacity to produce and deploy highly sophisticated liquid and solid fuelled missiles of all ranges. With respect to their nuclear capabilities, the US is in the lead with a sizeable arsenal of nuclear warheads (, 2015).

India`s position in the international community has been changing in the past few years, especially with regard to the balance of power in Asia. This is due to the fact that both the US and Japan want to build strong strategic relationships with India in order to counterbalance China`s rising power. However India is only recognised as the regional power status. India’s military is strategically designed to deter China, as can be seen in its naval capabilities.

It is widely believed that India has a better trained navy than China, largely due to joint US-India naval exercises. The country also has one more aircraft carrier than China. India could pose a legitimate threat to global stability, mostly because of its geostrategic importance: located between China, South East Asia and the Middle East, India is currently engaged in border disputes with both China and Pakistan, which would see it involved in any possible conflict in the region.

Russia vs the US

According to the World Policy Institute, despite Russia`s recent increased presence on the world stage, the country is not going to regain its superpower status in the foreseeable future. In order to be a superpower, a country must have four axes of power: military, economic, political and cultural. As stated by the same source, Russia is not politically or culturally desirable to other regions of the world. The country has attracted a lot of negative attention due to its violent attitude towards its homosexual population. Demographically, it is not doing well: the quality of life is less than desirable, the life expectancy is fairly low and the population has been declining since the fall of the USSR, due to young Russians emigrating to other European countries.

At present Russia is involved in an ongoing conflict against Ukraine, has been accused by the US for breaking arms treaties and it has also been sanctioned by the international community. Fifty years ago, the situation would have probably escalated into a war; however, at present the issue is being dealt with in a different way because after all, Russia is not the Soviet Union anymore. Militarily, Russia has approximately 8,500 warheads of which 1,800 are operational. This translates into great firepower but these weapons are largely only for deterrence. Russia has an estimated 845,000 active troops – an army that is closer in size to the South Korean army (650, 000) than to the US army (1.4 million), these numbers being one of Russia`s stronger points. The Russian army is not very well funded or armed: in 2013 the US spent $600 billion on defence, while Russia spent less than $100 billion on defence in the same year. Although Russia has more tanks than the US, only ten per cent of the army is equipped with modern weapons.

Economically, Russia is not doing well either. According to World Bank data, Russia`s GDP in 2013 did not come even close to that of the US, and was lagging behind countries such as Japan, France, the UK, Germany and even Brazil and Italy. The GDP per capita is also almost four times lower than that of the US. The economic sanctions imposed on Russia as a result of the year-long conflict with Ukraine have been described as an ‘economic war’ and have isolated Russia from international business and trade. The falling oil prices starting in June 2014 have also affected Russia`s exports and revenues, with some economic analysts stating in 2014 that Russia`s economy might enter recession. President Barack Obama has warned Putin to keep his troops out of Ukraine or face even harsher sanctions but has also called Russia a ‘regional power’.

To conclude, as Ehsan Ahrari stated in his book, The Great Powers Versus The Hegemon, the demise of the US`s power is not inevitable, and despite the fact that the next decade might witness the rise of China as an economic leader, creating a bipolar world, militarily the US will still retain its dominant status. He also states that India`s power will increase, mostly due to its strategic alliance with the US, while Russia will be left behind due to its anaemic economy. These views seems to be supported by facts and evidence, and although the power and influence of the US might gradually decrease, it will still remain the only superpower, mainly due to its strategic dominance in East Asia, Europe, and the Middle East and because, contrary to the declinist view, it has maintained a positive profile in leading the world out of economic recession.


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[1] He concludes that China offers the most tangible evidence that the US hegemony is eroding.

[2] Apart from the United States

[3] However, only 63% of the population is literate.

[4] India`s economic strength ranks in the top ten in the world (, 2014)


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