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The rise and decline of the American ‘Empire’

By Geir Lundestad

Since around 1870 the United States has had the largest economy in the world. In security matters, however, particularly in Europe, the US still played a limited role until the Second World War. In 1945, at the end of the war, the United States was clearly the strongest power the world had ever seen. It produced almost as much as the rest of the world put together. Its military lead was significant; its “soft power” even more dominant.

After the Second World War the American share of world production rapidly declined to 40 percent in 1950, 30 percent in 1960, and 25 percent in 1975. Soon predictions were made, not only by the Soviet leaders, that the Soviet Union would come to surpass the United States. The problems of the 1970s — Vietnam, Watergate, and the partial collapse of the Bretton Woods-system — indicated that the United States was in decline. In the 1980s predictions were made again; this time that Japan would come to surpass America. And, despite the 1990s being a very strong decade for the US, the many successes of the European Union soon made many observers predict that the future belonged to the EU.

None of these predictions came to pass. The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991; Japan soon after entered into an economic and political crisis that still lasts; the EU had many successes, but some of them are now threatened, including the position of the euro. The American share of world production remained by far the highest, above 20 percent.

Now all the predictions focus on China overtaking the United States. China has many things going for it. Its economic growth has been truly spectacular since 1978, more impressive than that of any earlier power in history. It is likely that within less than a decade China will have a larger economy than the US — the first time this has happened since 1870. China is becoming a crucial actor economically all over the world. It is also rising militarily. Despite a largely modest official rhetoric, Beijing’s profile is heightened, for instance in the South China Sea.

China has a population that is more than four times larger than that of the US. That in itself provides a basis of strength, but as the result of the one-child policy China’s age distribution is less favorable than that of the United States. China is actually becoming old before it gets to be rich — the first country in history to do so. Even when China’s total economy surpasses that of the US, on a per capita basis China will still be a relatively poor country. It will inevitably get closer to the US in military strength, but it will still be lagging behind in the foreseeable future. The US still has eleven carrier battle groups; China has just launched its first carrier. China is also lagging far behind the US in virtually all aspects of soft power. Barack Obama is still relatively popular in many parts of the world, particularly outside the US; Chinese leaders are virtually unknown in most parts of the world.

Moreover, the United States works closely with its many allies in many different parts of the world. Germany, Britain, France, and the EU are still important powers. So is Japan. As long as the United States, Japan, South Korea, and Australia cooperate closely they will limit China’s role significantly even in East Asia. Growing concern about the rise of China makes other powers — including India and Indonesia — draw closer to the US. China, on the other hand, has few allies or even close friends. North Korea is liability; Burma is opening up more to the West; the ports the Chinese have been building in neighboring countries are less significant than they were once thought to be.

American politicians, and most of their voters too, assume that it is almost a law of nature that the United States will forever remain Number One. In this wider Great Power perspective, China is a bigger challenge to the US than the Soviet Union, Japan, or even the EU ever were. The American lead was extreme in the years after the Second World War; its predominance was resurrected in the 1990s with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Now, America’s growth is slow; its debt is huge; its political system clearly blocks needed change; the growing inequality is dysfunctional. On the military side, the vast American lead could not help the US to victory in either Afghanistan or Iraq.

So, the American “empire” is largely gone. The United States no longer leads the world the way it did in previous decades. America may well remain the world’s leading power for some additional decades, but it is now being balanced by various regional powers in virtually all parts of the world. And, in the long run it is simply not given for any power always to remain on top.

Geir Lundestad has been the Director of the Norwegian Nobel Institute and Secretary of the Norwegian Nobel Committee (which awards the Nobel Peace Prize) since 1990. He was a professor of history at the University of Tromsø from 1978 to 1989. He has been adjunct professor of international history at the University of Oslo since 1991. He has published numerous books on the Cold War and on American-European relations, including The Rise and Decline of the American “Empire”: Power and its Limits in Comparative Perspective (OUP, 2012), Just Another Major Crisis? The United States and Europe since 2000 (OUP, 2008), and The United States and Western Europe Since 1945: From “Empire” by Invitation to Transatlantic Drift (OUP, 2003).

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