The Rise or Fall of the American Empire

Editor’s Note: In Foreign Policy’s Argument section, Robert Kagan, author of The World America Made, discusses whether the American empire is rising or falling with fellow contributors Daniel Drezner and Gideon Rachman. The following is excerpt from one of Kagan’s responses.

Robert Kagan:

Dear Dan and Gideon,

Many thanks to you both for this lively and important discussion. I’m glad Obama mentioned the excerpt from my book, not only for the obvious reasons, but also because he has kicked off a genuinely useful debate about the relative position of the United States and other powers in the international system. We seem to have slipped into a “post-American world” a couple of years ago without much rigorous analysis of whether that was really a good description of the international system. I believe it is not.

First, those GDP figures. My argument that the U.S. share has held fairly steady with roughly a quarter of world GDP since 1969 rests on the U.S. government’s figures, which can be found here.

Anyone who takes the trouble to look into this question quickly discovers that, of course, the numbers are a bit all over the place. The IMF’s own numbers are constantly changing, even in regard to the past. For instance, as I wrote in response to Luce and Sachs, according to the IMF’s 2010 World Economic Outlook report, the U.S. share of world GDP based on purchasing power parity in 1980 was 22.499 percent. In 2007, the last year before the Great Recession, the U.S. share was 21.289 — not much of a shift. In its 2011 report, however, the IMF put the share in 1980 at 24.6, making the shift seem greater. Which is right? As for the IMF’s projections, can we wait and see how they turn out before building an entire global theory around them? They are constantly revising those up and down, too, and things may look different when the United States pulls out of its recession.

But how much weight should we put on this statistic in any case? Some, surely. There is no question that as China’s share of the global economy grows, Chinese influence will grow in some respects as well. But I find it remarkable that in so many of these discussions, those who point to China’s growing GDP share neglect to mention that China’s per capita GDP is a fraction of that of the United States and other leading economic powers. Per capita GDP in the United States is over $40,000; in China it is a little over $4,000, roughly the same level as in Angola and Belize. Even if optimistic forecasts are correct, by 2030 China’s per capita GDP will still be only half that of the United States, roughly where Slovenia’s is today. It is interesting to contemplate what this might mean if China were to become economically dominant, because it is historically unprecedented; in the past, the world’s dominant powers have also been the world’s richest.

As a matter of geopolitics and power, the size of a country’s economy by itself is not a great measure. If it were, then China would have been the world’s strongest power in 1800, when it had the largest share of global GDP. So the next question is whether China can translate its economic power into geopolitical influence. Again, it will undoubtedly do so to some extent. But power and influence do not stem from economic strength alone, and China is already the best proof of this. Over the past couple of years, as the U.S. economy has been slumping and China’s has been booming, the United States has significantly improved its standing in East Asia and Southeast Asia, while China’s position has deteriorated. In fact, the more China uses its newfound muscle, the more it sparks a reaction in the region, which then looks to the United States for succor. (This was the key insight of William Wohlforth years ago in his brilliant essay, “The Stability of a Unipolar World.”) Gideon keeps predicting that Japan is about to tilt toward China, but all signs point in the opposite direction — and not only for Japan but also for most of China’s other neighbors. The fact that China is the top trading partner of all these countries does not necessarily increase China’s clout. I gather that even Brazilians are increasingly unhappy at becoming merely a raw materials provider to the Chinese. No economy in the world is more dependent on China than Australia’s, but look at the new U.S. base the Australians just welcomed onto their soil. Trade does not necessarily breed comity or strategic dependence. As many have pointed out, in 1914 Germany and Britain were each other’s largest trading partners too.

China, in fact, has significant obstacles to overcome before it can become a global power on a par with the United States — above all, the fears and suspicions of neighbors who are themselves pretty powerful and, in the case of India, rising almost as fast as China. It is a cliché, but the United States really was blessed with a favorable geographic situation. It has no great powers in its hemisphere and faces no direct threat from any of its neighbors. China is surrounded by past and future adversaries. Even the Soviet Union was in better shape during the Cold War.

This in part answers Dan’s question about the state of America’s allies. That India and Brazil may not move in lock step with the United States is not all that important. U.S. influence does not derive from being able to tell everyone what to do all the time; it never could, even in Europe at the height of the Cold War. Rather, it is the overall balance of influence in the world that helps determine America’s position. In a future where the United States and China are likely to be competitors, a powerful India strengthens the American hand no matter how friendly New Delhi and Washington may be.

As to Europe, let’s take a broader perspective, please. Compared with the devastated Europe that the United States inherited as an ally in 1945, today’s Europe, even with its economic crisis, is a mega-superpower and a very fine ally to have, indeed.

Read the full debate »