Skip to main content

U.S. President Donald Trump and China’s President Xi Jinping leave a business leaders’ event at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Nov. 9, 2017.

Conventional wisdom suggests the U.S. is in decline, and a rising China will replace it as the world's superpower. But how realistic is this?

Andrew Preston is a professor of American history at the University of Cambridge whose books include Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith: Religion in American War and Diplomacy.

With the world on edge about North Korea, the U.S. President did what he usually does in these situations: flex America's muscles. In October, Donald Trump deployed three aircraft-carrier groups to the western Pacific, under the command of the U.S. Navy's mighty 7th Fleet. Based in Japan, the 7th Fleet is more powerful than many national navies. Once again, the U.S. military was acting as the world's cop, there to reassure the locals that criminals will be kept in check and that their neighbourhood will remain safe.

The 7th Fleet has had a difficult year, however: Since January, it's suffered six crashes, five involving ships and one involving a navy transport plane. These incidents didn't result from engagements with enemy forces, but from accidental collisions with less-menacing vessels: a fishing trawler, a merchant ship, an oil tanker and a tugboat. In one incident, a U.S. warship simply ran aground off the coast of Japan. The Seventh Fleet's commander has been summarily dismissed.

Meanwhile, China has been busy building a new archipelago out of nothing in the South China Sea. The small islands, mostly built from reclaimed land in what Beijing claims are Chinese sovereign waters but are also claimed by five other Asian countries, will serve as a strategically critical base for China's growing naval and air power. From it, Beijing hopes to be able to enforce its writ throughout the western Pacific. It's a mind-bogglingly massive project that's as impressive as it is troubling.

It's hard not to see all this as representative of contrasting U.S. and Chinese geopolitical fortunes today. While the 7th Fleet bumbles around the western Pacific, China is creating an immense military complex out of sandbars, submerged atolls and coral reefs.

Such developments, and others throughout the year, have led to a new conventional wisdom that became commonplace in 2017: The United States is in decline, and a rising China will replace it as the world's superpower. But how realistic is this? Will 2018 mark the threshold of a new era, when the structures of world order are no longer supported by U.S. military, political, economic and cultural power? History suggests otherwise.

Without question, the United States is facing serious challenges to its status as the world's dominant country. China's economy, now the world's second largest, is closing in fast – current forecasts have its overall GDP surpassing America's in little more than a decade. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the longest in U.S. history, humiliated America, wasted billions (perhaps trillions) of dollars and counterproductively resulted in further instability and insecurity.

America's global predicament also has poisonous roots at home. The Great Recession widened an already alarming socioeconomic gap. Politically, the country is polarized and paralyzed. Americans are divided in other ways, too, especially on race but also on other fundamental questions about identity – the "culture wars" that erupted in the 1990s haven't subsided, as many hoped at the turn of the century, but intensified. Two deadly epidemics, opioid addiction and gun violence, are symptoms of social dysfunction as well as sources of anguish.

The confluence of waning power abroad and the social-cultural crisis at home have led many to wonder if we're witnessing the death of the American Century – and perhaps the birth of the Age of China.

World leaders, uncertain they can rely on Washington, have already sounded the alarm, with even long-standing allies expressing doubt. In May, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, dismayed after a meeting with an underwhelming Mr. Trump, said that "we Europeans must really take our destiny into our own hands."

Just more than a week later, in a measured and intelligent but also remarkably pointed address to the House of Commons in Ottawa, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland warned that America's wavering stewardship of world order was forcing Canada to look elsewhere for leadership. Like Ms. Merkel, Ms. Freeland lamented the Trumpian turn inward. History showed that "the narrow pursuit of national self-interest … led to nothing but carnage and poverty." (These digs at Mr. Trump's "America First" inaugural address were subtle but unmistakable.) Because "our friend and ally has come to question the very worth of its mantle of global leadership," Canadians must pick up some of the slack.

The Economist, as acute an observer of the world scene as any, already perceives a hegemonic transition in motion. In October, the magazine featured Chinese President Xi Jinping on its cover above words usually reserved for the U.S. President: "The world's most powerful man." A few weeks later, a bald eagle with a distinctive Trumpian bouffant graced the cover, accompanied by a rather different headline: "Endangered: America's future as a global power."

Perhaps the keenest observers of America's global crisis are the Chinese themselves. Mr. Xi has moved to fill the leadership vacuum Mr. Trump has created. Last January, at the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Mr. Xi issued a staunch defence of globalization and presented China as an alternative leader to the increasingly protectionist United States. Mr. Xi repeated this message at the recent APEC summit in Vietnam. Globalization "has become an irreversible historical trend," he declared, in words that could have come from the mouth of any U.S. president from George Bush Sr. to Barack Obama.

As the United States withdraws from its global commitments on trade and climate change, China is stepping into the breach with its "One Belt, One Road" infrastructure program to bind Eurasia and Africa more tightly together and its new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank to fund international development projects. Mr. Trump's dark vision of "American carnage" finds a stark contrast in the hopeful pursuit of the "Chinese Dream," which Mr. Xi officially proclaimed in 2013.

As New York Times columnist Antony Blinken put it during the recent Xi-Trump summit in Beijing, "It's hard not to see two leaders – and two countries – heading in very different directions." Time magazine already thinks the contest is over: "China Won."

The United States has its problems, there's no doubt about that. But is it actually in decline? That's less clear.

There are two ways of looking at decline: absolute and relative. Absolute decline means that a country's sources of power are diminishing – its economy is getting weaker, its military getting smaller and so forth – in measurable terms. Relative decline is different in that a country might have the same (or larger) sized economy and military but its rivals have made even greater gains. The thing about relative decline is that it can fluctuate, and even be reversible. The power of any country can rise and fall, and rise and fall again. Power is rarely static.

In absolute terms, the United States is definitely not in decline. Its ability to project economic and military power is still unmatched – the 7th Fleet has had its troubles, but it is still the most powerful force in the Pacific – and its culture is still attractive to people around the world.

The picture is different if we think in terms of relative decline: Over the past 10 years, U.S. power has dipped compared with that of others. The U.S. military might still be the world's largest and most technologically sophisticated, but other countries, not least China, have narrowed the gap.

Still, we've actually been here before – several times. Relative decline affects the United States frequently, as it does every country. That's normal. What's interesting instead is that people often mistake it for absolute U.S. decline. This belief in absolute decline – that the rot has set in and is permanent, even terminal – might be called declinism. It's different than actual decline because it's a belief that things are deteriorating. Yet, every time, such prophecies are quickly revealed to be overheated and inaccurate.

Partly this is because the benchmark of American power is a golden age, the period from 1941 to the mid-1960s, that set an impossibly high standard. Much of the world, including all of the United States' peer competitors, was devastated by the Second World War. The exception was America, which actually flourished in the war. More than 400,000 Americans died, but this paled in comparison with the millions of dead suffered by other countries (proportionally, even Canada suffered more). There was no fighting in the continental United States. Industry boomed, and the war pulled the economy out of the Depression and into permanent prosperity. By 1945, the United States produced roughly half of world GDP and set up an international economic order based on the U.S. dollar as the world's reserve currency. Not coincidentally, this is the era Mr. Trump has in mind when he claims he wants to "Make America Great Again."

The aftermath of the war gave Americans a false sense of superiority in that it seemed like the natural order of things. But others were eventually bound to catch up, or at least narrow the gap, and so they did. And as they did, any slight dip in U.S. fortunes, or any gain by a rival, was exaggerated. Americans' declinism made them prone to believing, wrongly, in their own absolute decline.

In 1949, when the Soviets tested their first atomic bomb and Mao Zedong took power in China, panic set in across the United States and fuelled McCarthyism. In 1957, when the Soviets launched their Sputnik satellite, Americans thought they were losing the Cold War, and in 1960 a campaigning John F. Kennedy warned of a "missile gap" that had made the United States vulnerable to a Soviet nuclear first strike. Both panics turned out not simply to be false, but completely misleading: The United States remained overwhelmingly powerful throughout the era. As JFK discovered after being elected president, there was indeed a missile gap, but it favoured the United States by a factor of 10 to 1.

The Vietnam era perhaps most closely resembles America's plight today. Then, as now, a disastrous and needless foreign war helped cause social turmoil at home, and the resulting economic instability led to stagflation and deindustrialization. Yet, by the early 1980s, the United States had rebounded to recover its international standing.

In the late 1980s, another panic swept over the country. Japan was poised to surpass the United States economically, and the domestic epidemics of crack addiction, violent crime and AIDS created a new social crisis. Yet the Cold War soon ended peacefully, completely on American terms. With the collapse of communist rule in Europe, the cratering of the Japanese economy, a resounding U.S. victory over Iraq and the end of the Soviet Union itself, the 1990s ushered in another unusual moment in international relations. The French branded America a "hyperpower," and the world system was thought to be "unipolar." Then came 9/11, Afghanistan and Iraq. And so on.

The point is, the United States has faced serious crises before – sometimes abroad, sometimes at home, sometimes a convergence of the two. Yet, it has proven to be incredibly resilient, and the countries that looked to supplant America – the USSR, or Japan – were actually the ones who entered into a steep and absolute decline.

The United States might now be in a period of relative decline, but it's doubtful this trend is irreversible, and it's extremely unlikely we're seeing the onset of absolute decline. In terms of power, America's fundamentals are actually in pretty good shape: Inequality is a serious problem, but the economy is otherwise strong; the United States is still the world's leader in technological innovation; its military is still pre-eminent, by some distance, in virtually every respect; and its economy sets the global standard, with the U.S. dollar still the world's common currency.

Nor are America's rivals as strong as they appear. Russia is profoundly weak, its blustering foreign policy masking an underlying structural fragility. China's growth is undoubtedly impressive, but every rapidly industrializing power in history has eventually faced a social crisis at home, and China's industrial revolution has been faster and more intense than any before. China hasn't faced its domestic reckoning yet, but signs are already appearing. When the crisis hits, it could be profoundly destabilizing.

"I've no idea what the China Dream really means," a dispossessed man from Beijing told the Guardian recently after developers razed his entire neighbourhood.

"My nights are sleepless. How can I possibly dream?" How China copes with his lament, and those of tens of millions of others, will determine how powerful it will be in the long term.

Perhaps most important, U.S. society has repeatedly shown itself to be flexible enough to withstand systemic shocks in a way others are not. Put it another way: Would China be able to withstand three colossally wasteful foreign wars within four decades while also passing through a series of domestic crises? The United States did this from Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan, with several economic and social crises erupting at the same time, yet with its absolute power intact and its relative supremacy occasionally questioned but never overturned. The Soviet Union, at its peak much more powerful than Russia is today, couldn't even withstand one such war in Afghanistan.

The wild card in all this is one of the most incompetent presidents in history. Mr. Trump's alarmingly weak grasp of basic governance and his refusal to staff the State Department properly could trigger a crisis leading to the sudden collapse of American power and a period of steep decline. I doubt it – surely even he can't be more damaging than the combined effect of Vietnam and the urban riots of the 1960s. But the truly amazing thing about Mr. Trump is his unending capacity to shock.