America’s Transition from Global Dominant Superpower to a “Normal” Great Power


David Sanger, White House Correspondent of the New York Times, and I helped kick off a week-long run of policy lectures and discussion organized by the Center for Strategic and International Studies for a group of prominent, quickly ascending Japanese Ministry of Foreign officials yesterday.
During my comments, I compared Japan’s struggle to become “a normal nation” with a kind of challenge now facing America — which is how to transition from being a globally dominant superpower to a “normal great power.”
Given the dynamics unleashed with the end of the Cold War, America most likely would have made this transtion anyway — but the George W. Bush administration seems to have quickly sped up history and America’s collapsing position in global affairs.
Along this line, I want to recommend that people read Paul Starobin’s December article, “Beyond Hegemony,” that ran in National Journal. Starobin won praise from David Brooks for the piece and received a “Sidney Award” as having produced one of the best essays of the year.
I’m a little bummed about it actually as Paul worked hard to reach me to include some of my thoughts in the piece, but I was in a travel storm at that time and lagged too slowly in my return calls. But he nailed it I think — or at least got the right questions in place about what follows for America given the puncturing of American mystique by our failing adventure in the Middle East.
Let me share the last bit with you — but I the whole article is a real tour d’force of thinking in the foreign policy establishment:

For America, the chief consequence of no longer being the hegemon could be as much psychological as material. “In reality, the only truly exceptional feature of the U.S.A. is her belief in her exceptionalism,” the historian Bernard Porter writes in his new book Empire and Superempire. That belief, or myth, would be dealt a death blow by the end of hegemony. And because America’s superempire “exceeds any previous empires the world has ever seen,” as Porter notes, the fall could be all the harder.
In mentioning the possibility of an age of post-U.S. dominance, Bill Clinton, in his speech at Yale, was not saying that it would arrive any time soon. Indeed, a fair argument can be made that, appearances of imperial overstretch notwithstanding, the sun is nowhere close to setting on the American Century. Consider just one rather amazing statistic: America, all by itself, accounts for more than 40 percent of the world’s total spending on research and development. Demographics? With its population now more than 300 million, the United States is not reduced to offering cash subsidies to women to have babies, as is ex-superpower Russia. And, as much as some critics are bothered by this, as a magnet for immigrants America has no peer.
It could be that the current anxiety over whether America has “peaked” is just another spasm in a regularly occurring cycle. In 1970, with the United States bogged down in Vietnam, President Nixon worried that America looked like “a pitiful, helpless giant.” Seventeen years later, in the wake of the Ronald Reagan revival of a big-stick America, Paul Kennedy came out with his ominous-sounding book. Now, like clockwork, amid concerns that George W. Bush has overstretched the imperial fabric, the baying is again heard that America’s “primacy” days are drawing to a close. Call it the 17-year angst.
And yet, unless one believes that America is not subject to the laws of history, its global supremacy will be, at some point, no more. Clinton’s real point is that it is the better part of wisdom for America to keep this in mind, to act now with the foreknowledge that the U.S. will not, for all time, be top dog. It’s the sort of advice a political party can profit from when it wins an election. The pace of change in geopolitics may often seem glacial compared with the vicissitudes of electoral politics, but the same lesson applies, as it does in all parts of life: What goes around comes around.

I think history has proceeded even faster since the December 1 release date of this article, and the handwriting is on the wall. America is not the power it used to be and probably won’t bounce back to be the undisputed rule-maker and rule-enforcer we may have once been.
It’s time for a “real” new strategy.
— Steve Clemons


10 comments on “America’s Transition from Global Dominant Superpower to a “Normal” Great Power

  1. David Noziglia says:

    So much for those like Fukayama who expect everything to come to a screeching halt at some point — preferably the point at which he and his are in charge.
    Those in charge — the haves — always want history to stop. Trouble is, it never has, and if we’re lucky it never will. Stability isn’t the absence of change, it’s change that happens sequentially, evolutionarily, instead of suddenly and catastrophically. When they try to stop change, all that does is set up the pressure for a catastrophe.
    My old story: A professor years ago in M.E. Area Studies points out how stable the area is because every leader of every country had been in power for so long. Bullshit. Stability is a country where the leadership changes on a regular basis, without bloodshed. My measure of the stability of a country is how many former heads of state there are, alive and not in jail. And that they die of old age, not in office still.
    The U.S.’ great strength is its ability to change, adapt, be flexible, in response to history. Immigration is part of that; people can become Americans, they can’t become any other nationality. On the widest scope, the real damage BushCo and the Reps are doing is trying to stop change from threatening the profits and power of their corporate sponsors.


  2. margaret says:

    Late to the table, but, if you take the Arts as harbingers of the future, which has historically been the case, then the answer is already there: everything has “moved” to Asia, particularly China. Serious Classical Music, especially, brings thousands to recitals and concerts, while, in this country, recitals are dying out, with only hundreds possibly showing up, or even fewer, even to well-known artists. Orchestras are begging for audiences. The discipline of young musicians, there, is far greater than in American students, overall, with some exceptions. But we have lost our edge in the music world.
    In the visual arts, Chinese artists are selling as well as the top names in Western Art. Art goes where the money is. It’s headed East.


  3. Den Valdron says:

    This is not new. I’ve written about the relative and actual decline of America and the re-emergence and rise of Great Powers for years.
    That said, I think that some of the most interesting takes on the subject are by Gwynne Dyer who sees the new world on its cusp being shaped by the response to the United States.
    Essentially, Dyer sees two possible futures: A ‘Great Powers – United Nations’ scenario where the Great Powers work together as a kind of world spanning oligarchy to avoid wars and disputes; and a ‘Great Powers Alliances’ scenario, where each is an independent actor who eventually becomes entangled in the same sort of alliances and power blocs that produced WWI.


  4. weldon berger says:

    Sanger and two other Times reporters conducted an interview with Condoleezza Rice in which she laid out talking points against Iran that are almost identical to those the administration pushed ahead of the Iraq invasion, and not one of the three called her on it. Rice also indicated indirectly that the administration thinks that if Baghdad isn’t under control by the time summer rolls around, it’s a lost cause. None of the reporters picked up on that either. I’m really not sure what their function is. Could you ask Sanger next time you talk to him?


  5. Pissed Off American says:

    Steve, have you notice that P.O.A. is getting to sound mainstream now?
    Posted by Jon Stopa
    Please ‘scuse me while I go throw up.


  6. Jon Stopa says:

    “Given the dynamics unleashed with the end of the Cold War, America most likely would have made this transtion anyway — but the George W. Bush administration seems to have quickly sped up history and America’s collapsing position in global affairs.”
    Exactly. An Empire that took several hundred years to build, shot in the butt in just six years.
    Look for a bigger army, the result of proving that our army is not big enough to rule the world. More cost. Ugg. Of course there are those who will will have fatter wallets.
    Steve, have you notice that P.O.A. is getting to sound mainstream now?


  7. Carroll says:

    This is very thought provoking…
    In a way it is encouraging to me that the world has rejected this present out of character America.
    Not that we were ever perfect, but maybe after some humble pie our society will come to it’s senses, assert it’s citizen responsibilities and we can earn back the respect we have lost.


  8. Chris Brown says:

    And not only that, but it looks like the world oil markets will switch to Euros and some of the major holders of USA debt will begin to diversify their foreign reserves. Add to that the expansion og the European Union, the Russiua/China/Iran allinace, and emergence of trading and political blocks in S. America and Asia; and the USA is headed for the hind tit, where it certainly deserves to be.


  9. Sylny says:

    It’s a well-written, thought-provoking piece that instantly disses the possible 5th scenario which is the darling of the neocons: continued hegemony of the US, which is actually what the Project for the New American Century appears to be about.
    As for the fourth scenario–world government–my fantasy is that it could gradually develop in ways like this: Palestine isn’t even a country–and Israel is a very small one–yet the intractable problems between these two groups endangers the entire world. Since Israelis and Palestinians seem incapable of coming up with a solution and America is no longer viewed as an honest broker, what about an international consortium -created to solve that single problem only–that hammers out the terms of an agreement and assumes the security and policing duties? Could one-off solutions like that become the prelude to world government?


  10. Marcia says:

    Charles Kupchan went into detail in his book “The End of the American Era,” concerning poles of power, the advantages and disavantages of being the lone super power and the hope for a peaceful transition to a multipower world.
    This is certainly not an idea that would warm the heart of the Bush administration or in general of anyone trying to rise to power positions,their main idea being to keep their power once aquired.
    Any redistribution of power is always a new idea and not one generally appreciated.


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