In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, the antagonist, Malvolio, famously states that “some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.”
Whether the United States was born great, achieved greatness, or had greatness thrust upon them is subject to varying opinions. Debate over the nature of American power stems from perceptions of global power rankings. The U.S. rose to superpower status following World War II, and has seen seventy years of pax Americana and relative stability in the international order since. However, this status has been questioned, particularly following failed military interventions in Vietnam and Iraq. China’s rise has once again brought new relevance to debates over ‘American decline.’
Some analysts believe the distribution of power and authority has already shifted, and that the U.S. is no longer the “indispensable” state it once was. However, U.S. foreign policy critic Robert Kagan argues determinedly that discussions of American decline tempt “pre-emptive superpower suicide” when in reality, nothing so drastic has occurred. Is the U.S. still a superpower? In short, yes, whether it likes it or not. A superpower, as understood in geopolitical terms, is a state with the (often military) capability to exert its influence beyond its immediate region. Influential political scientist Samuel Hungtingon argued that a superpower must “stand for an idea with appeal beyond its borders.” Looking at these material and ideological understandings of a superpower, America clearly still qualifies. Furthermore, the greatness which it was either born with, achieved, or had thrust upon it is a distinctly modern kind of superpowerdom that is proving more resilient than critics – and many Americans – like to think.
Power in the Contemporary Security Landscape
To better understand the term “superpower”, it is necessary to discuss how power is measured. Political scientist Daneil Drezner astutely notes that “[i]nternational relations scholars are certain about two facts: power is the defining concept of the discipline and there is not consensus about what that concept means.” Despite it being an essentially contested term, discussions of a shift in the global balance of power are pervasive; however, this shift does not necessarily relegate the U.S. to less than superpower status. I am not referring to the U.S. as a global hegemon, as there can be only one hegemon in a system, but there can be several superpowers. For a period after the Cold War the U.S. was the only superpower, but whether one believes China is on the cusp of superpower status or has already claimed the title, it is clear that the U.S. is no longer alone at the top.
One of the most useful ways to understand a state’s power is by its material capability, which can be accounted for in economic terms, military strength or population size. In two out of three of these material measures, China surpassed the U.S. years ago. While China is catching up and investing heavily in a modernized defense force, with a particular focus on its naval capacity, the U.S. still has a far larger military and spends considerably more of its budget on defense. Similarly, while China has nuclear capability, it trails far behind the U.S. and its regional neighbor, Russia. The U.S. is arguably in “peace mode,” with discussions of Sino-US parity only entertained because the U.S. has not shown its true military force for decades. “The question is not whether the United States is still capable of prevailing in a global confrontation, either hot or cold, with China or any other revisionist power,” Kagan states, “it is.”
However, this understanding of U.S. power heavily relies on nuclear capability, which is only one estimate of power and international security. The advent of nuclear weapons has significantly altered the stakes of conflict and the nature of great power competition. Neither a status quo state or revisionist power are seeking to trigger a war which will effectively destroy it and the global order it seeks to influence. To say the U.S. is in “peace mode” and its nuclear arsenal is what allows it to maintain a superpower status is to hand that title comfortably to every other nuclear-armed state, including not only China and Russia, but also the United Kingdom, India and Pakistan. If one hundred nuclear warheads will existentially threaten a state, it doesn’t matter who has five thousand. Furthermore, it is far more realistic and informative to look at measures of superpowerdom in traditional military outreach, allies, international trade, and membership and influence in multilateral fora. These are the arenas in which power relations are played out daily, and where America’s power really lies. In relying on the US’s nuclear arsenal at the cost of other, far more dynamic measures, Kagan chooses not to account for the actual nature of the modern security landscape.
That is not to say the U.S. is militarily inferior – it is not, especially not in its immediate neighborhood. In all ways other than nuclear, China is not a significant existential threat to the U.S. and will therefore be hard pressed to challenge or overthrow the international regime the U.S. has built. China is rising within the American-led system, composed of international organizations, alliances and institutions that link state interests. For example, even if China surpasses the U.S. by all measures at some point, it will take far longer to outstrip all OECD states when combined, both militarily and economically. This of course depends on whether OECD states would choose to act as a counterweight against China if it were to reach total parity with the US, but the material capability would be available to do so.
However, Kagan deems this notion of regime durability “a pleasant illusion,” claiming that the current world order cannot continue without the U.S. at the helm – it will either decline or collapse entirely. Somewhat apocalyptically, he states that if the U.S. does not maintain the liberal order, it will vanish from both the domestic and international stage. This may have been a realistic prediction when talking about power shifts during the Peloponnesian War or even failing empires in recent centuries, but the contemporary US-led world order is a different kind of imperialism, one that is holistically global and deeply embedded. Challengers like China or Russia exist within it and depend upon it to further their own national interests, with the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank just one example of China competing within the system rather than attacking from outside.
Furthermore, we very well may be living in a distinctly new era of great power competition, altered by the U.S. and the resilience of the system it has constructed, and the continued proliferation of nuclear weapons. The Belfer Center’s Thucydides’s Trap Initiative has found that out of sixteen incidents of great power competition since the fifteenth century, twelve have led to war. Great powers, as predicted by Thucydides in ancient Greece, are highly likely to go to war when faced with a serious challenge to the distribution of power. However, we have not seen this materialize since nuclear weapons were used on Japan in 1945. Furthermore, the U.S. is not as fragile as the continental powers of the previous century. This is due to its advantageous geographic position, the existential threat posed to any country that initiates nuclear conflict, and the interconnected global system that—at this stage—still largely prefers U.S. leadership to present alternatives. In the last seventy-odd years of superpowderdom, the U.S. has insulated itself against revisionist bids by disicentivising conflict and incentivizing both military and economic cooperation. This makes it a much harder superpower to challenge.
Myths of Empire and Decline
Power distribution is changing, this much is clear, but how? Unsurprisingly, the U.S. is central to most of these theories or ‘myths’ of systemic change and superpower behavior. In Myths of Empire, neoclassical realist scholar Jack Snyder examines why great powers over-expand in a bid to increase security. “Great powers in the industrial age,” Snyder says, “have shown a striking proclivity for self-inflicted wounds.” The myth, proposed by a state’s elites to justify forays beyond its immediate neighborhood, is built upon three principles: 1) gains in territory lead to gains in resources and loss of territory can cripple an empire, 2) the offensive state or empire has the advantage, and 3) offensive threats provoke compliance in weaker states. Each of these assumptions can be contested and are inherently flawed in that they actually prompt defensive coalitions to form, referred to as “self-encirclement”.
For Snyder, diplomatic states like the U.S. are “good learners,” in that they may prompt self-encirclement, but will then seek to avoid outright conflict. However, Myths of Empire was written in 1991, before the NATO intervention in Kosovo or the invasion of Iraq, the second of which has arguably triggered more problems than it has solved. Furthermore, since the end of WWII and the rapid decline of the British Empire, the U.S. has taken its predecessor’s place, with the sun never setting on the U.S. military due to the sheer geographic spread of bases around the world, as seen in figure 1.This geographic spread feeds into America’s resilience, with this spread facilitating its capacity to exert influence beyond its immediate region. This is certainly evidence of expansion, with military presence coupled with Western liberal values found as far from U.S. territorial borders as can be. In having military pivots around the world, the U.S. is particularly resilient. The rapid and vast expansion of American influence has triggered discussions of an inevitable decline. The myth of decline is exactly what Kagan refutes, claiming any notion that the U.S. once unilaterally ruled the world and now does not is a nostalgic fallacy. The mere existence of U.S. failures in the international arena are not signs of epic downfall, as they were present even during the post-war American golden age.
The U.S. maintains the world’s largest military and seeks to preserve Western liberal institutionalism in the face of increasing nationalism around the world. The U.S. as a single power (that seeks to avoid nuclear conflict at all costs) cannot unilaterally dictate international affairs – no lone state can – but the system it has built is unusually resilient, as is its own existential security. The U.S. has allies across the globe who are wary of the rise of China, Wall Street is still a locus of the world economy, and the U.S. has a serious geostrategic advantage over China. As a superpower, the US’ regional neighborhood is stable and protective. Canada and Mexico are friendly neighbors who benefit from American strength, and there are no Central or South American states that would have the intent, let alone capability, to challenge or undermine the US.
China, on the other hand, is rising in a crowded, nuclear-charged regional neighborhood with great powers along its borders. Russia, Iran, Pakistan and India are all nuclear powers in China’s immediate vicinity. China and Pakistan have developed deep bilateral ties, and recent years have seen tentative Sino-Russian cooperation, however India has moved closer to the U.S. within the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, and Iran is something of a loose canon, oscillating between whichever powerful state it can most benefit from. Unlike the US, China must work harder to prevent encirclement from its neighbors, which necessarily constrains how disruptive it can be. The US, on the other hand, has a vast ocean buffer on each coast. Despite China having surpassed the U.S. in some economic power metrics, this has not triggered the war that power transition theorists or Thucydides would have predicted. This is due to the US’ uniquely robust superpower status, its geographic blessings, and the all-encompassing world order it has created.
The Myth of Exceptionalism
One of the greatest tensions in U.S. foreign policy is unidentifiable from a structural perspective. This can only be examined by acknowledging the domestic factors that play into ideas of a state’s place and role in world affairs. Often, what the national security decision makers want is different to what the people want.
A myth commonly referred to, particularly by international critics, is the myth of American exceptionalism. American exceptionalism can be defined as the notion that the U.S. is bigger, more powerful, and unconstrained by rules and norms of international relations and society. The concept emerged concurrently with the rise of American hegemony after WWII, and has since been chipped away at by decades of underwhelming and inconsistent economic performance. Resurgences in exceptionalist rhetoric go hand in hand with decline, as a rallying ideology like exceptionalism is most pervasive and effective, or even relevant, when things appear to not be going well. Politicians like Hillary Clinton have adopted the phrase to inspire the American population, whereas President Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan actually implies that America is not great, let alone exceptional.
Is the U.S. still a superpower? Yes, according to the Lowy Institute Asia Power Index. Most decisionmakers realize this, with the notable exception of President Trump; however there is little domestic consensus. Analyzing why any leader gets elected is beyond the scope of an article like this, however it is interesting to note that Trump was elected on a populist platform which was emphatically anti-elite, and encouraged people to be suspicious of any elite consensus. If previous presidents and leaders have stated that the U.S. should wield its strength and perform as a superpower on the world stage, then an anti-elite populist platform would suggest America should return to its isolationist roots. While not explicitly called “isolationism” by most Americans, this is an implicit facet of the “Make America Great Again” slogan.
However, for the U.S. to do so, for it to relinquish its role as mediator in the international system, reluctant or not, it must also relinquish its power. The Biden administration is considerably more internationalist than its predecessor, however more than seventy million Americans voted against this internationalist foreign policy rhetoric. It is unlikely we will see any explicit or implicit ceding of international leadership under President Biden, but if a greater proportion of the population become disillusioned with America’s international role, future presidents may have to pull the U.S. back from the world stage, whether reluctantly or enthusiastically.
In doing so, the U.S. would cede its leadership role to China, the only state with both the ambition and capacity to take America’s place. This is something most Americans do not want. The U.S. has proven itself ‘exceptional’ in its superpowerdom. This is not because it does not have to conform to rules and norms and whatever fundamental principles govern international relations, but because the US’ status as a superpower and the system which it has built survived an administration which wanted nothing to do with either. Nonetheless, the liberal world order emerged from the Trump administration a little battered but otherwise triumphant. Allies appeased, adversaries bit their tongues, and the system endured.
Was America born great? Did it achieve greatness, or have greatness thrust upon it? That depends on who you ask. If we ask those who believe America should return to an era of isolationism, America was born great and has strayed far from its origins. If we conflate greatness with a superpower, then America certainly achieved greatness. If we associate greatness with leadership and international responsibility, then perhaps it was thrust upon the US. Depending on which alternative you believe, you will have different expectations of what America should do moving forward under the Biden administration. But while many Americans think the U.S. should ‘mind its own business’ in foreign policy, to do so is to create a power vacuum, with states like Russia and China just as eager to fill the gap as France or Germany.
However, the U.S. is not a superpower to be toppled easily, not even if a segment of its own population is its biggest impediment. The U.S. is still a superpower, but its global lead is shrinking. As the world becomes aware of another bipolar competition after decades of unipolarity, greatness has been thrust upon the U.S. once more. As the world wonders whether pax Americana will give way to pax Sinica, the U.S. must go “once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.”