World Affairs

America in Decline?

June 30, 2012

The question of whether Burns United States is in decline has pervaded panels all week at the Institute’s Ideas Festival, and was particularly prominent in a lively discussion between Harvard Kennedy School professor Nicholas Burns, Brookings Institute Senior Fellow Richard Kagan, and Dean of the Syracuse University Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs James Steinberg, in conversation with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg. And although concerns from Iran to Yemen were raised, China became the primary repository for the panel’s considerations of US power relative to the global order. 

With China holding a significant portion of US debt, economic concerns were paramount, with several audience members questioning the panel on America’s ability as a debtor to check China’s rising power. But the panel seemed to consider the threat of economic warfare overblown. “’It’s difficult to say no to your banker,’” Kagan said, quoting President Obama. “But the way I understand it, if you owe your banker $100, you’re in trouble. If you owe your banker $100 million dollars, your bank is in trouble.” With the US still the world’s largest economy and an important market for Chinese exports, Steinberg agreed: “Their whole economy is dependent on our economy—they want our debt to remain valuable.”

Economic realities were not the only discrepancy between the countries. A Chinese audience member stood to question the panel’s contention that fundamental differences in values hindered the relationship between the countries, and Burns replied, “China has not played by the rules in intellectual property, and we have profound disagreements with the Chinese government on human rights. And in our democratic society, people are not holding back on that.”

To counter China’s rising clout, the Obama administration is shifting American military concentration from Europe to the Asia-Pacific region. “We don’t trust China and Chinese intentions long-term,” Burns said, “so forming a military partnership with India and forming alliances around the region makes a lot of sense.” But Steinberg said the concentration would be interpreted by the Chinese as provocative and preemptive. “The Chinese will see this through the lens of the US trying to keep them down. We shouldn’t assume the best, but preparing for the worst tends to make the worst the greatest danger.”

Steinberg sounded a similar warning about the perception of America’s decline. “Talking about decline is a sign of decline,” he said. “The world does need leadership, and when that withdraws, people start thinking about how they protect themselves.” A worthy caution to carry forth into the rest of the week, as we continue to consider how much power America retains and how it should be deployed.