American Power in the Twenty-First Century

CAMBRIDGE – The United States government’s National Intelligence Council projects that American dominance will be “much diminished” by 2025, and that the one key area of continued American superiority – military power – will be less significant in the increasingly competitive world of the future. Russian President Dmitri Medvedev has called the 2008 financial crisis a sign that America’s global leadership is coming to an end. The leader of Canada’s opposition Liberal Party, Michael Ignatieff, suggests that US power has passed its mid-day. How can we know if these predictions are correct?

One should beware of misleading metaphors of organic decline. Countries are not like humans with predictable life spans. For example, after Britain lost its American colonies at the end of the eighteenth century, Horace Walpole lamented Britain’s reduction to “as insignificant a country as Denmark or Sardinia.” He failed to foresee that the industrial revolution would give Britain a second century of even greater ascendency.

Rome remained dominant for more than three centuries after the apogee of Roman power. Even then, Rome did not succumb to another state, but suffered a death of a thousand cuts inflicted by various barbarian tribes. Indeed, for all the fashionable predictions of China, India, or Brazil surpassing the US in the coming decades, the classical transition of power among great states may be less of a problem than the rise of modern barbarians – non-state actors. In an information-based world of cyber-insecurity, power diffusion may be a greater threat than power transition.

So, what will it mean to wield power in the global information age of the twenty-first century? What resources will produce power? In the sixteenth century, control of colonies and gold bullion gave Spain the edge; seventeenth-century Holland profited from trade and finance; eighteenth-century France gained from its larger population and armies; and nineteenth-century British power rested on its industrial primacy and its navy.