Decline: It’s Not Really a Choice


Charles Krauthammer has a fantastically silly Weekly Standard article headlined “Decline Is a Choice: The New Liberalism and the end of American ascendancy.” Robert Farley makes some good observations about the piece but I think he lets Krauthammer’s central conceit off too easy, offering only a parenthetical remark about “a curious inability to admit that basic shifts in the international economy are occurring, and that these shifts make change in the political structure of international politics inevitable.”

This, however, totally undermines Krauthammer’s central point.

Nobody has proposed a halfway plausible mechanism by which the United States can alter the fact that India and China have a larger population than ours, or the fact that India and China and Brazil have economies that are growing faster than ours. Nor does there seem to be a plausibly method by which we can prevent the slow-but-steady progress of European political and economic integration. These trends are, however, steadily eroding the basis of American global dominance. They don’t make the end of American global dominance inevitable—I find it very plausible that China will enter a period of political meltdown and chaos long before it achieves economic parity with the United States, and it’s at least somewhat plausible that the same could happen to India. But this kind of thing is largely out of our control. For now, the trends are what they are and the question is how to respond to them.

Krauthammer’s central conceit ever since the end of the Cold War has been that bold acts of will can prolong the “unipolar moment” indefinitely. And he’s just wrong. He’s always been wrong, he continues to be wrong, and this interpretation of world affairs will always be wrong. It’s a remarkably elementary mistake that seems to evince no understanding of how the United States came to be the dominant global player in the first place. As if he thinks we’re top dog and nobody cares about Australia or Finland is because we just have more of a bad-ass attitude. Those are, however, actually some pretty bad-ass countries. They’re just, you know, small so nobody cares. If China and India were richer, we’d look small to them!

The main practical consequence of Krauthammer-style policies for international relations is to speed the spread of nuclear weapons. Having us behave in an alarming manner increases the desire of regional powers to acquire nuclear weapons and decreases the extent to which other great powers are inclined to collaborate with us on preventing nuclear proliferation.