by Megan Reiss

The implications of US power decline are great. In the Global Trends 2030 report, three scenarios about the way the world could look in 2030 are introduced. The first is a reverse engines scenario, whereby the US becomes fairly isolationist, current conflicts erupt, the world economy slows, and even technology flatlines. In a fragmentation scenario, the lack of will to fix the current political, social, economic, and governance problems leads to a world with greater risk of conflict, but without the dire predictions of the reversed engines.  Finally, the utopian-like projections of the fusion scenario portrays an environment where political will to solve problems leads to a prosperous, cooperative world. Of these three scenarios, the report argues that the fragmentation scenario is the most likely to come to fruition, based on the current trends.

These futuristic predictions beg us to ask, will the US have the ability to manage or even shape scenarios, or will American power decline so managing outcomes is no longer feasible?  I can imagine an interplay of will and power may determine which scenario will result. The US may have power but no political will.  Though it may be tragic from an American perspective to waste the ability to lead the world community, latent power would allow the US to muster up the will in the future.  Power means that even if political will is initially absent, when a sufficient shock occurs or a window opens, the US could then muster the will to work to fix the economy, ease conflicts, solve governance problems. But if the US loses power, even with strong political will, there may be little means of affecting change.

Is the power of the US declining in the world?  This question seems like it should be fairly simple to answer by projecting trends into the future, as was done in various graphs in the Global Trends 2030 study, especially those on the Aggregate Power of Developing States. One graph measures power based on GDP, population size, military spending, and technology.  China and the US have equal power by the year 2030. By 2050, China overtakes the US in power by roughly 6 percentage points. But when the team adds health, education, and governance to the mix, suddenly China’s power is behind the US by four or five percentage points in 2030 and is only a couple percentage points ahead in power by 2050. By adding only a few additional elements, the estimated future of US power begins to look a bit rosier.

We could break the elements of these projections down even more to try get to the roots of actual power.  Data on the average age of the population, the social programs the population are guaranteed, the congruence of domestic opinion, the harmony of regional and distant State relationships, the epicenters of industrial booms, the salience of international organizations, and even the influence of nuclear weapons would mean the neat and tidy graphs would only get more complicated. Yet intuitively, each of these should factor in to power projections. Try to then picture accurately predicting the likelihood of innovation in fields we have yet to stumble upon and the power projections on a graph seem incomplete.

Predictions of power decline repeat across history. In the 50’s, the US prepared for nuclear war and predicted that the Soviets would threaten US power to such a great extent that the dominos would fall and many of our allies could succumb to communism.  The 60’s saw the US at the brink of a nuclear conflict and saw a massive escalation of manpower in conflicts over communism in developing countries. Domestic turmoil and a renewed arms race defined the 70’s.  The 80’s brought a series of conflicts in developing countries and another terrifying arms race to assure American power. The USSR (and its power) collapsed unexpectedly. Each decade sees projections of American decline, and this decade is no different.  With hindsight, we can point to the various reasons decline didn’t happen to explain why the predictions were inaccurate. However, we have to keep in mind that some of those making predictions about the power of the USSR and the likelihood of American decline were those people studying these environments. Traditionally, we simply have not been very good at predicting American decline.

We need to know what confers power. While power is traditionally viewed through the size and skill of the military, in an era that is void of two or more States meeting face-to-face on a battlefield, the number of tanks a State possesses no longer seems like an accurate measure of power.  The US still has the strongest military, and yet we discuss possible decline.  There’s more to power than military, or even economics or population size.  If these were the only elements, we would be much better at predicting the future of American decline.

An idea associated with Milton Friedman is that it is not really important whether all the elements in a model accurately reflect the world, as long as the model ‘works’ by reflecting reality. We are traditionally quite bad at predicting American decline, as predictions about an American decline which never happened are repeated with frequency across decades. Various models attempting to assess power are changing for the very reason that the models are not working, they are not properly assessing power.

I can not say for certain whether America is in decline or not. Intuitively I do not believe it is because I do not see America losing the ability to influence or affect change.  While it’s nearly impossible to predict success and innovation in new arenas, the US is repeatedly at the forefront of innovation and there’s no obvious reason to believe this trend will stop.  Although we have growing competitors and a disagreeable domestic situation, we have the luxury of the dollar as the world’s main currency, the top universities, a strong military, nuclear weapons, and a huge GDP.  I can say with certainty that Americans need to muster up the political will to use our power to shape the world into the best possible scenario, but we won’t be able to start until we follow the repeated examples of American history in times of domestic discord and create some semblance of political unity at home. Finally, while we’re trying to ease tension at home, we can keep trying to pinpoint those historically elusive elements that do predict power decline.

Megan Reiss is a doctoral student at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas-Austin.