There are, of course, different kinds of doomsayers. Predictions of decline vary from forecasts that the US will be overtaken by Europe, that the European Union will itself fail because of the laggard nature of many of its members, or that NATO will fall into second place behind the Vienna-based Organization for Security Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) if it does not disappear altogether. The fact that these speculations have little connection with reality has never daunted some pundits. Others like Fareed Zakharia in his recent book on “The Post-American World”, have produced much more sophisticated arguments. His thesis is not so much America’s decline but the rise of everyone else. China’s staggering growth, India’s dramatic economic turnaround, Russia’s soaring oil wealth and Iran’s petrodollar-fuelled sponsorship of international terrorism will all alter the international balance of power and will thus restrain America’s ability to act as the world’s sole superpower.
Europeans tend to observe these debates with mixed feelings. Those who see international relations as a zero sum game might hope that America’s decline – whether relative or absolute – will translate into a European ascendency. Others note with concern that decreasing American power will inevitably curb the United States’ role as guarantor of the international order. This sort of thinking raises two questions: How likely is America’s decay, and how should Europe, as its closest partner, react to any fundamental changes in the international system?
When assessing the validity of the decline thesis we should remind ourselves that judgments of America’s role in the world are likely to be influenced by its tarnished international image. With the US reputation so marked by catchwords like Iraq, Guantanamo or Abu Ghraib, doomsday scenarios far outweigh optimistic ones.
"How likely is America’s decay, and how should Europe, as its closest partner, react to any fundamental changes in the international system?"
It would make better sense, therefore, to identify trends that can be regarded as a cultural, political or historical “givens” in America’s foreseeable future. There are four of these givens.
• US military dominance is not going to wane in the coming decades. With a navy larger than the next 50 biggest navies in the world together, American military might remain unchallenged. Economically, even today’s gigantic sums of well over $1bn a day by America on defence seem to be sustainable because in relation to its gross domestic product the US defence budget is smaller than in the late 1980s. That said, America’s military dominance is not a silver bullet that can resolve political problems, but rather it is one element in the whole spectrum of statecraft. Weaponry can help enforce political and diplomatic developments, but it cannot build a lasting peace. Indeed, when used unwisely, as in Iraq, the net results of military superiority can prove disastrous. But military force is also a means to make other tools more effective. Without America’s undisputed military dominance it could not act as a guarantor of international order with the credibility needed to maintain stability in Asia, the Middle East or the Balkans.
• The US economy’s leading role has also hardly been challenged. Despite the present banking and financial markets turmoil, or its deeply troubled automobile industry, the US still ranks as the world’s most competitive economy, says the Geneva-based World Economic Forum. It remains dominant in cutting-edge future technologies like nanotechnology and biotechnology, and America still trains more engineers per capita than any of the Asian giants, some of which sugarcoat the statistics by counting car mechanics and servicemen as engineers.
• Soft power – even if culpably neglected by the Bush Administration – is nonetheless a major asset in determining America’s role in the world. The Western (American) way of life is still very attractive, and particularly for those societies that purport to be anti-American. The reasons for this go far beyond the desirability of Starbucks coffee or blue jeans. It is the universality of American mass culture combined with US dominance in communications through the Internet, scientific leadership in which its universities account for eight of the worlds’ top ten and the global supremacy of the English language. America’s soft power is a rich mix of Hollywood and Harvard, McDonalds and Microsoft.
• America is set to go on being the champion of transformation and progress. The US is not a status quo power, but rather one that regards itself as called to promote change – whether it be political, economic or cultural, and both inside and outside its own borders. This anti-status quo orientation goes hand in hand with two other features of the US culture; the firm belief that democracy is the only legitimate form of government and the imperturbable confidence of Americans in their own exceptionalism. It was President Bill Clinton who coined the term of the US as “the indispensable nation”, and which other country would dare to characterise itself in that way? As long ago as 1817, president-to-be John Quincy Adams remarked that Europeans would regard the United States as a “dangerous nation”.
Today’s reality is that America’s position as the only hyper-power is not going to change. In our globalised world, supremacy may no longer automatically translate into omnipotence, so power has instead to be transformed into consensus if it is to confer true leadership. Allies have to be convinced that the leader is not only pursuing its own interests, but is acting on their behalf as well.
Washington has in recent years failed miserably on this score. The bizarre contradiction has been that never in history was the United States’ physical power greater than after the demise of the Soviet Union, yet never was America’s legitimacy lower than during the two administrations of George W. Bush. Even the “sympathy factor” the US enjoyed after 9/11 was quickly gambled away.
This is where the Euro-Atlantic relationship comes in. Europe and the United States are natural partners and form a true “community of values” – outmoded as this term may sound to some ears. Advocates of a transatlantic “divorce” like to emphasise the things that separate Europe from the US, for instance the death penalty or the role of religion in society and politics. Nevertheless, there is no other region of the world with America has so much in common, for nowhere else is the overlap in values, interests and concerns larger.
Euro-Atlantic relations are also indispensable from an entirely pragmatic point of view. Strengths on either side of the Atlantic can compensate for the weaknesses on the other. Europe is wealthy, social, liberal and exerts a tremendous economic and cultural attraction. Yet regardless of its ambitions, the European Union is not going to become a true strategic actor anytime soon – not least because, as German journalist Josef Joffe puts it, Europe lacks the “E Pluribus Unum” factor. Its geographic horizon barely extends beyond the Mediterranean and its hinterland, and its strategic operations, whether in Afghanistan or in the Balkans, can only be mounted in tandem with US capabilities.
"Today’s reality is that America’s position as the only hyper-power is not going to change"
America, in turn, may not need European soldiers or aircraft to act in international crises, but it desperately needs the consent of democratically legitimate allies in support of its political or military actions. This is all the more true because in certain regions of the world the European image is so much more positive than that of America. European support is therefore key to the success of any common action. Nor should the EU’s expertise be underestimated when it comes to non-military stabilisation and peace-keeping operations or crisis management. Nation-building efforts in Afghanistan have shown how very relevant the combination of military stabilisation and civil reconstruction is.
Transatlantic cooperation should not be limited to Europe and the United States, but should also include other like-minded and democratic nations. Australia, New Zealand or Japan might not be “transatlantic” in geographic terms, but, politically, economically and with regard to values they certainly are. Along with the Euro-Atlantic community, they constitute a category that has regrettably almost vanished, namely “the West” as a term that describes the unique combination of freedom, democracy, market economy, pluralism and the rule of law. This group, or category, is already a fact of life and does not need institutionalisation as a “League of Democracies”, even if that has been debated during this year’s US presidential campaigns.
What chance does the “West” have to function as a unified strategic actor? The short answer is better than ever before. Washington has learned the lessons of hubris and imperial temptation, and has paid a high price. Europe has, in turn, understood the need for close transatlantic ties and for American reassurance. Gone are the times where European statesmen spoke of building the EU as a counterweight to America and when some intellectuals believed the Iraq crisis foretold “the Renaissance of Europe”. France, once a fierce critic of America’s role in the world, is now fundamentally redefining its transatlantic policy, while, in turn, Washington is enthusiastically welcoming the EU’s efforts to strengthen its civil and military capabilities for common action. Countries like Australia are fighting side by side with NATO troops in Afghanistan, and supporting the EU’s civil reconstruction efforts in the Hindu Kush. This may not always guarantee transatlantic and Western harmony, but it shows that EU, NATO and others can get their act together.
To return to the questions of whether American power and influence is in decline, the jury is still out, but very probably it is not. How might other would-be Goliaths in Asia and elsewhere cope with such challenges as scarcity of energy, food shortages and the general threat of recession? A unified West, composed of a strong Europe, and a more internationally responsible America, together with liberal democracies elsewhere, is definitively on the rise.