Why the United States is not Destined to Decline: An Interview with Dr. Robert Lieber

GJIA recently sat down with Dr. Robert Lieber, Georgetown University political scientist and author of the recently published book, Power and Willpower in the American Future: Why the United States is not Destined to Decline.

GJIA: Dr. Lieber, could you please elaborate a bit on the argument you make in your book about why America’s decline is not inevitable as some scholars suggest?

RL: The conventional wisdom has it that America is in decline.  If you go to google and type in “America decline” or something like that, you will get 300 million hits.  The Chinese talk about it.  It has been a subject of debate.  I wrote the book because I think much of that discussion, analysis, and argument is wildly exaggerated, leaves out the element of contingency, and is also short on evidence.  It is true there has been an erosion of America’s standing abroad as compared, say, to China.  But the gap, by all the criteria by which we measure power, between the United States and everyone else, was so enormous in the decade after the end of the Cold War that even though China has undergone profound economic growth and modernization, it still remains well behind the United States.  If you use the indicator of Gross Domestic Product in terms of market exchange rates, which is the indicator the IMF prefers, the United States’ Gross Domestic Product in 2012 was double that of China as a percentage of the world total, roughly 21% vs 10.5%.  The other point is that many of those who talk about decline have in mind implicitly the experience of the rise and fall of the British Empire; but 100 years ago, before World War I, that is say from1912-1913, Britain had already been overtaken by the United States and Germany in population, in steel production, in military potential, and the Russians were closing in fast as well.  By contrast, the U.S. margin vis-a-vi other possible peer competitors was so great that even with some degree of attrition, no other country approaches the United States by most of the indicators by which we measure power.  You can include in that certain things which are both tangible and intangible.  In population, we are the world’s third largest country after China and India, and we will remain so for the indefinite future. Our research universities are unmatched anywhere in the world.  Nobel prize winners, especially in science, economics, and the physical sciences are disproportionately American.  The flexibility and adaptability of our economy and society is unusual for a large country.  Our birth rate, though it has slipped a bit since the onset of the Great Recession five years ago, still remains respectable, that is we are close to the population replacement rate of 2.1 total fertility rate.  Our natural resources are extraordinary.  No other large country has the natural resources we do.  Land, space, climate, agriculture, and in addition we are in the midst of an entirely unexpected energy renaissance that developed over the last half dozen years, especially in oil and natural gas, thanks to the scientific breakthroughs and technological breakthroughs in the development of so called shale gas or deep oil.  That is transforming America’s position not only in energy, but is having a en enormously beneficial impact on our economy, our technology, and in the decision of some major manufacturers to return to the US to take advantage of cheap energy and everything that goes with it.

The key to this is not to say that the US cannot decline.  We have some serious problems.  In fact, I spend the first two chapters of the book talking about our problems.  Foremost in our problems is the issue of debt, deficit, and entitlements.  The trajectory of that, especially with the retirement of the baby boomers which began a couple of years ago, is such that we cannot sustain our entitlement programs, on the same basis without seriously jeopardizing the rest of everything government does.  Sensible reforms need to be made, not only in entitlement programs to put them on a stable long-term trajectory, but also in tax reform and immigration reform.  If we don’t do these things, then the prospects for America in the future are much more problematic.  If we do do them, there is no reason why America will not continue to remain the most powerful and important country in the world.  This is why the subtitle of my book is “Why the US is not Destined to Decline”.  I don’t say why the US ‘can’t’ decline or why it ‘won’t’ decline, but why we’re not “destined” to, in order to capture the element of contingency and choice.

GJIA: Historically, it seems that the United States has always been looking over its shoulder to see who’s coming up and question who is going to overtake the United States. First we were worried about the Soviet Union, then Japan during the 1990s, and now our attention is on China. Is this pattern just an artifact of the United States’ position as the world’s greatest power or is there reason for greater concern now that China is behind us?

RL: That is a great question because we have been here before.  This may well we the fourth or fifth wave of declinism just since World War II.  You can go back to the 19th Century when the United States suffered five major economic shocks along with the Civil War.  You can go back to the depression in the 1930s when a lot of people feared that the liberal democracies, including the United States, were finished and fascism or Soviet style communism was the way of the future.  You’re absolutely right to say that at one point during the later years of the Cold War there were fears that the correlation of forces had turned against us.  In the late 1980s, the fear was of Japan as number one.  There was talk say ten or twelve years ago that a rapidly expanding and deepening Europe, which already had a GDP comparable to ours and a population larger than ours, would become a great power that before too long would be competing with the US, but Europe has been deeply troubled since those days.  China’s growth and trajectory are extraordinary, unprecedented in history.  But China has tremendous internal problems which are political, economic, social, and environment.  The likelihood that China will continue that growth trajectory for three more decades is deeply problematic.  You should not expect to be able to make accurate predictions about the future, but the likelihood is that China will not overtake the United States in any meaningful way even though it will become a formidable actor in world affairs.

Dr. Robert Lieber is Professor of Government and International Affairs at Georgetown University. His most recent book is Power and Willpower in the American Future: Why the United States is not Destined to Decline.

This interview was conducted by Hunter Dougherty, co-editor of the GJIA’s Online Publications section.