The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Ezra Klein Explains the Fallacy of American Decline

In his latest Bloomberg column, “American Decline a Mirage in a World That’s Rising,” Ezra Klein points out something we’ve been stressing at Via Meadia for some time:

If American preeminence relies on the continued immiseration of Brazil, China and India, then, even in the most selfish terms, I’m not sure that it’s worth having. . . .

If hundreds of millions of Chinese and Indians continue to be stuck on unproductive farms or in unskilled jobs rather than being freed to develop their human capital, the rest of the world will be denied access to the endless innovations they otherwise might have developed. . . .

The problems associated with expansive global economic growth are real, but they’re problems in the context of an improving world. Conversely, if the BRICs can’t rise out of poverty, and Europe and Japan can’t right their economies, that’s a world we don’t want, with problems we may well not be able to solve. Those who yearn for a form of American preeminence that can only exist due to economic stagnation elsewhere really do not know what they’re talking about.

Klein gestures toward a crucial but often unappreciated insight: The goal of American power isn’t to create a world in which we are rich and everyone else is poor, or in which we are strong and everyone else is weak. Rather, the goal of American power is a stable, fruitful global system that other countries like (or at least tolerate) because it works well for them.

Now, for this to happen, countries like China and India need to grow rich, which means growing faster than the United States. But this is a cause for celebration, not pronouncements about declinism. When Germany and Japan grew rich after World War II, their success did not make America weaker, even though its share of global wealth and GDP fell. Instead, as those countries grew and became more integrated into the world system, their success actually undergirded the development of the liberal democratic order that the United States wants.

In other words, American power is committed to the concept that international relations is not a zero-sum game; it is about hunting for global win-win solutions. Many observers try to assess American power as if we were playing a zero-sum game in which every ounce of Indian, Chinese or Brazilian wealth or power somehow detracts from the United States.

The failure to recognize this basic truth about American power is why so many analysts—basically going back to the 1940s—have so persistently prophesied American decline, even as the U.S.-backed international system has gone from strength to strength.

Published on May 18, 2012 5:00 pm
  • Anthony

    WRM, as a little boy my dad once told me that “talent recognizes talent” and that healthy competition enriches both talents; I take that meaning from both Ezra Klein’s piece and your “God and Gold” – The Golden Meme. As you have so aptly described the Anglo-American project (goal of American power) embraces open-ended dynamism so that other countries prosper without U.S. loss; engaging India, Brazil, China, etc. via a world economy does not imply a declining America. I think explication of framework behind U.S. backed international system could benefit from poli-sci research bandied about in a previous post.

  • GC

    The only way the US will generate enough positive national cash flow with which to reduce the national debt so that higher interest rates don’t force either the Fed do go hog wild printing money and creating hyper-inflation or the Treasury to default on the debt is for the US to dramatically increase its exports of goods and services to the BRICS and other emerging nations. As they hold a lot of US debt, this is in their best interests as well. See The National Debt: A Primer and A Plan.

  • vanderleun

    Unfortunately for Via Meadia if that unfortunate boy Ezra Klein is coming around to the idea American decline is a mirage then America really is in a decline.

    As for “a world we don’t want, with problems we may well not be able to solve” he (and whatever overly-promoted cohort he may be able to muster) really doesn’t have all that much to say about it one way or another, does he?

  • Jim.

    So Kleinschen has finally given up on global carbon-limiting treaties?

    Really? For sure? We can hold him to this, now?

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    I have been saying here for quite some time that the US has been uplifting billions of people out of abject poverty. I have called this the Hamiltonian Strategy, and the US has been following this strategy for over 40 years.

    After WWII the British Global Trading System which the US had been getting a free ride on since the Revolution, was defunct. And while the US really didn’t want to be responsible for building its own Global Trading System, it became clear that it was going to have to if it wanted to strengthen its allies and the human race.

    Subconsciously a strategy arose that would lure even the most intransigent nations into the American Global Trading System. This was done by allowing other nations to manipulate their currencies against the Dollar to gain a price advantage for their exporting businesses. They did this by purchasing US Treasuries to reduce the supply of Dollars held by their banks, and through the Law of Supply and Demand, this increased the value of Dollars in their economy. They of course think they are cheating the Americans, and so even American enemies like China, couldn’t resist joining the American Global Trading System.

    For most of human history there has been a zero sum game going on between nations called Mercantilism, it was foreign trade with an objective of getting all your trading partners Precious Metals. But Mercantilism doesn’t work with Fiat Currencies, even if unsophisticated nations still think it does.

    So what are the pros and cons of the Hamiltonian Strategy?
    Pros:
    1. It lures all other nations into the American Global Market, and the larger the Market gets, the more efficient is gets, and the greater its value becomes to the human race.
    2. American businesses have been forced to respond to the increased competition caused by the price disadvantage by becoming more creative and efficient.
    3. It spreads American Culture (Mankind’s Bleeding Edge Culture) into every culture, forcing all of Mankind to become more like Americans in an ongoing assimilation.
    4. It has uplifted billions of people out of abject poverty.
    5. Mankind has experienced its greatest period of growth in history, whether the measurement is level of education, development of infrastructure, or capital accumulation, by every measure mankind is much better off.
    6. The Dollar has become the reserve currency of all nations, giving the US control of the American Global Trading System’s liquidity.
    Cons:
    1. For over 40 years the price disadvantage has depressed Blue Collar wages in the US as Blue Collar jobs were lost to foreign trading partners. (competition from illegal immigration has also hurt Blue Collar wages) This doesn’t mean that Blue Collar workers didn’t benefit from the growth of world trade, it just means that they didn’t benefit to the extent that White Collar workers did.

    I can’t think of any other cons, the US hasn’t even lost very much in the way of its share in world GDP which means the US has been growing at the same rate as the rest of the world.

  • Walter Sobchak

    Klein is an Obama sycophant who wants to lead from behind. America’s claims to world leadership are moral. It is the last best hope of earth, it is far and away the most moral nation on earth. America’s physical, economic, and military strength is also moral. It is the external manifestation of inward grace. These are all truths that Klein and his hero President 0 reject out of hand. That is why we need a new President, and Klein needs a new job more fitted to his talents, like serving frapuccinos.

  • Norman Roberts

    This discussion isn’t so much about American declinism as it is about Malthusian over crowding. The problem the nattering nabobs have with a growing BRIC middle class is that they will buy automobiles and drive up the price of organic tofu.

  • Lucius

    Ezra Klein is right to point this out. I completely agree with his argument. The “zero sum game” view is not only wrong, but extremely dangerous.

  • vanderleun

    Just because it is wrong and dangerous does not mean you can get out of playing it.

  • http://N/A Andrew Knutson

    Who but a liberal would even think like
    this?

  • Brendan Doran

    Liberals: decades past you lost the stomach for Hegemony, never mind Empire. I suggest we find our Anatolia and withdraw hence. Our government also needs to look after the interests of it’s own people first, lest the people deem they have no choice but self-defense against it.

  • wj

    It is, perhaps, noteworthy that the same groups who see international relations as a zero-sum game have exactly the same view on the national level. That is, anything which even might produce a “victory” for the other side must be fought — no matter the damage to the country in the process.

  • Jacob

    What if there’s simply not enough stuff in the world for the BRICs to develop a majority consumerist middle class?