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The Misleading Metaphor of Decline

Author: Joseph S. Nye
February 14, 2011

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Joseph Nye presents historical examples and political assessments to argue that predictions of U.S. decline are misguided.

Is the United States in decline? Many Americans think so, and they are not alone. A recent Pew poll showed that pluralities in 13 of 25 countries believe that China will replace the U.S. as the world's leading superpower. But describing the future of power as inevitable American decline is both misleading and dangerous if it encourages China to engage in adventurous policies or the U.S. to overreact out of fear.

How would we know if the declinists are correct or not? First, one must beware of misleading metaphors of organic decline. Nations are not like humans with predictable life spans.

After Britain lost its American colonies at the end of the 18th century, Horace Walpole lamented Britain's reduction to "as insignificant a country as Denmark or Sardinia." He failed to foresee that the industrial revolution would give Britain a second century of even greater ascendancy. Rome remained dominant for more than three centuries after the apogee of Roman power.

It is also chastening to remember how wildly exaggerated were American estimates of Soviet power in the 1970s and of Japanese power in the 1980s. Today some confidently predict the 21st century will see China replace the U.S. as the world's leading state, while others equally confidently argue that the 21st century will be the American century. A fair assessment is difficult because there is always a range of possible futures.

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