The End of American Superpower Isn’t Nigh

The United States is still the world’s predominant economic and military power. Asian nations won’t catch up soon.

The aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman operates in the Arabian Sea, November 23, 2010
The aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman operates in the Arabian Sea, November 23, 2010 (US Navy/Kilho Park)

On the eve of the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, commentators across the world seem to agree on one thing — the end of the “Pax Americana” is nigh, they say.

Bogged down in Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States are “tired of war” and suffering “imperial overstretch.” With its economy in shambles, America hardly seems a superpower anymore. As the War in Terror raged during the last decade, products “made in China” became omnipresent meanwhile.

The world has changed since 9/11 but the more they change, the more they stay the same. It is true that Brazil, China and India are moving up on the ladder of success as are smaller nations in Southeast Asia and South America. It is also true that China is flexing its muscles in these regions and in Africa. But what the “end of American ascendancy” narrative tends to forget is that none of these emerging powers have been able to win a war with an enemy that’s mostly invisible.

The United States have done quite well in their War on Terror. News from Afghanistan and Iraq caught the headlines in recent years but the international struggle against Islamic terrorism transcended national boundaries. America is still the only nation that is capable of waging a global war effort against an enemy that is extremely agile.

American intelligence and diplomacy have successfully adapted to the strategic realities of the twenty-first century. Even if it took ten years, the country didn’t need any help hunting down Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. When it found the terrorist leader hiding in Pakistan, it blissfully ignored Pakistani sovereignty to kill him. What other nation could afford to do the same and face no repercussions whatsoever?

Another element to be taken into account is that China and India have progressed economically and military not because of effective governance but in spite of it. These countries, too, are great powers in terms of sheer size and population. They don’t need colonies like the imperial powers of the nineteenth century did to become economic powerhouses.

The United States, with its rule of law, regulatory predictability and profound respect for entrepreneurship, has a huge comparative advantage over its foremost Asian competitors however.

It is not surprise therefore that America’s ideology of freedom and democracy has resonated powerfully across much of the world even when America itself was unpopular in some quarters for what was perceived as unilateral warmongering. The Arab world has risen up against authoritarianism and corruption while in Asia, capitalism and globalization are the driving forces of economic growth. The United States may be in recession but the rest of the world still aspires to imitate its success.

Finally, simple geopolitics determine America’s lasting status as a global power. In Asia, Japan opposes China which opposes India which opposes Pakistan which opposes Iran which opposes Iraq which opposes Saudi Arabia. All of these countries look to the United States to provide a balance of power.

America has slipped somewhat in recent years. Its debt burden is mounting fast while deep partisan divides prevent the country from addressing the problems confronting it with conviction. These challenges are probably temporary however and small factors in comparison with the long-term trends that have defined America’s role in the world. It is not a role that it will relinquish any time soon.