Facts and Fallacies of American Declinism
At the end of the Cold War with the fall of the Berlin Wall, an event symbolizing the end of the Cold War and the receding tide of communism in Europe, Francais Fukuyama published The End of History?—an essay that would become one of the seminal works of modern international relations.
In the essay, Fukuyama noted the unabashed victory of economic and political liberalism, noting the absence of any viable alternative. Although he never mentioned American hegemony by name, Fukuyama was foreshadowing a century that would be spearheaded by the liberal international order led by the United States.
However, 22 years later, the dominant theory in modern international relations is that U.S power is receding—and quickly. Former President Donald Trump’s notably isolationist stance accelerated this declinist opinion to the forefront of foreign policy discussion.
During his presidency, Trump virtually disengaged with NATO, ignored large parts of the world such as Latin America and Asia outside a trade capacity, accelerated a confrontation with China, and removed the question of Palestinian statehood from international discussion. With these actions, the American world order and the notion of American-led liberal institutionalism are seemingly dissipating.
In The World America Made, Robert Kagan argues that the American world order is worth preserving, and the future of the liberal international order hinges on the economic and military power of the United States, not so much soft power. To preserve power, America must tend to its foundations at home. However, recent images of the subversive attack on democracy have undermined the domestic credibility of the U.S. government and its ability to push for the rule of law and democracy abroad. In fact, an Axios-Ipsos poll conducted on January 14th, 2021 reported that 83% of Republicans and 78% of Democrats think that America is falling apart.
Other scholars such as John Ikenberry have taken different stances, arguing that although the US position in the world is changing, the liberal international order remains. While acknowledging that United States primacy is waning, Ikenberry suggests that the modern international order is not inherently western, and there is no competing global organizing logic to liberal internationalism.
Is America truly losing power? If so, does this mean the demise of the liberal international order? How can we characterize the rise of China? What can American politicians do to offset growing powers in China and Iran?
Cohen, Eliot A. ‘The End of American Power’, Foreign Affairs, 8 December 2020, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2020-10-27/end-american-power, Accessed 6 March 2021.
Fukuyama, Francis. ‘The End of History?’, in Princeton Readings in Political Thought, ed. by Mitchell Cohen, Essential Texts since Plato - Revised and Expanded Edition, Revised, 2 (Princeton University Press, 2018), pp. 645–55, https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctv19fvzzk.62
Ikenberry, G. John. "The Future of the Liberal World Order: Internationalism After America," Foreign Affairs, vol. 90, no.3, 2011, 56–68
Kagan, Robert, The World America Made, 1st ed. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 2012.
Last Fact Checked on May 29th, 2021.