European Affairs

Decline and Fall of the U.S. Empire?     Print Email

Reviewed by Helle Dale

Charles A. Kupchan, "The End of the American Era: U.S. Foreign Policy and the Geopolitics of the Twenty-first Century." New York, Alfred A. Knopf. 2002. 391 pp.

The decline of American power has been a favorite subject of American intellectuals for quite a while. Remember "The Rise and Fall of Great Powers," by Harvard historian Paul Kennedy, which predicted the imminent decline of the United States? It came out in the late 1980s, just before the Soviet Union's collapse on the dust heap of history - inconveniently so from Mr. Kennedy's point of view - leaving the United States standing as the world's sole remaining superpower. Indeed one might have thought that the fate of Mr. Kennedy's thesis would have given pause to other prophets of American doom.

So, clearly, Charles A. Kupchan is not among the faint of heart. In this provocative new book, Mr. Kupchan, a Georgetown University professor of international relations and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, predicts that we will in the future see a United States that is increasingly isolated internationally and therefore in decline.

U.S. foreign policy, he predicts, will become more unilateralist as a consequence of isolationist pressures at home. This unilateralism, in turn, will cause the United States to face international isolation despite its overwhelming military superiority.

"As a matter of urgency, America needs to begin to prepare itself and the rest of the world for this uncertain future," Mr. Kupchan writes. "To wait until American dominance is already gone would be to squander the enormous opportunity that comes with primacy. America must devise a grand strategy for the transition to a world with multiple power centers now, while it still has the luxury of doing so."

Unlike many other foreign policy doomsayers, Mr. Kupchan has not chosen China or militant Islam as the primary challengers to American power. Interestingly, he has chosen the European Union as the rival power that will help precipitate America's decline.

From a Washington perspective, this is an unusual choice. Even if one does not agree with Mr. Kupchan's forecast of American decline, the author is performing a service in focusing the reader's attention on a subject that is woefully badly covered in Washington.

Indeed, Americans who do engage in the current debate over strained Transatlantic relations are more likely than not to underestimate the nature and extent of the European project. And they are likely to dismiss Europeans as whining, overfed, pacifists. The fact that Europe is slowly but surely coming together, pooling economic resources that collectively exceed those of the United States, is rarely taken into account. Nor is the fact that the Europe Union does manage on a number of issues to implement a common European Security and Defense Policy. (Iraq admittedly has not been such a case.)

Mr. Kupchan argues that the increased political and economic power of Europe will inevitably lead to a rivalry that will diminish American power. Following the end of the Cold War, "a single pole is gradually being separated into two. North America and Europe are likely to engage in competition over status, wealth, and power that has been and - and remains - so much part of human experience," the author writes.

He compares what is happening to the split of the Roman Empire into Western and Eastern parts, headed respectively by Rome and Byzantium (Constantinople). The two soon clashed over security, status, and religious differences. "Rome's fate does not augur well for a unitary West that is in the midst of separating into distinct North American and European power centers," he says - although, of course, the fall of Rome was not directly due to enmity with Byzantium.

Mr. Kupchan's argument is based on a number of dubious assumptions. One is that the U.S. government will not adjust its course internationally to keep coalitions and alliances intact. Others are that the constitutional project for a "United States of Europe" or "Europe United," as former French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing has suggested calling it, will indeed come to fruition, that it will work as intended, and, finally, that it will inevitably be anti-American in nature.

These cannot all be presumed to be givens. With the prospective inclusion of 10 new countries, a constitution for a "deeper Europe" will be harder to implement. Furthermore, many of these new countries have close ties with the United States and will resist anti-American trends.

The decline of American power remains a dream of the left, but as articulated in Mr. Kupchan's work, it is still only a theory. As noted by Radek Sikorski, former Polish Defense Minister, at a recent forum on the Transatlantic rift at the American Enterprise Institute, "Pax Americana is here to stay for a good while yet - and a good thing, too, because the world has not yet seen such a benevolent hegemon. Europeans should be grateful that they derive benefits from the maintenance of the global trading system largely at America's expense. If this is Rome, I hope we are in the mature republican period."

Mr. Kupchan does say in his book that if American power declines, as he postulates, the world is likely to be a less stable and secure place. A rising, but militarily weak Europe, he concedes, is not likely to be able to replace Pax Americana. So, granted that great empires pass through various stages of life and eventually decline, even the critics of the United States should not wish to hasten that end.


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number IV, Issue number I in the Winter of 2003.


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