When the US government’s National Intelligence Council released a new strategic forecast recently, the subsequent news headlines hinted at the downbeat conclusions many of the document’s readers drew. “US out as sole superpower,” read one headline. “Asia rises, the West declines,” read another. “China to be Number One in 2030” was the most succinct. An editorial in The Washington Times concluded, “Decline is not a fate — it is a choice. Sadly, it is one that America, especially the Obama administration, has made. Until we change course, the future belongs to China.”
Every four years, the combined US intelligence agencies project forward along lines set by so-called “megatrends.” Looking ahead almost two decades, the new report envisions a range of demographic, environmental, political, and economic scenarios, but here is the most telling one: “With the rapid rise of other countries, the ‘unipolar moment’ is over, and no country — whether the US, China, or any other country — will be a hegemonic power.” Putting it differently, the Defense Department press service declared that “the American century is drawing to a close.”
But is that bad?
The hackneyed phrase “American century” was coined by Time magazine publisher Henry Luce in a 1941 editorial advocating the US entry into World War II. America’s rise to superpower status would follow that war. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States became the sole “hyperpower,” exacerbating a national grandiosity expressed in slogans like, “We’re number one.” America’s all-or-nothing sports mania infected the country’s self-image.
Even as the global economy made national boundaries porous — as evidenced by China’s becoming America’s banker — the United States continued to think of itself in uniquely heroic terms, as “the greatest nation.” Indeed, in the unipolar world, America was the “indispensable” purveyor of “overwhelming force.” As recent wars show, it was an illusion.
While politicians of all stripes still compulsively promote the image of America’s permanent, God-given supremacy, this is the wrong way to look at the world.
As the intelligence council notes, China’s emergence as the largest economy does not imply global dominance for Beijing. And instead of “decline” for the United States, the megatrends the council perceives in fact point to a kind of opposite outcome. Call it a fulfillment. It isn’t self-aggrandizement for Americans to look at the overarching trends — the rise of international coalitions and networks, the dispersal of power, and the replacement of domination with collaboration — and see a triumph of the liberal democratic values that, “number one” aside, have always formed our truest national core. Equality is a universal principle, and a shift toward parity among multiple nations brings to global fruition an essential American dynamic. World War II led to our superpower status, yes, but it also ignited the American civil rights and human rights revolutions that stamp the century far more significantly than anything military or economic.
The world economy is not a zero-sum game, in which Asia’s rise requires the decline of the West. In fact, against the gated-community fantasy of affluent nations, the continued economic growth of rich countries depends precisely on the prospering of poorer ones. And that is happening. The intelligence council’s most hopeful projection for 2030 is that, for the first time in history, “a majority of the world’s population will not be impoverished.” An international economy freed from the old constraints of class, ethnicity, and nation can mark globalism as a next and better stage of capitalism.
The challenge of climate change can only be met by massive cross-border collaboration, meaning old habits of competition threaten in unprecedented ways. More so than a system of rivalries and blocs, an order of what the report calls “multifaceted” networks and “amorphous” coalitions can mitigate against militarism — China’s as much as America’s. As an economic powerhouse, China, too, may come naturally into a new role of responsible global citizenship.
All of this may reveal the maturing of “soft power,” but soft power is, by definition, shared power. American entry into such alternative worlds of peer nations, in other words, is not decline, but arrival.
■ For the record: In last week’s column about the Israeli government’s settlement expansion, I incorrectly included the 3,000 new housing units slated for the West Bank and East Jerusalem in the area known as E-1, where planning is said to be “preliminary.”James Carroll writes regularly for the Globe.