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Great Again? The United States Between Reckless Ambitions and Relative Decline

The attempt to make America great “again” is not only destined for failure, but will also worsen America’s own state, and therefore, the world’s

Donald Trump (by Antonio Giambanco/VNY).

This article focuses on one of the major deficits of American power: the lack of historical depth, that is, the idea that a solution that worked within a specific historical context can be reapplied in any other circumstance and produce the same outcomes. The relative decline of the country (that is, its growth rate being inferior to that of the rest of the world) is causing an entire series of policies adopted in the past to be no longer feasible and poses, if anything, the necessity to make America – in its ambitions, in its spending, in its view of the world – “smaller” than before

Manlio Graziano, already a columnist for La Voce di New York, recently published a book entitled L’isola al centro del mondo. Una geopolitica degli Stati Uniti, Il Mulino, 2018

This article is courtesy of Gnosis”, the Italian Intelligence journal, to which we extend our thanks.


The debate on the decline of the United States is devoid of content. Or it has too much, and the result is the same. To support the reasons of both sides (declinists vs. anti-declinists, and all the gradations in between), each takes into consideration different aspects of the nation’s political, economic, and social realities. Depending on the starting point, therefore, it is possible to demonstrate everything and the contrary of everything.

To distance the debate from arbitrary and inconclusive subjectivism, it must be based on an indisputable criterion, the only one which really matters in international relations: the comparison with other powers. It appears, therefore, that the United States – at least since the 1960s –is relatively declining: its economic strength, in absolute terms, continues to grow (therefore there is no decline), however, at the same time, that of its rivals and competitors is increasing at a more rapid pace (therefore, there is a relative decline). Since the world power is a finite quantity (in expansion, but still finite), the more power increases amongst rival countries, the more it decreases, in relative terms, in the United States.

Between 1940 and 2014, in terms of GDP, the United States grew twelve and a half times (therefore, no decline), whereas the rest of the world grew twenty-six times — more than double (therefore there is a relative decline). The following is a diagram of that trend (1940=100):

When, in 1987, Paul Kennedy published his renowned The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers – which opened up the debate on decline – that gap was barely noticeable: the American GDP had increased six-fold from 1940, and that of the rest of the world by seven and a half. This did not prevent the Yale historian from identifying the phenomenon with precision, docketing it as an historical trend and predicting the inevitable consequences.

One could logically ask if the growth differential of the gross product can, on its own, account for a country’s decline, even if relative. Many other elements must to be taken into consideration when the relationship of real forces between two or more powers must be measured: variable economic factors, such as access to raw material and their cost, transportation, research and development, productivity, finance, trade and investments; but also the geographical situation, military force, demography, health conditions, education, institutional and political stability; and finally, non-measurable (but not less important) factors, such as historical heritage, tradition, social psychology, ideologies and religion. Kennedy himself realized that in order to pinpoint the causes of decline of a great power, “the evidence of the past is almost always too varied for ‘hard’ scientific conclusions”; nevertheless, he continued, if one takes into consideration the history of the last five centuries, one can draw “some generally valid conclusions”. The first one is that:

There is a detectable relationship between the shifts which have occurred over time in the general economic and productive balances and the position occupied by individual powers in the international system.1

For the United States, the strategic challenge of that “valid conclusion” consisted of the impossibility in continuing to address “a vast array of strategic commitments which had been made decades earlier, when the nation’s political, economic, and military capacity to influence world affairs seemed so much more assured”.2 As a result, the United States had to address “what might roughly be called ‘imperial overstretch’”, and therefore:

Decision-makers in Washington must face the awkward and enduring fact that the sum total of the United States’ global interests and obligations is nowadays far larger than the country’s power to defend them all simultaneously.3

Many of Paul Kennedy’s critics pointed out that his “predictions” were based on the compelling ascent of Japan at the time, in an international context still dominated by the USA-USSR bipolar system; the disappearance of those conditions in the nineties should have therefore rapidly rendered his hypothesis as obsolete. Such criticisms make one think of those who look at the finger when a wise man points to the moon: Paul Kennedy pointed out a historical trend that, as the diagram shows, only emphasized it, despite the demise of the USSR and the “lost decades” by Japan.

In 2008, in its quadrennial report on global trends, the U.S. National Intelligence Council (NIC) wrote, among other things, that “owing to the relative decline of its economic, and to a lesser extent, military power, the US will no longer have the same flexibility in choosing among as many policy options”.4 With a 20-year delay, the “strategic thinking” of the White House took note of the practical implications of that which Kennedy wrote with extreme clarity in 1987.

In formulating his theory on relative decline, Kennedy reiterated a concept formulated by Robert Gilpin in another fundamental text on the subject: “In time, the differential growth in power of the various states in the system causes a fundamental redistribution of power in the system”.5 That same hypothesis would be used ten years later by Richard Haass to account for his theory regarding the necessity of taking all competitors by surprise to conquer a more advantageous position from which the decline could be negotiated. The U.S. needed to anticipate, wrote Haass, in such a manner that “any new ‘balance’ is in fact ‘balanced’ from our perspective”. Even if Haass expressed great reservation on the subject, his text contributed to the discussion on preventive war, which materialized a few years later – when Haass was director of policy planning for the State Department – with the attack on Iraq.

The common reference to Gilpin’s theory is not a mere coincidence. In a work published in 2011, Paul MacDonald and Joseph Parent maintained that there are only two possibilities to cope with “a decline in relative power”: retrenchment or preventive war.6 MacDonald and Parent defined retrenchment as “redistributing resources away from peripheral commitments and toward core commitments” for the sake of “economizing expenditures, reducing risks, and shifting burdens”. It was, in fact, the implicit suggestion given by Kennedy and the verification of the NIC document of 2008, and it was Barack Obama’s foreign policy guideline; preventive attack was Richard Haass’ main theory – a theory that was indeed much more explicit in other documents that appeared at the end of the last century – as well as George W. Bush’s foreign policy guideline. In the case of the United States, however, the response to “a decline in relative power” presents even a third possibility, much closer to the tradition of American ideology, from the George Washington’s Farewell Address to Donald Trump: isolationism.

Three clarifications must be made here. The first is that, even though isolationism is the highest stage of retrenchment, the two policies cannot be confused. Retrenchment distinguishes between “peripheral commitments” and “core commitments”: it does not mean to abandon all the commitments, but to produce choices, however painful, on the foundation of a clearly defined strategic policy. It means, to quote Kissinger – speaking of Nixon – “to find a sustainable ground between abdication and overextension”.7 It is, to use another metaphor, the difference between orderly retreat and a catastrophic route.

The second clarification: the anxiety caused by fear of worsening material conditions of existence arise from the fundamental lack of understanding of ongoing processes that, precisely for this reason, are summarily blamed on external plots and internal betrayal, In the dock, we find today “globalization” and its internal fifth column, the “globalists”. But Donald Trump’s anti-globalism is not of his invention or of his quirky ideologists; on the contrary, one could say that Donald Trump is none other than the “political form at last discovered” of the Seattle protestors against free trade in 1999. That Trump’s “main course” was prepared in intellectual kitchens of the far-left is only apparently paradoxical. In fact, the mold of isolationism and theories that set the virtues of small production in opposition to the faults of mature capitalism has a long genealogy: from the Jeffersonian democracy – variously reread and reinterpreted – to Seattle and Donald Trump passing through Andrew Jackson, the populist movement of the late nineteenth century, the Catholic critics of the far right and the far left during the New Deal, and a large part of the protest movement of the sixties.

The third clarification: more generally, the isolationist temptation in its current version has reemerged with the end of the Cold War, when the Americans had the feeling that the reasons that forced them into the “unnatural” entanglement in global affairs did not exist anymore, and that it was at last time to retreat to their island to enjoy the dividends of their victory. Already towards the end of Bill Clinton’s second mandate some decisions took that direction, such as the refusal to sign the Kyoto Protocol, of partaking in the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention and voting on the creation of the International Criminal Court. Prior to September 11th, George W. Bush was openly an isolationist and a unilateralist, proclaiming his intention to withdraw the United States from some of the institutions it had created and that which had guaranteed the continuity of its world order.

The attacks of September 11th only momentarily postponed that trend.

The anxiety caused by the 2008 crisis, increased by the harmful effects of the inconsiderate intervention in Afghanistan and in Iraq, restored them. During Barack Obama’s presidency, the United States adopted 317 protectionist measures on average each year, almost 20% of all the trade restrictions adopted world-wide, almost six times more than the second most protectionist nation, India. And during the presidential campaign of 2016, both candidates backed the withdrawal of the United States from the two free trade agreements in the Pacific and in the Atlantic, negotiated with difficulty by the outgoing administration; a position backed with still greater vigor by the “socialist” Bernie Sanders.

The idea of being able to “make America great again” is absurd because, trivially, history does not go backwards. When Americans think about their greatness, they generally refer to a time that belongs to the past, in which their nation solitarily and uncontestedly dominated economic, political, and military balance in the world; and its soft power – supported by enormous investments out of the reach of its competitors – conveyed an enviable and envied American way of life. It was a time in which its unmatchable material superiority fed the claim of the American moral superiority and allowed for more options for foreign policy. After all, most of the dramatic errors committed by the United States during the Cold War derive right from the conviction of being able to shape reality, of being able to act without taking into account the bothersome material and intangible obligations that, in the real world, limit, influence, and distort political will.

In particular, the absence of historical depth that characterizes American ideology, combined with the rootlessness and the diversity of the population, contributes to conferring to any event an absolute worth, and therefore reproducible in any circumstance. For the majority of their brief history (basically until 1944), the United States has been a protectionist country, and it was precisely during this long period that it became so successful and powerful. Therefore, the idea that protectionism could be a solution for returning to the greatness that had been lost could easily break through to the American spirit. When you disengage from specific historical circumstances that made one policy possible as opposed to another, you inevitably wind up thinking that that policy is applicable at any time. TheNeo-Keynesians reason in the same manner: they believe they can overturn current trends reinstating the New Deal solution, that is, relaunching the deficit spending cycle; but they disregard the fact that, prior to the crash of 1929, American national debt amounted to 16% of the GDP; that in the year in which Roosevelt was elected it was at 19%; that in the moment in which the U.S. entered the war, in 1941, it was at 45%. In 2008, when Keynes came back into fashion, national debt was at 68% of the GDP; the next year it was at 83% and, at the end of Barack Obama’s presidency, it was at 106.7%. Even Keynesians envision a world that no longer exists and, at heart, believe that it is possible to “make America great again”.    

The illusion, for both, is to “make America great again” on credit. In part, thanks to the external debt: of the 20,245 trillion dollars of the 2017 national debt , almost a third (6,349) was in the hands of foreign governments, first and foremost that of Beijing (1,189 trillion) and Tokyo (1,094). 9 In other words, in 2017, China and Japan financed more than 10% of American public spending. The substantial indifference towards debt is perhaps the most glaring evidence of the lack of understanding of the ongoing trend. In an interview during the electotal campaign in 2016, Trump stated: “You never have to default because you print the money, I hate to tell you, ok?10

The “press” option, however, would mean not only creating problems for the Chinese and Japanese economies (an option that the Trump administration seems to willingly embrace, without considering that American well-being is tied to that of China and Japan), but also draining all of the financial debt sources, putting into motion an inflationist spiral that wouldn’t do anything but exacerbate the anxieties and the standard of living of Americans.

The illusion of “making America great again” through protectionism not only it is absurd, but it is also the quickest way of provoking irreparable damage. In a world today based on interpenetration and the exchange of raw material, financial products, ideas and people, almost every type of production is tied by a thousand threads to the world market, and to cut one means cut them all, rendering any kind of production impossible. It has been calculated that even the making of a hamburger involves – between cultivation, storage, transport, packaging and distribution – 75 supply chain stages in 15 different countries.11 Therefore, interrupting the crossflow of raw materials, semi-finished products, finished products, and manpower is equivalent to slashing the veins of the world economic body.

Furthermore, the Wall Street Journal recalled “Newton’s third law of global politics, which is that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction”12; in other words, if it is true that the United States has a more elevated trade deficit, it is also true that it is the second exporting power in the world: between 2008 and 2017 it adopted 1,355 restrictive measures on imports, but it was subjected to 2,429.13 According to an assessment of the Boston Consulting Group in July 2017, an attack on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) would be first and foremost an attack on the United States: given the economic integration with Mexico, limiting imports from that nation “would probably kill thousands of US auto jobs”.14 As per Gordon Hanson, of the University of California, if it wasn’t for NAFTA, the entire American automobile industry would have already disappeared, wiped out by competition from countries with lower wages, less welfare state and a lower national debt.15

The United States is today gripped with a psychological stranglehold of apprehension and frustration, which became chronic after that the 2008 crisis made it clear that Americans can no longer afford to live in the future as they have in the past. It is an anxiety present in all countries that have dominated the world market in the last centuries and that now see their monopoly — and with it, the privileges that come from it – challenged by new emerging powers. But it is more intense in the United States, whose brief history has been characterized by the promise, almost always kept, of a constant improvement of standard of living of the majority of its citizens. Kissinger wrote that the art of demagogy consists in the “ability to distill emotion and frustration into a single moment”.16 Donald Trump won the election because he was undoubtedly the best in this art. But demagogy has never been able to resolve a society’s problems; if anything, it has exacerbated them.

The distance between the United States and those nations referred to as “emerging” continues to shorten: according to the World Economic Outlook of the IMF in October 2017, the growth rate of the latter (4.3% in 2016, 4.6% in 2017 and 4.9% in 2018) continues to be double of that of the United States (1.8%, 2.1% and 2.3%); and that of China is about three times greater (6.7%, 6.8% and 6.5%). Even if the GDP cannot be the only unit of measure in the balance of power amongst world powers, it remains the most significant to account not only for current trends, but also for its physical and psychological ramifications. Nevertheless, even if it were to surpass the real GDP of the United States, China would still lack many requirements to be able to supersede soon its rival as a dominant power at a global level, and as a crossroads of international equilibria.

Richard Nixon had already acknowledged in July of 1971 that “the United States no longer is in the position of complete pre-eminence or predominance”, adding: “That is not a bad thing”. He noteacknowledged, in other words, the multipolar character of the world. It is worth noting that international relations are always multipolar, in the sense that there are always several poles of power, even if the power that they are capable of implementing is, inevitably, unequal. As Spykman wrote:

The realm of international politics is like a field of forces comparable to a magnetic field. At any given moment, there are certain large powers which operate in that field as poles. A shift in the relative strength of the poles or the emergence of new poles will change the field and shift the lines of force.17

Today, “a shift in the relative strength of the poles” weave together with “the emergence of new poles”: the lines of force are therefore moving and the field of international relations is changing at an extraordinarily rapid pace. There is no general law that establishes how, when – and if – a nation in relative decline enters into a phase of absolute decline. Exactly because it is relative, the decline can also, theoretically, overturn itself to the contrary. Fareed Zakaria believes that the world is becoming always more “post-American”, not due to a supposed decline of the United States, but due to “the rise of everyone else”18: if, for one reason or another, China, or India, or Germany were to enter into a deep crisis, the United States would find itself in a state of relative rise. Nevertheless, it must be agreed upon that this is a highly implausible theory, because it presumes the very remote possibility that the USA would not be infected by a profound crisis in China, in India, or in Germany.

It is much more plausible that America will continue in its relative decline, which will in any case force it to give up some of its own commitments and interests on a global scale, inevitably also creating very serious local imbalances. Which would be nothing compared to the global imbalances that would be created if the United States were to withdraw from all of its commitments and interests in one fell swoop. It already happened in the twenties and thirties, and many historians attributed the American isolationism of that time as part of the responsibility of what happened right away afterwards. Today, however, the disasters would be immeasurably more serious, because one thing is to refuse to participate in world order when you are the only one that can guarantee it; another thing is to pull back after you’ve guaranteed it for more than seventy years, without having a successor in sight. Politics, like nature, has fear of the void, but in this case, it has to do with a genuine black hole in which all of the other world’s actors would be suctioned into. The residual American insular illusions would be quickly submerged by the tsunami that would follow. Such a split would simply mean transforming the relative decline into an absolute decline; in other words, a “suicide from fear of death”.


R. Gilpin, War and Change in World Politics, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1981.

R. Hofstadter, The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays, Vintage Books, New York 2008.

P. Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000, Random House, New York 1987.

H. Kissinger, Diplomacy, Simon & Schuster, New York 1994.

F. Zakaria, The Post-American World. And the Rise of the Rest, Penguin Books, London 2009.


1 Kennedy 1987, p. XXIV.

2 Ibidem, p. 665.

3 Ibidem, p. 666.

4 US Nic, Global Trends 2025: A Transformed World, Washington DC, US Government Printing Office, November 2008, p. 93. In reality, military spending was increasing both in absolute terms and in relative ones, having passed during the George W. Bush presidency, from 335 to 696 billion dollars, and from 28.7 to 39.8% of the world’s total; it hit its peak under the Obama administration in 2010, with 721 billion dollars, and the year later in relative terms, with 41.8% of the world’s total. 

5 Gilpin 1981, p. 13.

6 P. MacDonald ‒ J.M. Parent, Graceful Decline? The Surprising Success of Great Power Retrenchment, “International Security”, vol. 35, n. 4 (Spring 2011), pp. 7-44.

7 Kissinger 1994, p. 704.

9 <> [02.09.2018].

10 Statement to CNN, May 10, 2016. <> [02.09.2018].

11<> [02.09.2018].

12 Editorial Mexico Responds to Trump: Our Southern Neighbors Aren’t Rolling over to His Political Demands, “The Wall Street Journal”, February 25, 2017.

13 Data Global Trade Alert.

14 Cited in A. Campoy, The US’s Proposals for Bringing Back Auto Jobs Would More Likely Kill Them Instead, “Quartz”, July 19, 2017.

15 E. Porter, Nafta May Have Saved Many Autoworkers’ Jobs, “The New York Times”, March 29, 2016.

16 Kissinger cit., p. 289.

17 N.J. Spykman ‒ A.A. Rollins, Geographic Objectives in Foreign Policy I, “The American Political Science Review”, vol. 33, n. 3 (June 1939), pp. 391-410.

18 Zakaria 2009, p. 1.


Translated by Emmelina De Feo

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