American Power: Mapping its Rise and Calculating its Fall (and Return)

Can one calculate the trajectory of the fall of American power as it is known today? And is America bound to fall? America has been the defining superpower of the 20th Century and the sole global power for approximately three decades. In geopolitics, there are few bigger questions than whether America will remain the pre-eminent superpower during this century, and if not, how fast it will decline, and who, or what, might replace it. The world today is in the midst of a series of defining shifts that make it even more critical to have a perspective on the answers, and on the drivers of the rise of the next civilisation, in particular as the world strives to break beyond the carbon-fuelled industrial model of the previous centuries. Will America herald this next era or fall in its wake? The narrative of America’s inevitable decline in the 21st Century has become a staple of both political analysts who would seek to reverse it as well as of those who would welcome its acceleration. This narrative of decline has been further strengthened during the past four years of the Trump Administration, whose ‘America First’ doctrine has seen the country withdraw from international commitments, abandon and turn on some of its longest-standing allies and withhold funding from multi-lateral institutions, all cornerstones of the geopolitical order which helped build and sustain America’s international leadership and power during the last century.

The year 2020 has been particularly unkind to American power and global perceptions of it, with the coronavirus pandemic exposing critical flaws in its government effectiveness and overall resilience1, and exacerbating fault lines in its political leadership and body politic. America’s perceived weakness and decline stands in strong contrast to an increasingly assertive China, which has steadily become a powerful force in global trade, economics and geopolitics while claiming to have managed the pandemic at home with far fewer casualties and lesser economic damage than America, albeit with trust in its global citizenship, at this stage, severely damaged.  

Against this backdrop of shifting power, it is useful to attempt to more closely quantify the patterns of past superpowers and empires throughout history in order to draw lessons from them and to predict potential trajectories America’s own power might take during the 21st Century.  While the long-term trajectory of American leadership and power is likely to inevitably be one of relative decline at least in its current incarnation (after all, no superpower can last forever or outgrow new rising nations), the duration of US pre-eminence in the world will depend on the choices made by its leaders, and the responses by its allies and competitors.   

This month’s Sign of the Times examines the current nature of American power and looks for benchmarks in the trajectories of empires past to develop multiple scenarios on the arc that US leadership might take in the coming decades.  While history is not destiny of course, the lessons of the past can provide valuable guidance for world leaders as they plan for a world with or without America as the great power of the next civilisation. 


World Changes that Accelerate Change in Power

With the world in the throes of major changes auguring a shift to a new world order, it is timely to re-examine the role of America in that, whether it will be the sole superpower and when it might cease to be a great power. The world was a very different place only seven years ago when the original analysis on ‘American Power’ was published in the Sign of the Times.  America had recently re-elected President Obama for his second term against the backdrop of an increasingly fractious domestic political landscape, and Xi Jinping had just assumed power as the President of China, a role whose power had been in relative decline for over a decade in favour of a more consensual mode of decision making by the seven member Politburo Standing Committee.  Globally, the world was still recovering from the aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis, and while certain economic tenets of the liberal world order such as the Washington Consensus and libertarian capitalism had fallen out of favour or been discredited in some quarters, its core institutions like the IMF, World Bank and the UN had proven their value during the Global Financial Crisis and in coordinating a global response to various other international crises and ‘rogue states’2. Despite this backdrop of relative global stability, America’s long-term decline seemed evident in its overstretch from the wars that followed 9/11 and the rise of China (and the much slower one of India) in the context of a rising Asia.

Fast forward to 2020, and the world very clearly appears to be in a different place. China’s rise has continued its outward expansion – the One Belt One Road initiative, the AIIB3, the New Development Bank, and resource deals across the world, to name a few – largely unabated, despite a relative economic slowdown compared to previous years, and Xi Jinping has emerged as its most powerful leader since Mao. President Xi has instituted changes that have turned China into a powerful platform from which the country can expand outwards in the comfort that it has secured its home base from challenge and with the resources one needs to feed it. The steps to achieve this have included purging political rivals, abolishing term limits for the presidency, curtailing civil liberties and increasing domestic social control. And this has allowed the unchallenged pursuit of an increasingly aggressive foreign policy including the seizure of foreign strategic assets in cases of sovereign debt default, requiring foreign countries to publicly support its positions, and violent military altercations in border disputes. China also feels increasingly confident in issuing its own human rights report and calling other’s accusations hypocritical, pointing to the US and its record on gun violence, racial discrimination, wealth disparities and a slew of other issues4.

The US and its position in the world have undergone dramatic changes too in the intervening period. These include the ‘America First’ doctrine and its shift from multi-lateral engagement to transactionalism5, America First has created a more isolationist position and brought it closer to China in terms of being an ‘island’ from which to engage with others around the world. However, this is throwing away ‘a winning hand’ since it cannot beat China at China’s game withdrawing from multi-lateral institutions, seeking to renegotiate long standing treaties and alliances for a set of more narrowly defined gains, putting up various barriers to trade and investment, while itself launching a trade war against China, and closing its border to immigration (including reducing legal immigration). These changes create a more isolationist position and bring it closer to China in terms of being an ‘island’ from which to engage with others around the world. However, being a pluralist democracy means that there is no way to compel the domestic population – consumers, producers, financiers and others – to not engage with China (or others) only as directed by the centre, and so its actions have not left America’s position stronger, thus far. As a result, it is already clear that America is unlikely to win if it plays China at China’s game. 

These changes in the relative positions of power players are taking place against a backdrop of critical longer-term changes that will continue to play out over the next decade(s), to name a few of the major shifts:

  1. Shift Away from Industrial Jobs in the Wake of the Information Age. The de-industrialisation of the American heartland and much of Britain during the past decades is but a small part of a larger dislocation underway, the shift to an Information Age, and other industrial nations, including China, Germany and Japan can expect the same hollowing out of their industrial base in the future. Since 2000, the number of manufacturing jobs in America has declined from over 17.5m to fewer than 13m today.
  2. Asia Rising, India Ascendant. Asia, with 50% of the world’s population, has been rising steadily with major metrics such as share of global GDP, purchasing power, trade, world output, energy consumption, currently at 40-50%, and; expected to increase to 50-60% by 2050, with at that stage c.50% share of foreign direct investment, financial assets and military spending6. Within it are two giants, China and India, with the latter now rising to become the world’s fastest growing economy in the world. As such, Asia can be expected to play an important role in a future multi-polar world.
  3. Population and the Race for Resources. Mass consumerism, global economic development and continued population growth from 6.2 billion at the beginning of the century to over 10bn people by 2050 will continue to drive demand for the world’s natural resources, which in the absence of radical breakthroughs in science will be depleted at an accelerating rate.
  4. Climate Change Threatening Social Stability. Environmental damage is set to reach levels that undermine economic and social stability in many parts of the world. Rising sea levels, water acidification, desertification, increasingly erratic weather patterns and pollution risk causing irreparable harm to the biosphere and changing the way of life globally, with climate change projected to cost the global economy US$7.9 trillion in direct costs annually within a generation7.
  5. Acceleration of Technological Disruption. The law of accelerating returns predicts that 20 years of progress at the current rate equals the total progress made during the entire 20th century8. This level of technological change challenges every element of how people live their lives. Automation has the potential to replace 50% of all jobs, including services jobs, within the next two decades.
  6. Increase in Asymmetric Power. With America’s absolute military might likely to remain undisputed for decades, state and non-state actors have focused on the development of asymmetric means to compete with America, most effectively in the forms of international terrorism and cyber-warfare, whose increasing sophistication and coordination can potentially threaten the stability of entire countries, with cyberattacks on critical US infrastructure up over 50% in the last three years9.
  7. Migration Flows and Related Pressures. Conflict and political instability, environmental degradation, and widening income inequality will continue to drive mass migrations of peoples. The flows from conflicts in Syria and poor conditions in Africa have already resulted in over 500,000 refugees entering Europe10 and been a factor in the British voting for Brexit and political disruption in the EU. Globally, one in every 122 humans today is a refugee, internally displaced or seeking asylum. If this were the population of a country, it would be the world’s 24th largest, bigger than South Korea. Walls are likely to be erected and are unlikely to save the rich and stable nations from those that are not.

The essential question of how best to position in this changing world scenario is the one that needs to guide geopolitical positioning. Without leadership, and historically this has meant US leadership, it is clear that these changes are a threat to the current manifestation of the liberal world order. The liberal order and US power have been inextricably intertwined for the past 75 years, and despite serious externalities emerging, have successfully delivered peace and prosperity for the world at large, underpinned by America’s military and economic might.  Does the end of this order necessarily spell the ‘end’ of American power though? 


The Key Dimensions of American Power

As to whether America’s power is inextricably linked to the current world order requires an examination of its sources and the relevance of those going forward. US geopolitical power and leadership can be seen as a function of five interrelated facets, which taken together have resulted in American pre-eminence since the end of the Second World War11. The trajectory of these factors gives an indication of the overall trajectory of American power.  

Stepping back, across all these facets, the overall picture that emerges is one of incipient decline. While a decade ago, the US might have been able to mount an argument for stable US hegemony, pointing to its own rapid economic recovery from the Global Financial Crisis and the breadth of its international engagement as signs of its vigour and fitness to lead, America in 2020 is unlikely to be able to make such a claim, especially in the wake of having failed to lead the world in the current pandemic – seen now as most severe global crisis since the second world war and the biggest economic crisis since the Great Depression.  

On too many fronts, America has willingly and unwillingly ceded ground to its challenger for leadership, China, finding itself increasing deadlocked domestically over the question of whether it should even be leading in the first place. Luckily for American power, China has stumbled during the pandemic crisis but what is clear that this may well be temporary given it has steadily invested the world over for over two decades to build its powerbase and create dependencies.

Despite this relative decline in America’s power position along critical dimensions, there are ‘game changers’ which reset power. In history, these have been based on innovations that enabled new “territories” to be conquered, which could be the discovery and exploitation of new lands, new resources, new sources of resources, new technologies and superior weapons. So, innovation to change one’s position is a critical dimension of power.     

However, against this broader backdrop of the shifts leading to massive changes in the world scenario and the trend of declining US power across key dimensions, the question might no longer be whether American power is in decline, but of how quickly it will decline, when the ‘American Century’ will truly end and how quickly others will rise to fill the vacuum? The fates of past empires in world history provide a potential roadmap for America and its competitors in this regard. 


The Lessons from Charting the Course of Empires in History

So, can we calculate the trajectory of the fall of American power as we know it today? The rise and fall of great powers, empires, throughout history follows a pattern that may provide critical insights on the potential trajectories of American power in the coming decades. The basic pattern is that all great powers rise, maintain their power at or near their peak for some period of time, and then inevitably decline. Analysis reveals that there are a few shapes for the expansion and contraction. Analysis also reveals that the patterns repeat throughout history, but that the nature of the ‘typical’ imperial curve has changed over time as the world has moved from the pre-industrial agricultural age to the modern industrial age to the information age.  

Mapping the Rise and Fall of the Largest Empires

Historically, the power of an empire has been measured in land, the ultimate real asset in pre-industrial societies, which provided the basis for agricultural production, natural resources and determining the size of an empire’s population.  Land, in other words, was the source of wealth that allowed an empire to build and project power, and therefore extend its influence to accumulate more power.  

This analysis examines the trajectories of the 30 largest empires in history, and then two subsets: the largest empires, and modern-day empires, in order to draw out the lessons and possible scenarios for America’s potential power trajectory. 

  1. The 30 Largest Empires in History. Firstly, it is important to understand the overall (and, it seems, inevitable) pattern of imperial rise and fall that has been observed throughout history, with as broad and relevant a sample of empires as possible. This analysis considers the 30 largest ones by the amount of land amassed (as a proxy for the global power exerted), which includes all empires and dynasties which amassed a land area greater than c.1.2m square miles (c.3m square kilometres, or c.2% of the world), approximately the size of India or Argentina. While there have been many important smaller or regional empires and dynasties throughout history, these empires (e.g. Ancient Greece35 or Ancient Egypt) are not entirely relevant to the modern-day superpower ‘empires’ or great powers (US and China) that this paper seeks to analyse.  The average pattern of these empires reflects a roughly symmetrical rise and fall.  The mean average rise and fall lasting c.120 years and a mean average total length of c.2.5 centuries, with a mean peak size of c.6% of the world’s total land (or 9m square km).  However, closer analysis reveals the need to divide the group into a two benchmark groups: a Rapid Rising Group and a Steadily Rising Group. So, of the 30 empires, there is a Rapid Rising Group of 12 empires that took c.50 years to rise to their peaks, lasted 150 years on average and conquered c.4.7% (c.7m square km) on average of the world, and a Steadily Rising Group of 18 empires that took c.170 years to rise to their peaks, lasted c.300 years on average and conquered 6.4% of the world (c.9.5m square km) on average. 
  2. The Six Largest Empires in History. Secondly, it is important to understand the patterns of rise and fall of the very large empires, those that have amassed c.10% of the world’s land area (or circa four times the size of India), as these offer the closest comparators to the scale that of US dominance currently. With the exception of the Mongol Empire and the Qing Dynasty, these mega empires have been the industrial-age European (British, French and Spanish) and Russian empires that successfully leveraged the technological advances of the industrial revolution to rapidly expand their geographic footprint, colonising vast swathes of Africa, Asia and Latin America. Looking at their average trajectory, these empires had a longer rise – taking 171 years to reach their peaks (vs. 106 years for the next 24 largest empires, and similar to the period of rise of the Steadily Rising Group of empires) – because these powers, armed with the reach and weapons of the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions, managed to conquer more lands than others before them, and that took longer. Their falls were also swifter, taking c.60 to 70 years to fall from their peaks (vs. 121 years for the overall average of all empires), partially reflecting the fact that as the empires possessing the most land of their time, their territories touched those of many potential challengers for whom they would have been the primary threat as well as the primary target.
  3. The Six Industrial Age Empires (Peaking between 1800 To 1950). Thirdly, the analysis looks at the most recent empires of the Industrial Age to understand the pattern of rise and fall for these modern empires. Given the exponentially larger scope of Industrial Age empires, two-thirds of the sample is the same as the six largest empires, with the Portuguese and Japanese empires replacing the Mongol Empire and Qing Dynasty. The average trajectory of these modern empires therefore looks similar to the largest empires, with a few critical differences that highlight the key changes in imperial trajectories as the world entered the Industrial Age: these modern empires took almost two centuries to rise to their peaks where, on average, they occupied 11% of the world’s land area (c.2x the overall average, and 1.7x the average of the Steadily Rising Group of empires), and, like the largest empires, these empires have seen rapid falls, falling from their peaks within three decades on average as conflicts amongst the great powers led to successive world wars that depleted their resources and led to a rapid decline, with many collapsing in the 20th century at the dawn of the Information Age and with the emerging dominance of the US. Placing the average trajectories of the groups of empires above side-by-side provides an interesting perspective on how the relationships between the size of an empire, its total duration, the speed of its expansion and the rate of its decline has evolved through the different ages of human history, as technological progress allowed humankind to expand its territorial ambitions on an exponentially larger scale.


Key Lessons from the History of Empires
This comparison of empires across ages reveals five important insights within and across each era of history:

  • Industrial Empires were Significantly Larger. The industrial age brought various innovations like the steamship and more destructive weaponry that made it easier for armies to conquer and colonise widespread, non-contiguous territories in Asia, Africa and Latin America. The average industrial age empire has been c.2.5x larger compared to the average of pre-1800 empires.
  • Great Power Industrial Age Rivalry Made for More Contending Empires. The Industrial Age,  and the great power rivalry it unleashed in Europe, led to the rapid rise of several empires simultaneously (3-6 times as many as previous ages) as these powers set out to conquer the world, with the empires eventually imploding for many reasons of which most significant seem to be due to the over-stretch and conflicts between rival powers36.
  • Modern Empires are Shorter Lived. Empires of the modern industrial age have been 18% shorter-lived  than the overall average of all empires (and 32% shorter than the average of the Steadily Rising Group of empires) that preceded the industrial age, largely due to the speed of technological change and the faster rate at which competitors have been able to develop to challenge their leadership.
  • Modern Empires Fell Far More Quickly. Industrial age empires have fallen far more rapidly in three decades, compared to the almost two centuries that earlier empires would take to fall from their peaks. All these empires found it impossible to manage the scale of territory they amassed and withdrew from the world rapidly after reaching their respective turning points.
  • For Modern Empires, Size is Highly Correlated with Economic Output. The economic might of industrial age empires, where historical data is available,  is highly correlated (R-squared > 0.9) with these empires’ sizes. Modern age empires have competed in an increasingly global world and on a more or less even footing technologically, leading to few outliers in terms of productivity37. The relationship between peak land mass and peak GDP is clear and can be applied to the post-industrial age empires where the projection of global power is entirely a function of economic might.

These insights provide the basis to apply trajectories of past empires to the economic empires of the Information Age.


Implications for American Power

In seeking to apply the trajectories of past empires to predict that of the US, a few important parameters need to be considered.  In particular, and the selection of a suitable proxy for landmass as a measure of power in examining American power given its unique nature.  

Firstly, America is obviously not a traditional imperial power in terms of accumulating territory, its borders were largely fixed by the middle of the 19th Century and, the Philippines, Guam and Puerto Rico (the spoils of the Spanish-American War of 1898) aside, it never acquired overseas colonies. 

Secondly, with the Industrial Revolution and more recently the Information Age, the relative importance of land in wealth creation and therefore power has decreased due  to the increasing importance of knowledge and innovation. Throughout much of known history, innovation was a slow and gradual process, enabling stable empires unaffected by technological disruptions. When breakthroughs actually were made, such as the use of iron in weapons by the Assyrians, they were game changers that led to the ascension of new empires over very short spans of time. This process of innovation began to accelerate in the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century, leading to the practical innovations of the industrial revolutions that fundamentally shifted global power structures away from land ownership to industrial production capacity.

Thirdly, the US augured a change in the basis of great powers; while the British Empire still accumulated a massive land empire in the 19th Century, the United States dispensed with the need for land acquisition almost entirely, creating a political and economic world order that placed it as a first among equals.

Against this backdrop, America’s economic power, as measured by its share of global GDP, is perhaps the most accurate proxy for its power in the world today.

While the analysis of US leadership above indicates that US power is in the early stages of decline, applying the trajectories of past empires to determine its future path requires the identification of both the start of US power and its turning point. While its share of global GDP provides an indication of the start and turning point of American power, it is important to apply to this some judgement based on certain historical events which provide clearer bookends for the start and peak of America’s global power.  

In the case of the US, as the inset shows, the start point is 1898 with the Spanish-American War and from a number of potential turning points (fall of the USSR, Rise of China to significance on the world stage), 2001 stands out as the year of the relative decline of America’s share of global output, China’s acceptance to the World Trade Organisation, the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the impetus for two wars that cost c.US$6.4 trillion and allied support38. Based on these two dates as the start and turning point of American power, the 20th century really is the proverbial “American Century”.

Applying the average trajectories of past empires to these parameters gives us three potential end dates whereby American geopolitical power measured by its diminished economic might is at the level it was in 1898:

  1. Industrial Age Powers: 2032 based on the average curves of the empires of the Industrial Age, 
  2. Largest Leading Empires: 2067 based on the average curves of the six largest empires, and 
  3. Largest Historical Empires: 2122 based on the average curve of the 30 largest empires throughout history (including the ancient and middle age empires).

These scenarios result in very different trajectories for US power during the 21st century, with American superpower status continuing either to 2030-2070 (midpoint: c.2050) when comparing to only comparable recent or large empires, and to the middle of the next century if the valid comparator for America is to the overall pattern of all empires through history, including the smaller empires from the agricultural era and the Middle Ages. 


Scenarios for America’s Power Trajectory

Three important implications for American power emerge from the analysis: 

  1. America, as currently conceived, as a great power, is set to decline in line with every power in history. While the exact shape of America’s decline and the end of its status as a great power could vary by over a century, history suggests a decline – with its share of global output reducing the same level as the starting point, c.15% – between 2032 and 2067, and if all of history’s major empires were relevant, then as long as 2122, subject to external and internal forces too.
  2. American power is unlikely to last beyond this century given it is a modern power and one of the greatest in history. The last of these scenarios, that the US follows the long-term (100+ year) declines of the (smaller) ancient and pre-industrial empires, is less probable than other scenarios given America’s status as an Industrial Age and scaled power, which in history have seen more rapid declines than the overall average for empires, a trend that is only likely to increase in the Information Age where the pace of innovation and disruption exceeds that of the Industrial Age.  
  3. The likely full decline of the America of today is the middle of this century. If the US follows the trajectories of recent or other similarly powerful empires, its power is likely to erode by the middle of the century, lasting anywhere from just over one to nearly five decades from today, with the decline complete between 2032 and 2067.

While the analysis provides the shape of the rise and fall of power, it would be a mistake to believe that a former great power is powerful until the end of its curve. Great Power tends to vanish well before the end, when the power can no longer set the ‘rules of engagement’ for others.

One consideration worth noting is that the trajectory and duration of American power is obviously sensitive to the key assumption of when the turning point has occurred. Other potential candidates could include the collapse of the Soviet Union (1991), when victory in the Cold War accelerated overreach by the sole remaining power as well as a sense of complacency, or the Global Financial Crisis (2008-09), when the weaknesses of the US laissez faire financial and economic systems were exposed and China began in earnest to develop alternative models. The turning point of 2001 lies in the middle of these two alternatives. Choosing one of these alternative turning points would move the end points of American power by ten years or less in either direction. While this variance is a less relevant in the longer-term scenarios, a decade more or less within which to be the sole global superpower makes a big difference, potentially. If earlier, America is already in far greater decline than the model and if later, its full decline is a further seven years out based on the model, which may be much needed but does not change the conclusion much. So, 2001 remains a good point to continue the analysis.

Importantly, given that the ‘end’ of American power in all scenarios simply implies a return to the level it had in c.1900, perhaps the more critical date to consider is the one at which it is overtaken by others. The point at which the dominant empire loses the ability to set the global rules of engagement for others typically happens when a rival empire (or a coalition of powers) crosses it in its influence. As such, it is instructive to compare the potential trajectories of American power in the 21st century with the possible trajectories of the rise of its major rivals and competitors.


Exercising Great Power: Losing the Ability to Set the Rules of Engagement for Others
America has likely passed the turning point of its ascent in this incarnation. So, the next key geopolitical point is the inability to compel others to follow. American might – economic, markets, trade and military, in particular – can be used as either weapons of coercion and to divide and rules one’s rivals, and one’s allies too, in fear that they become too powerful. This sounds and feels like tyranny. The alternative is to use the might to motivate willing followership. This has been the aspirational America that the Europeans followed post the wars and China gave up Communism for. 

There are points where the empire loses the initiative and becomes reactive and defensive, ultimately placing it on a declining trajectory, at some point overtaken by a rival, when the rival (rather than the great power) sets the rules of engagement. There are points where the empire loses the initiative and becomes reactive and defensive, ultimately placing it on a declining trajectory, and at some point it is overtaken by a rival, and from that point increasingly the rival (rather than the great power) sets the rules of engagement. This is most likely set to happen in 2030-2035This point is usually well before its ultimate end, leading to further decline and erosion of power vs. other rivals. The British Empire, for example, had declined to its end point by c.1950 at the end of World War II, but it lost the ability to set the rules of engagement for the rest of the world following the financial and political exhaustion of maintaining its empire in the wake of the First World War, losing ground to the US which overtook it economically and played the leading role in the reshaping of of the global order in the inter-war years. So, it was the US which spearheaded the creation of the League of Nations in the aftermath of World War I and eventually its successor, the United Nations. The vexing question for America’s allies is, whether America will allow itself to become as tired of the world as the British were and so now hand over the reins to China? 

Empires and great powers that are in this pattern of decline sometimes choose to ally with other great powers (which could be other larger powers in decline or smaller rising ones) in order to collectively ensure that they maintain their global position, or at least arrest their rapid fall. For example, in joining the EU, Britain had joined a major power bloc and safeguarded itself from the more extreme rules that it might need to follow from the world at large given it was now a diminished power (what it can export, import and the standards it might have to accept of follow as an example). By bringing together major European powers (Britain, France, Germany, Spain in particular) which were all individually in decline, Europe, as the European Union, ensured that it collectively maintained its relative share of GDP through much of the 20th century which was dominated by the rise of America, and the early part of this century which has been dominated by China’s rise. This provides an answer for America too.  

The points at which America will have to decide its future path are clear and could be only a decade away. The critical points when power collapses are when the first rival exceeds the territorial position of the Great Power. That first point is estimated at around 2030.


The Rise and Fall of US Power Vs. Competitors and Usurpers in the 21st Century

America, to retain its pre-eminent position through the course of this century, would need to defeat China, in term of its ability to set the rules of engagement. If it fails, If either of the EU or India should side with China, then American power will be in peril of being overwhelmed by mighty opposing forces China will increasingly dictate the terms of engagement and America will continue to fall and then be superseded by the EU and India.  America’s approach to positioning with the rest of the world, Europe and India in particular, will therefore determine the nature of its power. And if either of those should side (or by American policy be forced to side) with China, then American power will be in peril of being overwhelmed by opposing forces; a very real risk given how poorly current US policy has been received in the EU, in particular. The two extreme choices facing America in prolonging its power are:

  1. Economic Transactionalism – The Short Path to Decline.  In this scenario, America would continue down its current ‘America First’ approach and continue to alienate allies, adopting a transactional approach to trade and investment. In this scenario, an America that defines power narrowly through absolute economic output and engages in trade wars while attempting to maintain itself as an industrial and manufacturing power (as it was that during its ascent) is likely to see its power dwindle on the heels of its inevitable loss of overall share of total GDP. In this scenario, America would cede primacy well before the middle of the century to China, likely between 2030 and 2035 when China’s economy overtakes America’s, and then be surpassed by India and the EU between 2040 and 2050.
  2. First Among Allies Strategy – The Longer Trajectory of Power.  The near inevitable rise of economic rivals therefore does not automatically or at least instantaneously imply America’s fall, but more likely point to the emergence of a more multi-polar world. China’s rise, unchecked, allows it to leverage its economic scale into a more comprehensive global power strategy moving from its own current mostly transactionalism mode to spheres of influence and then on to a hyperpower given its size39. If the US were to transition its industrial base through galvanising investment and innovation at a scale commensurate with its democratic traditions, and working closely with its allies, it could be the senior partner to the two other members of the quadrilateral power bloc, India and the EU, and thereby set the rules of engagement regarding the major global ‘control points’ (such as defence alliances, the setting of technology standards and rules and the governance of global commons) and contain China. In this scenario, America would become the de-facto leader of a bloc alongside the EU and India, and American power could potentially last through the end of the 21st century despite the rise of China, or until there is another basis for its power.


Potential Alternative Power Trajectories in the 21st Century: US, India, Europe Bloc Vs. China40

America certainly has the potential to be the pre-eminent superpower for far longer than its relative economic size alone would imply. Economic strength represents only one of the several facets that contribute to American leadership, and one that is critical but insufficient. The diversified nature of the US leadership (notwithstanding the step back it has taken in recent years) and its advantages of wealth, robust capital markets and its position in the international financial system, and its strength in many of the key sectors that will matter in the future (like healthcare, energy and technology) ensure that American power can be ‘sticky’ long after it has fallen behind China and potentially even India in absolute GDP terms later this century. However, transactionalism and the predatory nature of these transactions, whether in supporting fragmentation of its allies (promoting Brexit, splitting the GCC), the over-use of its power in trade negotiations (re-negotiating NAFTA, pursuing Bilateralism) or renegotiating prior US commitments (the Iran nuclear deal, the Paris Agreement), ultimately will make it more difficult for the US to be perceived as a trusted ally.


A New Rising America Inside America: The Information Age American Power

Although the current incarnation of America looks set to follow the path of every previous great power, the US stands alone as one with the potential to reinvent the basis of its power and, despite the internal civil fight implied, to allow another great power to rise from within. It is a tall order and one that lacks precedent.  While other powers still managed to innovate even in decline none in history have willingly subsumed the basis of their greatness, voluntarily allowing it to fall away, in favour of something new and powerful enough to defeat others and its past. America has this opportunity.  

Any strategy that prolongs American power and leadership through the 21st century would need to be rooted in the long-term mega-trends that are set to shape the world during the next several decades. The major levers that will destroy the past and create a new future include the ongoing shift to the Information Age, the search for strategic resource superiority and the need for global sustainability41. These trends are expected to be the source of many of the major disruptions that will shake the world in the decades to come and will paint the backdrop against which potential superpowers will compete with each other for leadership and influence. They provide the basis for American reinvention.  

As stated above, no great power in history has been able to reverse or even sustainably halt its own decline once initiated, and this is certainly true as well for America as the industrial age power of the 20th century. However, America the Information Age power has the potential to become another Great Power that rises from the ashes of America the Industrial Age power, and allows the country to maintain its predominant position in the world for decades to come (see inset below).