Scholars and pundits love to spar over the nature and magnitude of American power in the global system. In the September/October issue of Foreign Affairs, Josef Joffe, co-editor of Die Zeit and senior fellow at Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies takes up the side of American prowess against those he suggests subscribe to “declinism.” He argues “every ten years, it is decline time in the United States.” He makes his case for continued American unipolar dominance by pounding the keys of his calculator against traditional metrics of military spending, gross domestic product, and demographics—although he leaves the pesky issue of debt out of his analysis. (Apparently his calculator doesn’t have a minus key.) He dismisses “false idols” like China suggesting it is no more a threat than Japan was in the 1980s. He wades somewhat clumsily into elements of soft power claiming America’s “unmatched research and higher education establishment,” “warrior culture,” and “convening power” (the capacity to call a meeting and have people show up) provide additional evidence of power. In the end, just in case these arguments don’t stick, he anchors his case with the default concept: whom else would any of us want “to take over as housekeeper of the world”? His case reads like an evangelical running out of prophecies: from boisterous to breathless. What he succeeds in, if anything, is surely unintended. He paints a picture of a nation that is still winning a game that many simply are not playing anymore, and those that are play by different metrics. Maybe the world doesn’t want or need a housekeeper.
The question Joffe ignores, or doesn’t see, is what does it mean when the player who is still winning is doing so from a position of both relative and absolute decline? Is it possible that both the game (the model) and the way score is kept (the metrics) are what are really changing? Is the United States the “last man standing,” as Joffe argues, because others don’t want to stand there anyway? Is the state-centric model where power is measured by guns, money, land, and headcount, passé? Is there anything about the Cold War bipolar vernacular that still applies in an asymmetric networked world where many of the key actors are neither elected nor bejeweled? Joffe may be locked in an argument he may win and still lose, simply because it’s the wrong argument—on both sides. He and the ‘declinists’ may be wrestling over the last claim on a mountain without gold—the right to win nothing.
I’ll wager that what is ahead for the global system and the way power is acquired, expressed, and distributed has little to do with historical models or calculations. Guns, money, land, and headcount may not matter as much. The rules of attraction and persuasion are changing. America is well positioned to play this game. But it needs to decide to play, and in so doing shift its priorities and resources away from old-school metrics. It needs to set its sights on innovation and inspiration where intelligence gains primacy and empowerment at home and throughout the global system brings America back—from ‘default’ to ‘super’ again.