Much ado about decline

  • Fall 2010
Joshua Shifrinson

Joshua Shifrinson is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Political Science at MIT and an affiliate of the Center's Security Studies Program. His research focuses on grand strategy, power transitions, and the use of force.

By Joshua Itzkowitz Shifrinson
November 1, 2010

For at least the third time in the post-war era, the decline of American power is at the forefront of American foreign policy discourse. In perhaps the clearest manifestation of the decline hypothesis to date, President Obama argued in his 2010 State of the Union address:

"China is not waiting to revamp its economy. Germany is not waiting. India is not waiting. These nations—they're not standing still. These nations aren't playing for second place [. . .]Well, I do not accept second place for the United States of America [emphasis added]."1

Underlying the decline debate is a consensus that decline, if and when it occurs, will be disastrous for American interests. Analysts depict interrelated problems. Some warn decline will undermine the credibility of American commitments. Others argue alliances will form to counterbalance the U.S. In extremis, some contend, a declining U.S. will be forced to go to war against revisionist rising powers eager to remake the U.S.-dominated international system. In short, decline is seen to portend a widening period of danger for the United States as other states adjust their policies to take advantage of impending U.S. weakness.2

But this picture of disaster is incomplete. Historically, Britain’s relative loss of power before World War I encouraged rivals such as the United States, France, and Japan to settle outstanding political differences with Britain. Likewise, the perceived decline of the United States in the 1970s saw NATO allies increase their military contributions to European security. In short, history suggests striking variation in the consequences of decline as some relatively rising states challenge the interests of declining actors, whereas other rising states support them.

Under what conditions should we expect supportive policies rather than exploitative ones? Scholars and policymakers presently lack an answer as most existing studies on decline focus on the tendency of decline to lead to war between rising and declining states. Though historically insightful, this literature is less than helpful in an era where war between great powers is unlikely due to the presence of nuclear weapons, extensive economic interdependence, and large geographic barriers between rising and declining states.



Analysts typically look to three factors—the economic, military, and diplomatic policies of other states—when describing the potential challenges of decline. These factors comprise what I term a state’s balancing response towards a declining state. Balancing responses matter because they can 1) force a declining state to expend greater resources to sustain its interests or accept their loss, or 2) help reduce the declining state’s costs. In this sense, balancing responses fall on a scale ranging from "extremely exploitative" to "extremely supportive." Unsurprisingly, the more a state tries to force a declining state to surrender or pay a higher price for its interests, the more exploitative the response. On the other hand, the more a great power reduces armaments, avoids interfering in a declining great power’s sphere of influence, or offers the declining state economic assistance, the greater the degree of support.



The key to international balancing responses is the credibility of a declining state’s military threat. Threat credibility results from the size, composition, and posture of the armed forces of the declining state relative to its opponents. Exploitation occurs when a state believes the declining adversary’s military stands a reasonable chance of imposing unacceptable costs on a state’s own interests. The logic is simple: efforts to further degrade a declining state’s capabilities provide an opportunity to remove the threat entirely. A similar logic applies to support: at some point a declining adversary’s military cannot be expected to pose a substantial risk. Under these conditions, a state will grow concerned that continued exploitation will generate significant "blowback": third parties may view exploitation as aggression, while the declining adversary may be incentivized to drive itself hard, put its house in order, and renew its challenge. Supportive responses forestall this possibility.



The U.S. response to the collapse of the Soviet Union offers preliminary support for this argument. It is also a critical test for a more general assessment of decline’s consequences: as long-standing adversaries, one intuitively expects the U.S. to do everything in its reach to exploit Soviet decline and ensure its demise as a great power. Indeed, the Reagan Administration’s policy after 1982 was specifically designed to isolate the Soviet Union politically, exacerbate its economic problems at home, blunt its perceived military edge, and ultimately "encourage the dissolution of the Soviet Empire."3

By the close of 1988, this strategy yielded results—Soviet decline was increasingly apparent. The Soviet economy was in trouble as economic growth stagnated.4 The Soviet military, facing stagnant budgets since the late 1970s and budget cuts after 1988, confronted stark resource tradeoffs driven by qualitative improvements to Western military forces.5Soviet politics were also increasingly in turmoil as Mikhail Gorbachev, General Secretary of the Communist Party, faced strong opposition from conservatives within the Party over his policies of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring).6 American policymakers, who recognized mounting Soviet economic problems as early as 1981, began to discuss the possibility of a major change in the distribution of power.7

U.S. policy, however, reacted slowly to these changes. Through the middle of 1989, the Bush Administration resisted pressure to reduce the U.S. military presence in Europe, only moving to study the issue.8 It backed away from arms control negotiations begun by the preceding Reagan Administration, and promised economic assistance to Soviet client states in Eastern Europe if they reformed their economic and political systems—that is, if they removed themselves from the Soviet orbit.9Overall, U.S. policy through the first half of 1989 was moderately exploitative: if not imposing new costs on the Soviet Union, then also doing nothing to lessen the costs of Cold War competition.

Soviet power then experienced a precipitous drop in the second half of 1989 as Soviet client regimes in Eastern Europe collapsed.10 Unilateral Soviet force withdrawals, announced in December 1988, also began to shift the military balance away from the USSR.11 By the start of 1990, the Soviet position in Central Europe was crumbling as newly established democratic regimes looked to evict Soviet forces from their territory while seeking economic aid from the West.12 Counter-intuitively, however, this was precisely when U.S. policy vis-à-vis the Soviet Union began to change. Force reductions were codified as U.S. policy, and Bush proposed deeper force reductions in his 1990 State of the Union address than previously considered possible.13 Even more dramatically, the United States—elaborating on a West German proposal—offered Gorbachev a comprehensive set of guarantees regarding Soviet security interests in Eastern Europe. These included pledges that would limit NATO’s presence in the former Communist countries; limits on the size and composition of the German military; pledges to reform NATO and transform it into a more "political" alliance; and hints of economic assistance.14 There is also significant evidence that U.S. officials promised NATO would not expand eastward to encompass the former Communist regimes. While U.S. policy should not be overstated—for instance, the U.S. refused to provide the Soviet Union with economic assistance despite repeated calls for aid through this period—U.S. policy towards the Soviet Union nevertheless took on a different form following the collapse of East European communism.

The collapse of the Soviet position became a rout over the second half of 1990 and 1991. Soviet forces began to withdraw from Eastern Europe, while the Soviet economy experienced sharp contractions. Meanwhile, domestic turmoil increasingly undermined the Soviet political system itself: not only did the conflicts between Soviet reformers and conservatives sharpen as the Soviets retrenched from Eastern Europe, but a resurgence of nationalism undermined Moscow’s control over individual Soviet republics.15

Again, however, U.S. policy continued its moderate course. Several supportive measures—notably the signing of the START and CFE treaties—were pursued during this period.16 Reversing earlier policy, the U.S. announced a limited aid package for the USSR and, after repeated Soviet efforts, encouraged USSR membership in international economic organizations.17 Most interestingly, President Bush resisted strong domestic and international pressure to recognize the independence of individual Soviet republics—an act that would effectively undermine the political legitimacy of the Soviet Union itself—through the actual dissolution of the USSR in December 1991.18 At the nadir of Soviet power and capabilities, the United States selected policies that effectively reduced pressure on their former adversary.

The central puzzle to explain in this case is the sudden shift in U.S. policy from exploitation to support in late-1989, and the acceleration of U.S. support as Soviet decline became a collapse. How does my theory fare in explaining these developments? The evidence is incomplete, but offers preliminary support for the core prediction that only when the Soviet military threat faded would the United States begin to support the Soviet Union. Indeed, this prediction tracks with the timing of the case: as described above, the major shift in U.S. policy did not occur until after the Soviet military threat to Western Europe receded during the second half of 1990.19 Despite encroaching economic weakness throughout the 1980s and shifts in the political order in the second half of 1989, it was only when the Soviet military position became untenable that U.S. policy changed.

Another telling piece of evidence comes from the concerns voiced by U.S. policymakers about the future of the Soviet threat to Europe and the role this played in American policy. Bush Administration officials remained fundamentally worried throughout 1989-1991 that Soviet decline would prove ephemeral. Even as the Communist regimes in the Warsaw Pact collapsed and the Soviet military began withdrawing from the region, U.S. leaders grew concerned that the Soviet Union would eventually re-emerge as a military threat to Europe.20 Prior to mid-1990, these concerns were used to justify efforts to accelerate Soviet withdrawal from Europe. By 1991, however, the concern was that only if the U.S. failed to support the USSR would this situation come to pass. The new concern was that continued U.S. exploitation would lead to a conservative coup in the USSR and Gorbachev’s replacement with a hardliner seeking to undo the events of 1989-1990.21 As one might expect if states care about the potential harm posed by declining powers, having eliminated the Soviet threat to Europe, policymakers were now eager to adopt policies that would help the USSR reconcile itself to a diminished place in Europe and limit the possibility of a renewed challenge.



More research is needed to flesh out the nascent theory described above. If accurate, however, then it holds important implications for the U.S. decline debate. Most significantly, it suggests that the United States need not be so pessimistic about the consequences of decline: as the Soviet case demonstrates, there is a limit on how far other states will go to exploit a declining adversary. This is not altruism, but a sincere concern that overly exploiting a declining adversary will generate more problems than it solves. Even declining states hold significant resources that can be used to make international politics unpleasant.

Equally important, the theory and case suggest that the U.S. may have a significant degree of agency in determining whether it is supported or exploited as decline progresses. Just as U.S. policy towards the declining USSR shifted as the USSR came to pose less of a threat to U.S. interests, by implication, the U.S. may be able to encourage other actors to support U.S. interests by reducing the size and presence of its military overseas. Ironically, avoiding exploitative outcomes as the U.S. declines will depend on an American willingness to adopt a more relaxed view towards its own decline.



1 Barack Obama, "Remarks by the President in the State of the Union Address," January 27, 2010.

2 For these concerns, see Robert Lieber, "Falling Upwards: Declinism, The Box Set," World Affairs Journal (Summer 2008); Robert Pape, "Empire Falls," The National Interest (January 2009); Paul Kennedy, "American Power Is on the Wane," Wall Street Journal, January 14, 2009; and Charles Krauthammer, "Decline is a Choice: The New Liberalism and the End of American Ascendancy," The Weekly Standard (October 2009).

3 Comment by NSC staffer Thomas Reed to the National Security Council, April 16, 1982. Reed directed the Reagan Administration’s review of U.S. national security policy and was presenting the completed study—entitled "NSSD 1-82"—for the first time. Transcript available in Jason Saltoun-Ebin, The Reagan Files (Self Published: 2010), p. 138.

4 Central Intelligence Agency, "Annual Bulletin on Soviet Economic Growth: January-December 1988," SOV SEG 89-001, May 1989; Central Intelligence Agency, "Gorbachev’s Economic Programs: The Challenges Ahead," NIE 11-23-88, December 1988.

5 Noel E. Firth and James H. Noren, Soviet Defense Spending: A History of CIA Estimates, 1950-1990 (College Station, TX: Texas A&M UP, 1998), pp. 75-82; William Odom, The Collapse of the Soviet Military (New Haven: Yale UP, 1998).

6 See the discussion of growing domestic opposition in Garthoff, Transition, pp. 347-368.

7 James Baker, U.S. Secretary of State from 1989-1992, notes that his first briefing on U.S.-Soviet relations accurately observed, "The Soviet Union is a Great Power in decline...As Secretary of State, your central task in East-West relations will be to manage the international effects of this decline productively and peacefully;" James Baker with Thomas M. DeFrank, The Politics of Diplomacy (New York: Putnam, 1995), p. 41.

8 In fact, the Administration only agreed to study military reductions after Gorbachev’s arms control initiatives in 1988-1989 were perceived to threaten U.S. leadership within NATO; George Bush and Brent Scowcroft, A World Transformed (New York: Knopf, 1998), pp. 71-74.

9 Bush and Scowcroft, World Transformed, pp. 48-54.

10 The Polish government fell in June; Hungary’s in October; East Germany, Bulgaria, and Czechoslovakia in November; and Romania in December.

11 See the CIA reports collected in Benjamin B. Fischer, At Cold War’s End (Pittsburgh: Government Printing Office, 1999), pp. 293-295, 305-323.

12 Mary E. Sarotte, 1989: The Struggle to Create Postwar Europe (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2009), pp. 60-61; Richard Falkenrath, Shaping Europe’s Military Order (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1995), pp. 56-57.

13 Lorna S. Jaffe, "The Development of the Base Force, 1989-1992," Joint History Office, Office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, July 1993, pp. 19-25; Sarotte, 1989, p. 110.

14 Sarotte, 1989, p. 164; Philip Zelikow and Condoleezza Rice, Germany Unified and Europe Transformed (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1995), pp. 262-264.

15 Bush and Scowcroft, World Transformed, p. 215; see also the CIA reports collected in Benjamin B. Fischer, At Cold War’s End(Pittsburgh: Government Printing Office, 1999), pp. 49-150.

16 Baker, Politics, pp. 473, 658.

17 See Curt Tarnoff, "U.S. Assistance to the Former Soviet Union, 1991-2001: A History of Administration and Congressional Action," CRS Report RL 30148, January 15, 2008, pp. 1-7.

18 Bush and Scowcroft, World Transformed, pp. 515, 524-525, 541-558.

19 The collapse of the Communist regimes in Eastern Europe meant both that Soviet forces could not count on allied assistance in wartime and, equally important, Soviet supply lines were threatened. While large Soviet forces remained in these countries, the absence of secure supply lines made them a rapidly wasting asset. See, for instance, the assessment in Fischer, End, p. 301.

20 See, for example, the various positions voiced by Bush, Scowcroft, Baker, and Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney in Bush and Scowcroft, World Transformed, pp. 13-15; Baker, Politics, p. 69; Jaffe, "Base Force," p. 18, among others.

21 Bush put the point baldly in his memoirs: "Whatever the course, however long the process took, and whatever its outcome, I wanted to see stable, and above all peaceful, change. I believed the key to this would be a politically strong Gorbachev;" Bush and Scowcroft, World Transformed, p. 502.