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By: Prof. Dr. Walid ‘Abd al-Hay.
(Exclusively for al-Zaytouna Centre).


Political studies of international relations have embraced a historical trend to explain the rise and fall of empires or international poles, with the studies of the Cyclical Pattern of History by Arnold Toynbee, Ibn Khaldun, Oswald Spengler and Edward Gibbon representing the intellectual and methodological references in this respect. However, contemporary political studies have gradually adopted the future perspective. Thus, instead of explaining the collapse or decline of political entities throughout history, the trend has become to “predict” the fate of current international powers and determine which will ascend and which will decline.

The link between the “historical and futures” methodologies is that the historical methodology tracks the movement of the political entity from the moment of its inception until its fall or collapse, then works to determine the causes of what happened. The futures methodology, on the other hand, anticipates developments and determines their shape based on past trends related to the entity and its environment, and tries to determine its fate, whether it would fall or rise.

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American Declinism: Future outlook

American “declinism” has been a recurrent topic in US politics since the 1950s. The roots of this trend extend to the repercussions of the Great Depression that lasted until the early 1940s, then the growth of German power before World War II reaching to the growth of Soviet powers, especially after the launch of the Sputnik satellite in the 1950s, followed by the spread of the communist ideology that culminated in the heavy US defeat in Vietnam. In the 1970s and the 1980s, there was the accelerated growth of Japanese power and status, followed by the expansion of the European Union (EU) reaching joint institutions and a single currency. Currently, the literature of American declinism is focused on the growth in the Chinese position. [1]

Opponents of American declinism believe that all previous literature has ended with the failure and collapse of the powers on which this literature had bet to be an alternative to the American position. This was evident in the end of Nazism, the collapse of communism, the Japanese reluctance and then the cracks in the EU walls, which resulted in opposing political literature, talking about the end of history and the victory of the capitalist model dominated by the US. Such orientations were based on indicators of American scientific superiority, the US entering the stage of energy independence, and even entering energy markets as a competitor, with all the geo-strategic changes this entails in the structure of the future international system. Also, the US military forces cannot be compared in terms of deployment, firepower and defense spending with any other country, as a matter of fact, some countries, such as Israel and Taiwan, exist as a result of their complete dependence on US power and influence. [2]

With this disparity between the two currents, systematic problems arise in determining whether the US is in a state of decline or not. These problems are evident in the following: [3]

1. The problem of agreement on defining the indicators for measuring traditional and contemporary power.

2. The problem of determining the weight of power variables of major powers. Are the weights of these variables represent the absolute weights of these powers, or should the geostrategic and political environment be considered a distinct factor to determine the weight of the indicator for each of these major powers?

3. Defining the sub-indicators of the central indicators of power and determining their weights. Thus, in the central economic indicator, for example, does the equity of income distribution have the same weight of the per capita income, the gross domestic product (GDP), the volume of foreign trade, or investment, etc?

4. Would the power be measured by its outcomes or by absolute mathematical quantification?

Contemporary Literature on American Declinism and its Presentation of an Alternative Model:

Futures study seeks to be freed from the intensity of the current moment regarding its impact on strategic or future thinking, and tries to focus on the mega-trends, while integrating the “turning points” in the structure of these trends. The study of Michael Mandelbaum and Thomas Friedman has linked five turning points, and considered that link an indication of a “mega-trend” concerning the future of the US as follows: [4]

1. Sputnik was launched by the Soviet Union in 1957 (The US first decline).
2. The American defeat in Vietnam in the mid-seventies.
3. The inflation and dollar decline during the presidency of Jimmy Carter.
4. The growth of Japanese competitiveness since the mid-seventies.
5. Contemporary Chinese growth.

Declinists focus on internal aspects, especially those related to the economic sides, such as: [5]

1. The decline in real wages.
2. The decline in productivity levels.
3. The decline in the competitiveness of American companies in the global market.
4. The decline in job security, especially for white-collar workers.
5. The decline in infrastructure levels.
6. The increase in federal budget deficit.
7. The decline in the performance of the health system.
8. The decline in individual safety due to crime.
9. The decline in educational attainment levels of school students.
10. The disparities in the distribution of wealth.

Declinism literature tries to determine the indicators of the status decline, by comparing the movement of the American society and state with the movement of competing societies and states. This is achieved through the discussion of the following hypotheses:

1. The US is not declining, but the problem is other states are quickly catching up with it.
2. The development of other societies and countries has reflected on the increase in class gap in the US.
3. The problem is not with the decline, but with the ability of the American social structure to adapt to the patterns of the new economy.

The Intellectual Debate Between Declinists And Anti-Declinists

The 1980s and 1990s can be considered the most prosperous phase for the declinist trend in contemporary American thought. The greatest starting point in this respect is Paul Kennedy’s book [6] whose central idea revolves around what he calls “imperial overstretch.” Within the stages of its geographic expansion, the empire reaches a stage when the burdens of expansion outnumber its gains, which opens the way for a decline in its geographical area and international influence leaving a gap that would be filled by the rising international powers. Accordingly, Kennedy predicted that the US would begin to decline starting in 2000.

In 2014, Charles Kenny published a study based on an idea of some novelty. He asserted that the progress and development of other countries, and the shift in the network of international relations from zero-sum to non-zero-sum (in the former one side wins, while both sides win in the latter) would reduce the burdens of the US in its relentless endeavor to preserve and stabilize the international order. Hence, this would open the way for the US to rise again on the ladder of international powers. [7]

Joseph S. Nye Jr. has opposed declinism since the 1990s, as he believed that such trend was based on data lacking accuracy and that, for a long time to come, the US will continue to lead the international system, while preserving its geopolitical superiority. Still, he acknowledged that the internal situation in the US might lead to a problem in maintaining this position. He has founded his perception on the basis of comparing three levels of international powers, which are: [8]

1. The traditional military and strategic balance in the international system.
2. Economic changes and the potentials of each of the major powers.
3. The challenges of supra-state actors (such as regional, international intergovernmental (IGO) and nongovernmental organizations (INGO), and sub-state actors (minorities, civil society, etc.).

Notably, Nye acknowledged the decline in the attractiveness of the American model and its value system, or what he called its soft power variables.

Many studies and articles have supported the idea of US decline, such as the study by Richard Barnet, who in the 1980s estimated that the US would clearly witness the manifestations of decline within a quarter of a century. A study by Flora Lewis published a year after Paul Kennedy’s study supported the idea of burdens befalling the US and imposing its decline. James Schlesinger asserted that the idea of the US’s decline on the ladder of economic, military and political power was taken for granted. Peter Passell analyzed the US’s loss of its leading position in its economic and scientific competition with Japan. Tom Wicker argued that the US dependence on raw materials and energy sources would weaken its ability to maintain its advanced position as a great power. [9]

However, a number of developments opened the way for anti-declinists, such as the collapse of the Soviet Union, the change of the Iraqi political system by US military force allied with a number of other countries and the US’s topping the list of information technology countries. Hence, there were Samuel P. Huntington’s writings ruling out American retreat [10] and Francis Fukuyama’s perceptions of the end of history in favor of capitalism, [11] although he later retracted some of these perceptions. [12]

However, a number of thinkers, such as Niall Ferguson, [13] brought the theory of decline back into limelight once again since 2004, as Ferguson asserted that the US “aspires to globalize free markets, the rule of law and representative government,” “Yet Americans shy away from the long-term commitments of manpower and money that are indispensable if rogue regimes and failed states really are to be changed for the better.” Ferguson believes that the US is an empire in denial of its decline, especially because of its internal weakness, mainly regarding its financial deficit and weak manpower, and it does not recognize the size of global responsibilities. He believes that the US is in the process of decline, and while none of the major powers will replace it, “terrorist” organizations and organized crime gangs will fill the void. This, in Ferguson’s view, justifies the return of US-China-European cooperation. Ferguson is one of the American thinkers most hostile to the EU, and has called on President Donald Trump for non-confrontation with China, besides the need to deal with Russia as a great power and recognize a vital scope for it in Eurasia.

The US National Intelligence Council’s study issued in 2008 represents one of the predictions supporting the idea of the transformation of the international system towards multipolarity. [14] It talks about the emergence of new great powers, the continuation of economic globalization, the transfer of international wealth from the West to the East, and the growth of supra-state and sub-state entities. Also, the study says that by 2025, the international system will be a global multipolar one with lesser gaps in national power between countries. Notably, these perceptions were not included in the report issued by the same council four years earlier, which predicted that a unipolar system (US) would prevail until 2020.

Eric S. Edelman’s 2010 study falls between the two trends (the multipolar and the unipolar trend). [15] Despite the predictions of global trends 2025 that the world is heading towards multipolarity, Edelman suggests the continuation of the unipolar system. However, he considers that the US hegemony will be less obvious in that system than it was in the 1990s, and its priorities will be limited by domestic and international economic constraints, whose aspects will be more contentious between the regional powers and the US. China will pose the biggest challenge in Asia, and potential new nuclear powers such as Iran and North Korea, will be difficult problems for US deterrence extending in northeast and southwest Asia. Edelman’s study suggests that other US challengers may appear, such as Venezuela in the Western Hemisphere (especially if allied with a nuclear-armed Iran). Edelman believes that the overwhelming focus on BRICS countries in the declinism literature tends to distract attention from the truth, for the proliferation of nuclear weapons remains the utmost challenge to continued US supremacy.

Yet, an American university thesis (a master’s thesis at the University of Iowa) measured 15 power indicators and then compared them among the US, Russia and China throughout 1991–2016. The indicators are: [16]

1. Hard power, which includes 10 indicators: GDP, population, military spending, military manpower, number of active naval vessels, iron production, steel production, petroleum production, primary energy consumption besides research and development spending.

2. Soft power, which includes: the percentage of government investment in education, the percentage of foreign students in national universities, the percentage of university degree holders annually, state’s investments abroad, in addition to the extent of the spread of popular culture and its symbols abroad.

The study concludes that:

1. The US is deteriorating in eight indicators.

2. China poses a very strong challenge in nine of the indicators (meaning that the US surpasses China, but the latter is moving faster than the US in these indicators, which means the possibility for China to catch up and outperform the US).

3. Russia will not pose a major challenge to the US in the next two decades.
In addition to the theorists mentioned above, it is necessary to present the perceptions of futures researchers in political science and international relations, especially regarding American declinism:

First: Johan Galtung’s Theory [17]

Galtung is known as one of the most prominent professors of futures studies in international relations, especially after he predicted in 1980 the collapse of the Soviet Union within ten years based on tracing and analyzing five major variables. In his 2004 study on the decline of the American empire, Galtung adopted the theory of internal contradiction in the US structure. He indicated 14 contradictions and estimated that the decline will be clear by 2025 (he adjusted the date to 2020 after Trump). Galtung believes that George W. Bush and Trump have both contributed to accelerating the repercussions of these contradictions which Galtung listed as follows:

1. Economic contradictions, which are represented in three: The contradiction between growth and distribution, the contradiction between commodity production and financial economy, in addition to the contradiction between production and its impact on nature (climate, pollution, etc.).

2. Military contradictions, whose manifestations are demonstrated in three: The contradiction between the US state terrorism and armed groups terrorism; the contradiction between the US and its allies, especially the contradiction between the US command of NATO and the European army proposed since the Helsinki Conference in 1999; in addition to the contradiction between US hegemony in Eurasia and the Russia-India-China triangle.

3. Political contradictions, which are represented in two: The contradiction between the United Nations and the US, and the contradiction between the US and the EU.

4. Cultural contradictions, which Galtung defines in three: The contradiction between the Jewish Christian culture and Islam, the contradiction between the US and ancient civilizations (Confucianism, Buddhism, etc.), besides the contradiction between the American and European elites.

5. Social contradictions, which Galtung limits in three: The contradiction between workers and capital owners, the contradiction between the new and old generations, as well as the contradiction between social reality and fiction in the American value system.

Galtung studied the mutual effect (negative and positive) between these 14 indicators, over a period of 20 years, and concluded that addressing any of them will lead to some degree of decline. Also, the combination of these contradictions will lead to the growth of the main contradictions due to growth in sub-contradictions, which would lead to the collapse of the US empire (but not the US state).

Second: Richard Lachmann’s Theory in 2014

Lachman founded his idea on four central dimensions: [18]

1. The decline in the dollar’s status.

2. The growing Chinese role.

3. The increase in US military spending.

4. The unfavorable transformations in the US industry throughout 1960–2007, resulting from the growing trend in the US economy towards the disintegration of the major industrial establishments.

Lachmann asserted that these dimensions were only preludes to an American decline on the international stage.

Third: Julia Schubert’s Theory in 2012

Schubert’s study is based on a critique of hegemonic stability theory established by Charles P. Kindleberger, and then promoted by a number of American researchers, such as Stephen Krasner, Robert Gilpin and Robert Keohane. This theory is based on the assumption that there is a “hegemon” in the international system to prevent others from violating its rules, and this hegemon is the US given its capabilities and the flexibility of its liberalism and its military capacities. Schubert showed through a number of indications that the “hegemon” has begun to lose the necessary capabilities to lead and overpower other states in the international system. Among the most prominent indicators Schubert mentioned and considered as distinct signs of the US decline is the political, social and economic instability within the structure of the international system, which indicates the its gradual loss of its presumed “hegemony. In other words, she linked the growing contradictions in the structure of the international system to the decline of the capabilities of the system’s hegemon, i.e., the US. [19]

Fourth: The Study of American Historian Morris Berman in 2012 [20]

Berman believes that the American decline is governed by four factors continuously pushing it: the growing economic and social inequalities in the American society, the diminishing returns from investments in social structures, the decline of critical thinking, in addition to what he called the spiritual death of the US. He even refers some of these contradictions to a disparate value structure between the north, which is dominated by the idea of the continuous pursuit of wealth ownership without any restrictions, and the south, dominated by the values of courage, honor and friendliness, etc. He tries to compare the Roman model (and how it declined) and the contemporary American model, concluding that the two models are very similar, meaning that the US is repeating the Roman model.

Comparing Power Indicators Between China and the US:

We developed 20 strategic indicators benefiting from the indicators adopted by most studies on power measurement. Then, these indicators were measured for both the US and China during 2018–2019, and sometimes taking the indicator rates of 2020, as shown in the following table:

Table of Power Indicators in International Relations 2019–2020 of China and the US, and Measuring the Power Difference Between Them Based on International Measurement Indicators [21]

Note: The table was prepared by the researcher.
* Gini Index: A measure of class differences in terms of income in a society.
** Global Militarization Index: a measure of military indicators (number of forces, weapons, and military spending …) in relation to the population and the percentage of spending on health and civilian sectors.

The table reveals the following results:

1. The US excels in ten indicators, while China excels in the other ten.

2. The total score for American outperformance is 19 points compared to 16 points for Chinese outperformance (see the endnotes for an explanation of the treatment method).

3. The distribution of power ratio for each side indicates that the share of the American power is 54.3% compared to 45.7% for Chinese power.


Approaches to measuring power vary among researchers as well as between proponents and opponents of American declinism. [23] However, the point on which researchers are almost unanimous is that the gap between most US and Chinese indicators in the table is diminishing continuously as a result of the acceleration of Chinese development compared to the American acceleration in the same domain. Accordingly, declinism trend focuses on the speed of change in each of the two countries, as the US is developing in many sectors, but the pace of its development is much less than that of Chinese development, while opponents of American declinism disregard the difference of acceleration between the two countries. Thus, declinists have the ability to predict the results of the race at a time when anti-declinists seek (for one reason or another) to go beyond this aspect, which we deem as the most important. [24]

The Impact of Declinism on Israeli Strategy

Some declinists believe that Israel has contributed to the US decline, and some argue that the increase in “militarism” in US foreign policy was often driven by Israeli motives rather than by US considerations. America’s hostility to Arab liberation movements and repeated military interference in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Lebanon and Somalia, in addition to the deployment of bases around Iran are all in essence a response to motives that serve Israel more than the US. Thus, instead of intertwining the founding of the American empire with expansion in the international market, building the empire has been intertwined with the military establishment and arms production companies, which are forces closely related to Israeli circles and needs. [25]

American declinism represents a grave concern for the future strategy of Israel which seeks, on the one hand, to maintain its ties with the declining US because of its great influence on Israel’s future. On the other hand, Israel wants to join the locomotive of the emerging power, which is China, given its future projects in the region, especially the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Yet, reconciling the two matters is not easy in light of the intense rivalry between the two competing powers, the US and China, an issue which Israeli intellectuals have clearly expressed. [26]


Based on the previous analysis, we believe that China is heading to the forefront of the international system, but by changing some of its rules in a way less damaging to the interests of other peoples compared to the behavior embraced by the US, which is struggling to preserve the existing international architecture. Since the strategic alignment of the Arab liberation forces is easier with China than the US, they must hasten to employ the Chinese rise at a pace that surpasses the Israeli haste, a pursuit the US is keen to prevent. However, some Arab political regimes are facing the same Israeli predicament, for they want to develop their relations with China, but they are historically and firmly tied to US interests. Therefore, Israel and the Arab regimes, closely related to the US, find themselves facing two choices “the sweeter of which is bitter!”


[1] Victor Davis Hanson, Beware the Boom in American “declinism,” site of CBS News, 14/11/2011,
[2] Samuel P. Huntington, “The U.S.: Decline or Renewal?,” Foreign Affairs magazine, vol. 67, no. 2, Winter 1988, pp. 76–96.
[3] John Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001), pp. 43–45.
[4] The book addresses the Chinese rise in chapter one, then how the US faces four challenges: globalization, the revolution in information technology, global warming and budget deficits. See: Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum, That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011).
[5] Michael Prowse, “Is America in Decline?,” Harvard Business Review magazine, issue July-August 1992.
[6] Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000 (New York: Vintage Books, 1987).
[7] Charles Kenny, The Upside of Down: Why the Rise of the rest in Good for the West (New York: Basic Books, 2014).
[8] Joseph S. Nye Jr., Is the American Century Over (Polity, 2015).
[9] Alan W. Dowd, “Declinism,” Policy Review journal, Hoover Institution, 1/8/2007,
[10] Samuel P. Huntington, “The U.S.: Decline or Renewal?,” pp. 76–96.
[11] Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (Free Press, 2006), passim.
[12] Simon Brunner and Lucia Waldner, “Francis Fukuyama and the Return to the Past,” site of Credit Suisse, 19/4/2018,
[13] Niall Ferguson, Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire (Allen Lane, 2004).
[14] Compare the two reports; the first: National Intelligence Council, Global Trends 2025: A Transformed World (Cosimo Reports, 2008), pp. 92–98.
And the other is: National Intelligence Council, Mapping the Global Future (NIC, 2004), pp. 47–64.
[15] Eric S. Edelman, Understanding America’s Contested Primacy (The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA), 2010), pp. 75–79.
[16] Addison Daniel Huygens, American decline and changing global hegemony, MA Thesis, Iowa State University, 2017, pp. 58–75 and 91–92.
[17] Johan Galtung, The Fall of the US Empire – And Then What? (Transcend University Press, 2009), chapter 1.
[18] Richard Lachmann, “The Roots of American Decline,” Contexts magazine, vol. 10, issue 1, February 2011,
[19] Julia Schubert, Hegemonic Stability Theory: The Rise and Fall of the US-Leadership in World Economic Relations (GRIN Publishing, 2012).
[20] Morris Berman, Why America Failed: The Roots of Imperial Decline, Create Space Independent Publishing Platform, 2014, pp. 137–178,
[21] The researcher selected the indicators based on a number of references, and the disparity between power indicators of the two sides was based on Likert’s trilogy. Thus, if the difference in the index is large in favor of one of them, that country is given +3, +2 if medium and +1 if weak. The following references were used for indicators data, and the uniformity in data was around 92%, although they are from different countries and bodies.
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[22] The more a country resorts to veto power the less it is in harmony with the international community, and the less it is able to bring other states to its side, which indicates its weakness.
[23] Michael Beckley, “The Power of Nations: Measuring What Matters,” International Security journal, vol. 43, no. 2, Fall 2018, pp. 11–20.
[24] See, for example, on the acceleration in the military force components the appendixes of the following study: Defense Intelligence Agency, China Military Power: Modernizing a Force to Fight and Win, 2019, pp. 55–108.
[25] James Petras, Zionism, Militarism and the Decline of US Power (Clarity Press, 2008), pp. 125–168.
[26] Yoram Evron, “Israel’s Response to China’s Rise: A Dependent State’s Dilemma,” Asian Survey journal, 56 (2), 2016, pp. 392–411.

Click here to download:

>> Academic Paper: American Declinism and the Dilemma of Arab and Israeli Strategic Options (15 pages, 4 MB)

Al-Zaytouna Centre for Studies and Consultations, 11/11/2020

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