America’s decline to China is the Product of Stagnation and Disillusionment

By Linus Hoeller, Northwestern University

The concept of American decline has been around for about as long as America has been a global power. This is not surprising; when you are at the top, it can seem like the only way to go is down. The United States experienced its unipolar moment following the fall of the Soviet Union and until the early 2000s, when it was the sole and undisputed global power. It was not a happy coincidence, but rather the outcome of the meticulous crafting of a global order that placed the U.S. at its center: The liberal world order, which quickly absorbed many new members following the fall of the communist bloc. More crucially, the collapse of the USSR marked the end of any real alternative to the liberal system for countries to adhere to.

American power once emerged from rather traditional sources: Military capability on the ground during two world wars, the country’s vastness and resource-richness, and the presence of a large labor force and high-performing industry. But once it had become a major power, it turned a superpower by reshaping the way the world around it functioned. The American liberal world order was based on a set of ideals which lead to an open flow of information, people and trade; Things that not only stood in direct contradiction with the de-facto values of the communist world, but that also reinforced the American position within the Western system.

However, since the high at the turn of the millennia, America’s position in the world has waned, at least in the eyes of the public. For instance, the number of people in Germany, a key U.S. ally in western Europe, who said they held a “favorable” view of the U.S. in 2000 was 78% according to a Gallup poll. In 2020, that number is down to 26%[1].

Pity for America

A host of factors can be made responsible for this drop in image, and many will come back into play when we evaluate America’s decline relative to China. For one, increasing disillusionment with the liberal world order that has the U.S. at its heart; Critics say that it has strayed too far from its intended values and instead become a vehicle for neoliberal exploitation of workers and less developed countries alike. The 2001 and especially 2008 crises further reinforced this growing hatred against the system, perceived as bailing out banks, but not investing in its workers. The rise of populists ensued, whether on the right, as in Hungary and Poland, or on the left, as was the case with the Greek SYRIZA. Then there was the renewed vigor with which the U.S. meddled in affairs that weren’t theirs following the 2001 terror attacks, including full-scale invasions of sovereign states on the other side of the world and kidnappings of individuals accused of terrorism (sometimes falsely) through a series of torture-laden CIA black sites leading to the extrajudicial prison in Guantanamo Bay[2]. The decline of the U.S. image in the world sped up considerably with the election and term of Donald Trump, who disregarded established practices, alienated allies and turned the country onto an isolationist course. Under his presidency, the United States stopped behaving like the global superpower and instead turned to acting as more of a great power among others. This mentality has been confirmed by Trump himself in interviews[3].

A challenger emerges

In isolation, however, these image problems might not lead to any real issue for the United States. Without a real alternative or challenger from below, a hegemon – and for the sake of argument, we shall assign the USA this title – will remain a hegemon, barring complete implosion, as there is no real alternative and the structures it has built will keep it at the center of the world order as long as they remain standing. The United States, after all, is both “system-maker and privilege-taker.”[4]

The problem is, however, that there is such a challenger: China, not just rising, but also actively undermining the America-friendly structures of the international system. Following its opening in the last quarter of the 20th century, China’s profile on the international stage has grown explosion-like, and so has its role in the global economy. By almost all measures the world’s number one manufacturer, it is also a direct competitor with the United States on all levels from military to ideological, and one of its stated goals has been the ambitious project of re-centering global trade away from the U.S., and toward itself. This is a huge threat for the USA, whose position in the world is maintained by the existing liberal world order which, in turn, is built to a large part on America’s dominance in the current trade system. But how serious is the threat from China? While the U.S. is still the number one, there are indications that the gap between the two is closing. The U.S. appears to have been unwilling or unable to counteract this trend, ensure the strength of the western world order and keep itself firmly on top.

Why America’s Edge might not endure

When Beckley wrote about “Why America’s Edge will endure” in 2011, he arrived at a rather optimistic conclusion: The structures of the global economy and the international systems would ensure that the USA stays on top. He showed how several of what he identified as key metrics showed that China was actually in decline relative to the USA, or at least not catching up. Nine years, another economic crisis, a global shock in the form of the Covid-19 pandemic and a Trump presidency later, it might be time to have a second look at these and other metrics and evaluate whether America’s edge over China is truly as robust as Beckley concluded it was.

Let us start by comparing both countries’ GDPs. Regardless of shortcomings, they can serve as a quick measure of a country’s strength: More money buys more things. In absolute terms, the gap between the USA and China continues to close. It is generally accepted that China will overtake the U.S. as the world’s largest economy in the next half century; Beijing itself offers one of the more conservative estimates, predicting this to happen in 2032 [5]. However, looking at GDP per capita paints a different story. Here, the gap between the U.S. and China has in fact widened[6]. This is also true for GDP per capita when taking into account purchasing power parity, although the divergence is not as severe[7].

China has a huge workforce. It benefited greatly from the demographic dividend which allowed it, like some of its Southeast-Asian neighbors, to develop extremely rapidly thanks to low dependency ratios[8]. While this tide began to turn in the 2010s due to the delayed impact of the one-child policy[9], the sheer size of China’s population – well in excess of one billion – and the revoking of the one-child policy (and its earlier dilution), as well as the unknown impact that increasing automation will have on productivity, suggest likely that China will continue to wield considerable potential simply in the form of overwhelming manpower. It has also allowed China to form the world’s largest standing army[10].

China outspends America’s intellectual edge

A key point that Beckley makes in his work is that America holds a huge lead in intangible power, mostly in the form of innovation, research and “bright minds.” One of the metrics he cited to underscore this is the disparity in the number of research papers coming from either country. This gap has been closing extremely rapidly. In 2019, China surpassed the U.S. in the number of papers published for the first time ever[11]. The difference in quality which Beckley cited seems to have diminished, too; U.S. articles had an average of 0.86 citations, while China’s receive 0.8. Compare this to India’s 0.54 or Russia’s 0.38 and it seems that the CCP’s drive to make China a science and innovation powerhouse is paying off. It underscores the clear intention on the part of the Chinese government to move past the simple manufacturing of parts and importing of knowledge. Whether this was jumpstarted by globalization diffusing knowledge to China and the theft of intellectual property[12] doesn’t matter.

The edge on R&D which America held over China in 2011 has also all but vanished, according to the same metrics that Beckley cited in his work. The absolute expenditure on R&D in China surpassed that of the EU in 2015 and is now closing in on the USA, with a difference of just about 50 billion USD (PPP) separating the two in 2017 (the newest data available)[13]. In some other metrics mentioned by Beckley, China has since overtaken the U.S., for instance in the value-added output of medium-high R&D intensive industries, where China is responsible for 26% of the world output, while the U.S. accounts for 22%. In 2003, the numbers had been 7% and 25%, respectively[14]. A similar trend is visible in the value-added output of high R&D intensive industries, where China’s share has gone from 6% to 21%, while the USA’s decreased from 38% to 32%[15].

In terms of successful patent applications, another measure employed by Beckley, China is making inroads as well. According to the National Science Foundation, Chinese inventors accounted for almost half – 49.4%[16] – of global patent families in 2018. The OECD data of triadic patent families still shows the U.S. in the lead, but with a significantly narrowing margin[17]. America has seen a decline and subsequent stagnation in the number of patents since 2005, while China has seen a persistent and accelerating year-after-year growth.

In universities, the American edge remains, for now. Evaluating 11 popular college rankings[18] shows only one Chinese university (Tsinghua) in the top 20 globally, compared to 14 American colleges. However, it is also worth noting that Chinese universities have seen a substantial rise in global reputation in the last decade or so and the international perception of Chinese scientific advancements has increased[19], thanks in part to innovations in digital technology and the country’s ambitious space program. A Business Insider headline from the day of writing summarizes some of the cynicism relating to the perceived U.S. stagnation and underfunding of sciences: “China successfully collects lunar samples as U.S. telescope falls.”[20]

What hegemonic stability theory might tell us

Even if the U.S. remains leading in many factors and continues to expand its lead in others, this is not by itself a guarantee that it will retain its relative position in the world. Britain, for instance, continued advancing throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries. However, its competitors – foremost Germany and Japan, and later the United States – outpaced it, even though starting at a lower point[21]. In the U.S., a similar process may be at play; not so much the country itself declining as it simply stagnating and being outpaced by a new power.

Gilpin’s “Theory of Hegemonic War” warns of just such a situation: A rising challenger to the hegemon might result in outright war[22]. Competition between the two is given (and something that we see very much between the U.S. and China). Economic competition might lead to positive outcomes in the form of innovation. Political competition, however, must be kept in check as it can easily swing over to military aggression[23]. Hegemonic stability theory suggests that this might come in the form of a preventative military intervention by the declining hegemon, as it hopes to leverage its position of relative power while it lasts to prevent the ascent of the challenging power. In the real world, open war between the U.S. and China has thus far been averted, but military tensions have on several occasions reached dangerous highs – mostly around flashpoints of China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea and around Taiwan. Trump’s “trade war,” while not a military conflict, also has all the characteristics of a preventative strike: The U.S. is, for now, the world’s largest economy, and the White House’s calculations must have concluded that the harm it would do to the Chinese would be greater than that to America’s own population (though some of the manufacturers and farmers would beg to differ). These tensions seem to underscore the idea that the USA is in decline relative to China, as they fall in line neatly with what the theory of hegemonic war predicted over thirty years ago – well before China emerged as a true power to the U.S., and in the waning days of the Soviet world.

Domestic rot is hampering international capacity

For now, America holds an edge in many categories. However, even great resources (economic and otherwise) need to be put to work effectively in order to further a country’s position on the world stage, and China holds an edge here. Some of the same reasons that are commonly cited as signs of American decline can hinder its potential power from truly being enacted. America’s huge debt burden, for instance, may result in the government being more cautious with spending money on anything from military to diplomatic services. It will become an increasing issue as the Dollar loses importance to rivals such as the Euro. Under Trump, the idea of saving costs has been cited to withdraw America from international organizations, renege foreign military commitments to allies (think: NATO) and in conflict areas alike (Afghanistan, Iraq). It has also stopped meaningful progress when it comes to addressing social issues domestically (e.g. healthcare cost debate), leading to disillusionment in the government and another threat to America’s utilizing its immense resources: A bogged-down political system. This can be attributed to a whole host of different reasons, some of which I discussed in an earlier work of mine[24], but can be summarized in political stalemate, lack of faith, and ancient structural problems which now seem nearly impossible to remedy.

America has also inflicted harm on itself by weakening the global system it created and that lifted it into its position of great power to begin with. Attacks on the liberal world order and its arguably already struggling institutions have further undermined their functioning as well as foreign countries’ faith in them, the American commitment to their maintenance and the wisdom of adhering to them. It has directly strengthened American rivals such as Russia, Iran and, of course, China, who for decades have actively sought to undermine the western-centric global system of trade and diplomacy. Further, America’s move toward isolationism – a possible reaction predicted by Beckley, among others, to a rising China or a waning position of power – has alienated loyal allies, some of which were forced to look for new trade and political partners and found open arms in the Beijing. Others (such as Europe) decided to simply wait out the current administration, hoping for a change in the White House[25] – but the damage has been done and the doubts sowed. With Europe lacking cohesion and assertiveness on the world stage and Russia lacking strength, China as the world’s second-largest economy and “the world’s factory” is the natural second option for countries.

Authoritarian stability

It also offers something that the U.S. can’t: The stability that comes with an authoritarian regime. America’s foreign policy changes from president to president, but in China, Chairman Xi Jinping is set to remain in power for many years to come and even should he vanish, the modern PRC is inextricably linked with the rule of the CCP.

This stability is also what has allowed China to invest in such long-term projects as the Belt and Road Initiative, the country’s trillion-dollar[26] attempt to physically change the way global trade is conducted. In a way, the BRI has filled the gap that was left by the ideological death of the liberal world order: The promise that participating countries will experience economic growth and a prosperous future under the protection of a larger power. As Ikenberry puts it: “The struggle between the United States and China is ultimately over which country offers a better road to progress.”[27]

A word on current events and Conclusion

In the nearly-decade since Beckley wrote his piece refuting declinism, American relative decline has not only continued, but even accelerated by many measures. The true impact of the Trump administration and especially its isolationist practices, as well as of the largest postwar crisis the world has faced (which has been handled notoriously poorly by the U.S.) cannot yet be truly estimated, but one would be hard-pressed to try to suggest it would have a positive impact on the USA’s position in the world and relative to China.

Though it is early to say, it seems as though the Covid-19 pandemic may lead to some disentanglement of supply chains and a return to a more moderated form of globalism; a trend that, while falling in line with the Trump administration’s policies, would likely harm the United States’ power in the world[28]. American handling of the pandemic has also called into question U.S. ability (and sanity) overall and may have driven some former U.S.-aligned countries farther away, opting instead to fend for themselves, form their own blocs, or join alternate alliances – such as those offered by China, Russia and Iran.

While the U.S. unquestionably remains the world’s strongest power, its unipolar moment of the 90s is long gone and real challenges to its rule have emerged. It will require hard work, strategic thinking and a long-term vision enacted over the course of multiple administrations and combined with thorough domestic reform to prevent continued relative decline and an eventual overtaking by China as the dominant global power. To us, who grew up accustomed to a western-run world, this may be difficult to imagine. But until the autumn of 1989, few people imagined that in just a year, the USSR’s sphere of influence might collapse for good. Crises such as 2020’s accelerate the pace of history, and if this year is something to go by, this does not bode well for the United States and the liberal world order it created.


[1] Wike, Richard, et al. “U.S. Image Plummets Internationally as Most Say Country Has Handled Coronavirus Badly.” Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project, Pew Research Center, 27 Oct. 2020, www.pewresearch.org/global/2020/09/15/us-image-plummets-internationally-as-most-say-country-has-handled-coronavirus-badly/.

[2] Slahi, Mohamedou Ould., and Larry Siems. Guantanamo Diary. Canongate Books Ltd, 2017.

[3] McTague, Story by Tom. “The Decline of the American World.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 3 Aug. 2020, www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2020/06/america-image-power-trump/613228/.

[4] Beckley, Michael. “China’s Century? Why America’s Edge Will Endure.” International Security, vol. 36, no. 3, 2011, pp. 41–78.

[5] “China Economy to Overtake US by 2032 despite Rivalry, State Think Tank Says.” South China Morning Post, 2 Sept. 2020, www.scmp.com/economy/china-economy/article/3099951/china-overtake-us-worlds-top-economy-2032-despite-washington.

[6] “GDP per Capita (Current US$) – United States, China, European Union.” Data, data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.PCAP.CD?locations=US-CN-EU.

[7] “GDP per Capita, PPP (Current International $) – United States, China.” Data, data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.PCAP.PP.CD?locations=US-CN.

[8] “Age Dependency Ratio (% of Working-Age Population) – United States, China.” Data, data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.POP.DPND?locations=US-CN.

[9] “Age Dependency Ratio, Old (% of Working-Age Population) – United States, China.” Data, data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.POP.DPND.OL?locations=US-CN.

[10] “Active Military Manpower (2020).” Global Firepower – World Military Strength, www.globalfirepower.com/active-military-manpower.asp.

[11] Lab, Scimago. SJR – International Science Ranking, www.scimagojr.com/countryrank.php?year=2019.

[12] As suggested early on in Beckley’s work

[13] Beethika Khan, Carol Robbins. “SCIENCE & ENGINEERING INDICATORS.” NSF, ncses.nsf.gov/pubs/nsb20201/global-r-d.

[14] Beethika Khan, Carol Robbins. “SCIENCE & ENGINEERING INDICATORS.” NSF, ncses.nsf.gov/pubs/nsb20201/global-science-and-technology-capabilities.

[15] Beethika Khan, Carol Robbins. “SCIENCE & ENGINEERING INDICATORS.” NSF, ncses.nsf.gov/pubs/nsb20201/global-science-and-technology-capabilities.

[16] Beethika Khan, Carol Robbins. “SCIENCE & ENGINEERING INDICATORS.” NSF, ncses.nsf.gov/pubs/nsb20201/invention-innovation-and-perceptions-of-science.

[17] “Research and Development (R&D) – Triadic Patent Families – OECD Data.” TheOECD, data.oecd.org/rd/triadic-patent-families.htm.

[18] I will be happy to provide this self-created dataset should it be of interest

[19] Linney, Sarah. “The Rise of Chinese Higher Education Institutions in Global Rankings.” QS, 28 Nov. 2019, www.qs.com/rise-chinese-higher-education-institutions-global-rankings/.

[20] Haroun, Azmi. “On the Same Day China Landed a Probe on the Moon, the US’s Massive Telescope in Puerto Rico Collapsed.” Business Insider, Business Insider, 2 Dec. 2020, www.businessinsider.com/china-successfully-collects-lunar-samples-while-us-telescope-falls-2020-12?r=DE&IR=T.

[21] Edgerton, David. The Rise and Fall of the British Nation: a Twentieth Century History. Penguin Books, 2019.

[22] Gilpin, Robert. “The Theory of Hegemonic War.” The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, vol. 18, no. 4, 1988.

[23] Kemp, John. “Column: China’s Rise and U.S. Fears about Decline – Kemp.” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 21 Oct. 2020, de.reuters.com/article/us-global-power-kemp/column-chinas-rise-and-u-s-fears-about-decline-kemp-idINKBN2762DR.

[24] Hoeller, Linus. “American Exceptionalism Is America’s Greatest Flaw.” The World Uncensored, 2 Dec. 2020, www.world-uncensored.com/blog/?p=1103.

[25] McTague, Story by Tom. “The Decline of the American World.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 3 Aug. 2020, www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2020/06/america-image-power-trump/613228/.

[26] “China’s Massive Belt and Road Initiative.” Council on Foreign Relations, Council on Foreign Relations, www.cfr.org/backgrounder/chinas-massive-belt-and-road-initiative.

[27] Ikenberry, G. John. “The Next Liberal Order.” Foreign Affairs, vol. 99.

[28] Likewise

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.