graceful decline? paul k. macdonald

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  • How do great powersrespond to acute decline? The erosion of the relative power of the UnitedStates has scholars and policymakers reexamining this question. The centralissue is whether prompt retrenchment is desirable or probable. Some pessi-mists counsel that retrenchment is a dangerous policy, because it shows weak-ness and invites attack. Robert Kagan, for example, warns, A reduction indefense spending . . . would unnerve American allies and undercut efforts togain greater cooperation. There is already a sense around the world, fed by ir-responsible pundits here at home, that the United States is in terminal decline.Many fear that the economic crisis will cause the United States to pull backfrom overseas commitments. The announcement of a defense cutback wouldbe taken by the world as evidence that the American retreat has begun.1

    Robert Kaplan likewise argues, Husbanding our power in an effort to slowAmericas decline in a post-Iraq and post-Afghanistan world would meanavoiding debilitating land entanglements and focusing instead on being moreof an offshore balancer. . . . While this may be in Americas interest, the verysignaling of such an aloof intention may encourage regional bullies. . . .[L]essening our engagement with the world would have devastating conse-quences for humanity. The disruptions we witness today are but a taste ofwhat is to come should our country inch from its international responsibili-ties.2 The consequences of these views are clear: retrenchment should beavoided and forward defenses maintained into the indenite future.3

    Other observers advocate retrenchment policies, but they are pessimistic

    Graceful Decline?

    Graceful Decline? Paul K. MacDonaldandJoseph M. ParentThe Surprising Success of

    Great Power Retrenchment

    Paul K. MacDonald is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Williams College. Joseph M. Parent isAssistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Miami.

    The authors would like to thank Stacie Goddard, Robert Jervis, Roger Kanet, Christopher Layne,Jack Levy, James McAllister, Shany Mor, Abigail Parent, Mark Sandman, Jack Snyder, KennethWaltz, participants at the University of Miami Faculty Paper Series, and the anonymous reviewersfor their valuable comments.

    1. Robert Kagan, No Time to Cut Defense, Washington Post, February 3, 2009.2. Robert D. Kaplan, Wheres the American Empire When We Need It? Washington Post, Decem-ber 3, 2010.3. For a theoretical justication of this position, see Robert Gilpin, War and Change in World Politics(New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983), pp. 192197, 232; Samuel P. Huntington, Why In-ternational Primacy Matters, International Security, Vol. 17, No. 4 (Spring 1993), p. 70; and Dale C.Copeland, The Origins of Major War (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2000), p. 43.

    International Security, Vol. 35, No. 4 (Spring 2011), pp. 744 2011 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


  • about their prospects.4 Christopher Layne, for instance, predicts, Even as theglobe is being turned upside down by material factors, the foreign policiesof individual states are shaped by the ideas leaders hold about their own na-tions identity and place in world politics. More than most, Americas foreignpolicy is the product of such ideas, and U.S. foreign-policy elites have con-structed their own myths of empire to justify the United States hegemonicrole.5 Stephen Walt likewise advocates greater restraint in U.S. grand strategy,but cautions, The United States . . . remains a remarkably immature greatpower, one whose rhetoric is frequently at odds with its conduct and one thattends to treat the management of foreign affairs largely as an adjunct to do-mestic politics. . . . [S]eemingly secure behind its nuclear deterrent and oceanicmoats, and possessing unmatched economic and military power, the UnitedStates allowed its foreign policy to be distorted by partisan sniping, hijackedby foreign lobbyists and narrow domestic special interests, blinded by loftybut unrealistic rhetoric, and held hostage by irresponsible and xenophobicmembers of Congress.6 Although retrenchment is a preferable policy, thesearguments suggest that great powers often cling to unprotable foreign com-mitments for parochial reasons of national culture or domestic politics.7

    These arguments have grim implications for contemporary internationalpolitics. With the rise of new powers, such as China, the international peckingorder will be in increasing ux in the coming decades.8 Yet, if the pessimists

    International Security 35:4 8

    4. See Fareed Zakaria, The Post-American World (New York: W.W. Norton, 2009), pp. 211212; Da-vid P. Calleo, Follies of Power: Americas Unipolar Fantasy (New York: Cambridge University Press,2009), pp. 56, 153165; and Andrew J. Bacevich, Introduction, in Bacevich, ed., The Long War: ANew History of U.S. National Security Policy since World War II (New York: Columbia UniversityPress, 2007), pp. xiixiv.5. Christopher Layne, Graceful Decline: The End of Pax Americana, American Conservative,Vol. 9, No. 5 (May 2010), p. 33.6. Stephen M. Walt, In the National Interest: A New Grand Strategy for American Foreign Poli-cy, Boston Review, Vol. 30, No. 1 (February/March 2005), For the logic behind this view, see Aaron L. Friedberg, The Weary Titan: Britain and the Experienceof Relative Decline, 18951905 (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1988), pp. 279303; PaulM. Kennedy, The Realities behind Diplomacy: Background Inuences on British External Policy, 18651980 (Boston: Allen and Unwin, 1981), p. 21; Hendrik Spruyt, Ending Empire: Contested Sovereigntyand Territorial Partition (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2005), pp. 2229; and Miles Kahler,Decolonization in Britain and France: The Domestic Consequences in International Relations (Princeton,N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1984), pp. 2732, 6064.8. See David C. Kang, China Rising: Peace, Power, and Order in East Asia (New York: Columbia Uni-versity Press, 2007), p. 14; G. John Ikenberry, The Rise of China: Power, Institutions, and the West-ern Order, in Robert S. Ross and Zhu Feng, eds., Chinas Ascent: Power, Security, and the Future ofInternational Politics (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2008), pp. 112113; and Stephen S. Co-hen and J. Bradford DeLong, The End of Inuence: What Happens When Other Countries Have theMoney (New York: Basic Books, 2010), pp. 143148.

  • are correct, politicians and interests groups in the United States will be unwill-ing or unable to realign resources with overseas commitments. Perceptions ofweakness and declining U.S. credibility will encourage policymakers to holdon to burdensome overseas commitments, despite their high costs in bloodand treasure.9 Policymakers in Washington will struggle to retire from prot-less military engagements and restrain ballooning current accounts and bud-get decits.10 For some observers, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan representthe ill-advised last gasps of a declining hegemon seeking to bolster its plum-meting position.11

    In this article, we question the logic and evidence of the retrenchment pessi-mists. To date there has been neither a comprehensive study of great powerretrenchment nor a study that lays out the case for retrenchment as a practicalor probable policy. This article lls these gaps by systematically examining therelationship between acute relative decline and the responses of great powers.We examine eighteen cases of acute relative decline since 1870 and advancethree main arguments.

    First, we challenge the retrenchment pessimists claim that domestic or in-ternational constraints inhibit the ability of declining great powers to retrench.In fact, when states fall in the hierarchy of great powers, peaceful retrenchmentis the most common response, even over short time spans. Based on the empir-ical record, we nd that great powers retrenched in no less than eleven and nomore than fteen of the eighteen cases, a range of 6183 percent. When inter-national conditions demand it, states renounce risky ties, increase reliance onallies or adversaries, draw down their military obligations, and impose adjust-ments on domestic populations.

    Second, we nd that the magnitude of relative decline helps explain the ex-tent of great power retrenchment. Following the dictates of neorealist theory,great powers retrench for the same reason they expand: the rigors of greatpower politics compel them to do so.12 Retrenchment is by no means easy, but

    Graceful Decline? 9

    9. See Christopher A. Preble, The Power Problem: How American Military Dominance Makes Us LessSafe, Less Prosperous, and Less Free (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2009), chaps. 23; and Mi-chael Mandelbaum, Overpowered? Foreign Affairs, Vol. 89, No. 3 (May/June 2010), pp. 114119.10. See Niall Ferguson, Colossus: The Price of Americas Empire (New York: Penguin, 2004), pp. 268274; Immanuel Wallerstein, The Decline of American Power: The U.S. in a Chaotic World (New York:New Press, 2003), pp. 2426; and Roger C. Altman and Richard N. Haass, American Proigacyand American Power, Foreign Affairs, Vol. 89, No. 6 (November/December 2010), pp. 2526.11. See Michael Mann, Incoherent Empire (New York: Verso, 2003), pp. 206251; Chalmers Johnson,Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2006),pp. 157162, 243244; and Andrew J. Bacevich, The Limits of Power: The End of AmericanExceptionalism (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2008), pp. 312.12. On great power expansion, see John J. Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (New

  • necessity is the mother of invention, and declining great powers face powerfulincentives to contract their interests in a prompt and proportionate manner.Knowing o