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America and its relative loss of power: notes about Paul Kennedy

“The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers”, one of Paul Kennedy’s most famous works, was released in 1987. This work, framed in the neorealism and a historicist looks, proposes as a thesis that, in each power that has become “number one” between the sixteenth and the twentieth century, economic and military power are the pillars of the rise and establishment of a power that allows the expansion of its imperial interests and commitments. However, when the economic power loses strength as a result of the global system dynamics, added to an excessive imperial extension, the military power is also affected, causing the decline of the state’s leadership. Thus, the author provided historical sustenance as well as theoretical variables, not to predict the end of the United States as a power, but its progressive decline in the next (or current) generations.

The following work was published in 1993. “Preparing for the Twenty-First Century”, after the end of the Cold War, stated new challenges within the international system structure, such as the demographic, environmental and technological changes, as well as the debate between “the decline or rebirth” of American power, maintaining, about this point, the axis of analysis between its internal characteristics, its foreign policy and the movements in the global system atmosphere.


Enter to the version of the article in Spanish



“Strength does exist,

but it is being undercut by a combination of weaknesses:

a thousand wounds that are difficult for us to heal.”

(Chancellor, 1990, as cited in Kennedy, 1998: 457)


America’s relative decline: the problem of the “number one”

Concerning the United States and its international deployment, the idea of American exceptionalism is a deep force structured by cultural, institutional and material components that has forged the US national identity, helped to build its foreign policy and conditioned the international stages of the previous and present century at great length (Busso, 2008).

Related to this, the debate about the decline (or not) of American power embraces an extensive literature from the twentieth century until present days. For example, Lippman (1943), one of the first authors to address the issue, criticized the direction that US foreign policy was taking, progressively extending its commitments across the globe and failing to readjust the balance between these and the power of the nation. Time later, from the 1960s, this theoretical stream built greater strength, taking as reference the dynamics that were happening in the US and the rest of the globe; the nuclear parity with the USSR, the 1973’s oil shock, the proportional loss in the share of world production, new transnational financial and economic actors, the Japanese and Western Europe economic rise, just to name a few. Inside the US, society and political elites reflected (and discussed) on the Vietnam syndrome, productive issues (as the migration of national companies to countries with lower production costs, such as Mexico), huge public expenditure during Reagan’s second Cold War, external indebtedness, budget deficit, tax burden, among others. Furthermore, Garton Ash (2008) maintains that America has been involved in a “cultural civil war” since decades, that not only involves partisan positions, but social, economic, religious, ethnic and foreign policy issues. This process is such that Buchanan defined it as “a cultural war… for the soul of America” (Busso, 2008). Following this point, since Post-Cold War, some of the most important milestones occurred during the rise and consolidation of the neocons in Bush Jr.’s presidencies or the Trump administration, showing a very deep discussion about identity, mission and interests of the foreign policy.

Faced with this panorama, P. Kennedy points out the American reality of his time under the analytical category of “imperial overstretch” (1989), which, as will be briefly explained, remains actual. In addition, other concepts of the author that fit with Washington’s complex present will be proposed.


The imperial overstretch

During history, and in present days, the deep forces have given America an identity, a mission and the necessity of an enemy, and the three axis have been essential determinants in its foreign policy. Since this topic needs hundreds of pages, very briefly, its primal characteristics (like the puritan belief of predestination) made the US a call to be the, and not just a, light in world’s darkness, like Winthrop’s metaphor of a “city upon a hill”. This light included democracy, American values and capitalism, among others. In this scheme, it is not new to say that America often needed an enemy (seen as moral evil) to act in causes beyond its own territory and deployed its interests. In other words, it is impossible to be considered as the global policeman without having an enemy against whom world must be defended.

During the Cold War, the US deployed commitments around the globe in order to contain the advance of communism and strengthen its position and interests. These commitments were taken in times of strong economic growth. Nevertheless, after what was described in the previous paragraphs, these commitments became too costly for Washington. Thus, imperial overstretch is roughly defined as the situation in which the total sum of the country’s global interests, commitments and obligations “is far larger than the country’s power to defend them all simultaneously”. Nowadays, Walt (2019), in a similar way, states that America is overextended.

Kennedy assumed that commitments had three origins. Some of them were taken as the previous superpower’s inheritor of the global leadership; some new ones were contracted “for what seemed very plausible reasons at the time”; other, just were pressing. So, several US decision-makers supported that, in some parts of the world, American interests may appear larger “than they were a few decades ago”.

Following this idea, after the USSR collapse, the US emerged as the only superpower, opening the way to a hegemonic order. However, after victory, economy had to be cleaned up of the enormous expense of the process, which mainly explains Clinton’s victory over Bush Sr., turning America’s focus on the nation’s internal issues. In its foreign policy, Clinton proposed preventive diplomacy and selective engagement, highlighting the need for multilateral approaches on some issues. Nevertheless, when a country like the US places a great amount of resources on credibility “will be tempted to act in places that do not matter in order to convince others that it will act in places that do” (Walt, 2019). To be honest, in the nineties, costs (no just economic) payed with the experiences in Somalia and Haiti, or the (not so) collateral consequences of the operations in the Balkans are very convincing examples. In other words, not all commitments can be cancelled and some withdrawals have bigger consequences than staying and affording the costs.

Another point is that, with the USSR disintegration, the greatest enemy of the US had disappeared, and there was no new high-level threat on the horizon, at least in military terms. But at the beginning of the twenty-first century, a new enemy appeared: Islamic terrorism, and (some of) the states that sponsor it. In short, this new and non-traditional enemy that did what the USSR could not do, the 11S attacks, made the US involve in the current struggle in Middle East. The Bush administration called it “a crusade” against the evil, with the purpose of spreading democracy over a region that was always “bewilderingly resistant to any simple [US] option”, besides the historical difficult for the US “to conduct a coherent, long-term policy” in the region (Kennedy, 1988). Furthermore, and according to Walt (2019), states that propose universalist ideology “are especially prone to overcommitment because they believe their political principles are valid everywhere”; this belief, added to a unipolar power, makes America “vulnerable to hubris. And with hubris comes a recurring tendency to do dumb things”. In the new millennium, Washington allocated national resources at historic levels for the new wars, interests and commitments.

In 2009, American society expressed with its vote that the economic crisis was more important than Afghanistan and Iraq, so John McCain lost elections against Barack Obama (of course this point is not the only explanation of Obama’s victory, but it is one of the main causes). Again, as in the nineties, economic issues caused (to a large extent) a war veteran to lose against a new generation of young politicians. But the Obama administration could not withdraw from Afghanistan nor Iraq. What is more, in 2011 intervened in Libya and, in 2014, in the Syrian conflict.


Trump’s presidency and America’s introspection

Summarizing, this kind of states will often be tempted to take ambitious new burdens and to extend its influence into more distant regions while it is much stronger than other states. As it is said above, when the US was still enjoying its unipolar moment, embraced new missions and started extending security guarantees.

Donald Trump arrived to the White House in early 2017, starting gradually an introspective turn. Towards the US neighborhood, He defined its policy through its constant attacks against what represents the Mexican culture and, by extension, Latin-American. He proposed the expansion and the projection of a greater impenetrability of the wall on the border with Mexico to stop illegal migration and control drug trafficking. His electoral campaign successfully fanned the traditional American idea that immigrants, especially the undocumented, represent evil and danger, at the level of considering them animals (USA Today, 2018). Already installed in Washington, Trump continued to associate the national evils (including chronic unemployment, crime and terrorism) to foreigners who are the carriers of anti-American values.

Looking at the 2016 election campaign, Make America Great Again was the slogan that embraced the protectionist promises made by Trump. For example, besides the construction of the wall, Obamacare’s end, travel prohibitions, deportation of undocumented immigrants, defeat Daesh, a conservative Supreme Court justice, tax cuts, jobs creation, scrap the treaty with Iran, revise the US role at NATO, aging infrastructure’s rebuilt, get rid of NAFTA and the TPP, the extend of School Choice and the end of the Common Core Standards, among others.

Analysing Trump’s foreign policy, Kennedy mentions that the triumph of any great power in a period, or the collapse of another, has usually been the consequence of “lengthy fighting by its armed forces, more or less efficient utilization of the state’s productive economic resources in wartime, of the way in which that state’s economy had been rising or falling, relative to the other leading nations” (Kennedy; 1988). It can be stated that, currently, the US, especially during Trump’s presidency, fits with the perspective of Kennedy’s assertion. As it was previously said, great powers decline because of its imperial overstretch and Trump is not looking for expansion right now, maybe trying not to pay bigger consequences of the overcommitment. Troops withdrawal from some Middle East territories is the clearest example. What is more, the announcement that its troops had between sixty and a hundred days to leave Syrian territory shows a hurried withdrawal.

But this kind of withdrawal from certain areas of the global system is not only military. Many experts maintain that Trump returned to protectionism before the actual threats of the neoliberal global order for the US. In consequence, with Trump as president, it was augured a lower rate of trade and investment with some regions. In fact, several factors show to be combined in this sense: the “economic war” against China or the suspension of agreements, such as the Transpacific Economic Cooperation Agreement -TPP- (which contemplated the reduction of non-tariff barriers, regulatory harmonization and the creation of new standards to regulate digital commerce) or the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement -NAFTA-, in order to be not so extensive at this point.

Thus, and before this panorama, the debate about the decline or rebirth of the current great power has a great stream. Nevertheless, beyond the concept of imperial overstretch, it is necessary to observe the system structure. According to this, there are two powers rising and challenging American capabilities: Moscow and Beijing. The first one it is not an economic adversary, but it is a geopolitical one, especially in some stages. Putin, since the beginning of the millennium, have resurrected Russia’s presence at the global scenery after its nearly disappearance in 1991. Almost two decades after, the US withdrawal from the Middle East is taken by many analysts as the defeat in the Cold War (Milbank, 2018), in part because of the Russian geopolitical rise.  In the other hand, the US is alarmed (Velasco and Baños, 2019) of his possibilities to lose his global supremacy in the economic sphere because of the large growth of China. It is important to mention that one of Beijing’s goals is to become the main economic power in 2030.

This diagnosis shows how America is turning from an internationalist behavior to an introspective attitude, trying to confront the longevity test that occurs to “every major power that occupies the ‘number one’ position in world affairs” (Kennedy, 1988).



Following the author, this longevity challenge has two variables. On the one hand, Washington needs to revise its military and strategical objectives, and if it can preserve a balance between “the nation’s perceived defense requirements and the means to maintain those commitments”. On the other hand, it must evaluate if the technological, developmental and economic bases of its power can be preserved from “the relative erosion” of the “ever-shifting patterns of global productions”.

Following this idea, it is properly to ask whether is America heading to be just something more than a normal developed country. No way; at least, not yet. The US remains as the world’s largest economy in traditional terms and, although its laurels would be occupied by China from the next decades, its military resources (its weapons, strength and deployment), commitments and diplomacy continue to be far from any other power. But erosion of power and influence is a real challenge.

Making comparisons, the colossal national effort of the United States in the 1980s helped to achieve its objective: the victory in the Cold War. But the disproportionate effort made since 2002 has no clear results (except some taste of defeat) and the gradual withdrawal of the Middle East, already raised during the Obama Administration, in addition that there is not seen a strategic transfer of resources and attention to another region (for example, Venezuela is for Washington a “movement” on the board, but not a “play”), predicts that the US begins a new period of introspection, and in its foreign policy, a new phase of selective engagement, although the rhetoric will remain the same, at least during the Trump Administration.

As for this administration, the White House is now strongly marked by the president’s personality, so it will be prudent to wait for the change of occupant to observe how deep and complex this process is, without mentioning the changes in the global system.

For Kennedy (1988), the possibility of America ceasing to be number one is a fact, but it has a portion of inscrutability. That is why he delegates to the national leadership, the decision-makers, the responsibility to adapt to changes in the system structure in order to survive the erosion of his power or, at least, to slow it down. Nevertheless, he also notes that it is extremely difficult, even in this century, to modify stagnant ideas remaining “culturally blind” (1993).

In short, despite the hegemony of the 1990s and early twenty-first century, “uncertainties about the proper global role of the United States” (Kennedy, 1988) have an increasingly larger horizon. One of these questions may be if the US decision-makers are going to continue denying the decline, or if they are going to opt for transformation. And, if the second happens, is America willing to transform itself to continue being the number one? American history, society and leaders have to decide it.



  • Busso, A. (2008). Fuerzas profundas e identidad. Reflexiones en torno a su impacto sobre la política exterior. Un recorrido de casos. Rosario: UNR Editora.
  • CELAG (2018). “Expansión de EE. UU. en América Latina: proteccionismo à la Trump”. Available at: www.celag.org.
  • CLACSO (2017). “Estados Unidos y la nueva correlación de fuerzas internacional”. Available at: www.biblioteca.clacso.edu.ar
  • Clinton, B. (1995). A National Security Strategy of engagement and enlargement. Available at: nssarchive.us/NSSR/1995.pdf
  • Garton Ash, T. (2008). “The world needs the US to get over its cultural civil war – and fast”. The Guardian. 2008, October 9. Available at: www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2008/oct/09/uselections2008.barackobama.
  • Kazin, M. (2018). “America’s Never-Ending Culture War”. In The New York Times. 2018, August 24. Available at: www.nytimes.com/2018/08/24/opinion/sunday/chicago-protests-1968-culture-war.html
  • Kennedy, P. (1988). The rise and fall of the great powers. London: Unwin Hyman.
  • Kennedy, P. (1994). Auge y caída de las grandes potencias. Madrid: Globus Comunicación.
  • Kennedy, P. (1998). Hacia el siglo XXI. Barcelona: Plaza y Janés Editores.
  • Lippman, W. (1943). U.S. foreign policy: Shield of the republic. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press.
  • Milbank, D. (2018). “It’s official: we lost the Cold War”. The Washington Post. 2018, December 21. Available at: www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/its-official-we-lost-the-cold-war/2018/12/21 /1c3b52b0-0565-11e9-b5df-5d3874f1ac36_story.html
  • Velasco, H. Baños, P. (2019). “La aparente locura de Trump es una estrategia perfectamente planificada”, BBC. 2019, February. Available at: www.bbc.com/mundo/noticias-internacional-46847197?ocid=wsmundo.chat-apps.in-app-msg.whatsapp.trial.link1_.auin
  • Walt, S. (2019). “America Has a Commitment Problem”. Foreign Affairs. 2019, January. Available at: foreignpolicy.com/2019/01/29/america-has-a-commitment-problem/


* Article originally published in: Newsletter (Year 1, No. 4) of the Grupo de Jóvenes Investigadores (IRI/UNLP). Online: http://www.iri.edu.ar/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/GJI-Boletin-4.pdf



Ludmila Golman: Bachelor in International Relations (UNLa). Master’s student in Public Policies and Government. Member of Grupo de Jóvenes Investigadores IRI/UNLP.

Nicolás Martín Alesso: Bachelor in International Relations (UCSF). Master’s student in International Relations (UCSF). Member of Grupo de Jóvenes Investigadores IRI/UNLP.


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