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The Rise and Decline of the American "Empire"

Speaker: Professor Geir Lundestad Chair: Professor Michael Cox

Thursday 22nd November 2012, 6.30-8.00pm. Old Theatre, Old Building


by Harriet Shone

Professor Geir Lundestad, Director of the Norwegian Nobel Institute and renowned Cold War historian, discussed the decline of American power since her post-war heyday and the challenges facing a struggling America today.

Professor Lundestad is nothing if not aware of the dangers of making predictions for the future – historians in the past have made sweeping predictions only to be proven overwhelmingly wrong. By his own admission, Lundestad prefers to make predictions about the past. Yet, through careful examination of the challenges faced and fought by America since the end of the Second World War, he was able to paint an accurate picture of her challenges today.

This was not a lecture about the fall of the American ‘empire’. Rather Ludnestad gave us a nuanced account of America’s steady decline from the overwhelmingly rich superpower of 1945 that accounted for 50% of the world’s production to the America of today, still home to 23-24% of the world’s production but gradually shrinking in the face of rapid Chinese ascendancy and a domestic economic crisis.

America’s slow decline can, in the beginning, be explained by the sheer unsustainability of any one country representing such a high percentage of world production. As economies ravaged by war recovered and the USA faced its own problems, this percentage went down steadily until it reached 25% in 1975. Indeed, no period of post war history has felt so negative as the USA of the 1970s, blighted by continued war in Vietnam, by the scandals of the Nixon administration and by the negativity of Nixon himself, who was the first US president to discuss the threat to American hegemony by other ‘power centres’.

Between 1945 and the presence, America has faced many potential threats to its global dominance. The USSR, widely predicted to overtake America in production and wealth, instead collapsed. Japan failed to meet the messiah-like expectations heaped on it by prophet-historians prior to the onset of economic stagnation that still blights it today. Most bizarrely of all, the EU’s predicted global dominance never became a serious challenge to the USA despite a combined population 200 million larger than America’s and a total GDP higher than that of the USA.

Still, Lundestad outlined the current Chinese position as the most viable challenge to American global dominance to date. With growth rates of around 10% annually and a GDP that surpassed that of Germany and, in 2010, Japan, China’s GDP could realistically surpass America’s within a decade. If it succeeds in this goal it will be the first nation to topple America from the number one spot since 1870. With Chinese growth consistently higher than American, it appears to be a matter of time until the USA is toppled.

Lundestad is clear that all is not bleak for the USA, despite her position as a massive debt-nation and her current political weakness. American defence spending is still 5 times higher than China’s, she leads in terms of education and cultural growth and continues to attract thousands of Chinese immigrants who often go on to win prizes and kudos for their adopted country. Most importantly of all, America still has a strong network of allies, both in Europe and in Asia where China struggles to win over countries like Thailand, Singapore and Korea.

Professor Lundestad was careful to present a nuanced analysis that did not fall into the trap of bold if unwise prophesising. Rather, he outlined a world made up of potential regional superpowers – Russia’s shaky but undoubted power in her backyard; Brazil’s influence in Latin America, India’s position as a strong Asian economy; and, most influential of all, the new and powerful China – that have the potential to act together as a threat to the global hegemony that America has taken for granted since 1945.



Professor Geir Lundestad is Director of the Norwegian Nobel Institute  and author of The Rise and Decline of the American "Empire"



Michael Cox

Professor Michael Cox
is the Founding Director of LSE IDEAS



Old Theatre, Old Building, London School of Economics. Map






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