Understanding American Power: Conceptual Clarity, Strategic Priorities, and the Decline Debate

Image credit: Hernán Piñera via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

What does it mean for the United States to be powerful? The prospect of a decline in American power, especially relative to a rising China, has attracted considerable scholarly and political attention. Despite a wealth of data, disagreements persist regarding both the likely trajectory of the US‐China balance and the most effective strategy for preserving America's advantage into the future. This article locates the source of these enduring disputes in fundamental conceptual differences over the meaning of power itself. We map the distinct tracks of argument within the decline debate, showing that competing positions are often rooted in differences of focus rather than disputes over fact. Most fundamental is a divide between analyses dedicated to national capabilities, and others that emphasise mechanisms of relational power. This divide underpins how strategists think about the goal of preserving or extending American power. We therefore construct a typology of competing understandings of what it means for America to be powerful, to show that a strategy suited to bolstering American power according to one definition of that goal may not support, and may even undermine, American power understood in other ways.

Policy Implications

  • Policymakers should be cognisant that the ‘power shift’ debate is not reducible to simple differences in forecasts regarding material capabilities. It also encompasses fundamental differences over what it means for the United States to be powerful.


  • When evaluating claims regarding the future balance of national capabilities, insist on clarity as to what of type of argument is being made. Does it:
    • Forecast a trend in conventional metrics, such as GDP or military spending?
    • Dispute the adequacy of these metrics to capture qualitative differences?
    • Predict that a specific policy intervention will succeed/fail in altering present trajectories?
    • Posit a critical weakness in economic, military or political infrastructure that could bring about a collapse in the capabilities of the US or its rivals?


  • When developing strategy, prioritise between alternative understandings of power. Which is more important:
    • The size of the gap in material capabilities between the United States and its nearest rival?
    • The United States’ ability to dominate others coercively?
    • The United States having sufficient influence to obtain preferred outcomes consensually?
    • The entrenchment and longevity of a world order with liberal characteristics?


  • Strategists should acknowledge that while sometimes the policies best fitted to pursuing these different ends may be complementary, often they are not. Necessary trade‐offs therefore ought to be identified and evaluated in a deliberate, calculated and strategic manner.