From the AGI Bookshelf: The Myth of America’s Decline

Jackson Janes

President Emeritus of AGI

Jackson Janes is the President Emeritus of the American-German Institute at the Johns Hopkins University in Washington, DC, where he has been affiliated since 1989.

Dr. Janes has been engaged in German-American affairs in numerous capacities over many years. He has studied and taught in German universities in Freiburg, Giessen and Tübingen. He was the Director of the German-American Institute in Tübingen (1977-1980) and then directed the European office of The German Marshall Fund of the United States in Bonn (1980-1985). Before joining AICGS, he served as Director of Program Development at the University Center for International Studies at the University of Pittsburgh (1986-1988). He was also Chair of the German Speaking Areas in Europe Program at the Foreign Service Institute in Washington, DC, from 1999-2000 and is Honorary President of the International Association for the Study of German Politics .

Dr. Janes is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the Atlantic Council of the United States, and American Purpose. He serves on the advisory boards of the Berlin office of the American Jewish Committee, and the Beirat der Zeitschrift für Außen- und Sicherheitspolitik (ZfAS). He serves on the Selection Committee for the Bundeskanzler Fellowships for the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation.

Dr. Janes has lectured throughout Europe and the United States and has published extensively on issues dealing with Germany, German-American relations, and transatlantic affairs. In addition to regular commentary given to European and American news radio, he has appeared on CBS, CNN, C-SPAN, PBS, CBC, and is a frequent commentator on German television. Dr. Janes is listed in Who’s Who in America and Who’s Who in Education.

In 2005, Dr. Janes was awarded the Officer’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, Germany’s highest civilian award.

Ph.D., International Relations, Claremont Graduate School, Claremont, California
M.A., Divinity School, University of Chicago
B.A., Sociology, Colgate University

Transatlantic relations, German-American relations, domestic German politics, German-EU relations, transatlantic affairs.


Joe Joffe’s latest book (Liverlight Publishing, 2013) is a modern day version of what Alexis de Tocqueville attempted some one hundred and eighty years ago. Both authors grapple with the unique path of the United States on the world stage. But, where Tocqueville was projecting what the U.S. would become, Joffe takes a look at what the United States is and declares that rumors of its demise are much exaggerated.

Joffe, who shares his time across the Atlantic between running Die Zeit in Hamburg and researching in Stanford, also splits his perception of the United States as a superpower – or “Über Power” as his 2006 book is titled – and what he calls a default power, or “the power that does what others cannot or will not do.” He lines up many metrics and declares that “declinism,” as a purported description of the United States, comes and goes every two or three decades but cannot adequately define the United States in the first decade of the twenty-first century. He declares that the United States is a unique, decathlon power with strengths – if uneven – across many fields that no one can match…yet.

The value of Joffe’s book for American readers may be less in soothing those worried that the United States is losing its mojo and more in reminding them that, if the United States is going into a slide, it will be due to what he refers to as “the three Ds” – Deficit, Debt, and Disfunctionality. These are circumstances that Americans can bring on themselves without great help from others.

Yet, in looking at the predominance of the United States measured in current power equations, Joffe also reminds non-American readers that the United States may be working through burden-shedding and shifting in the coming years. And this will have serious consequences for a world order adjusting to different equations of power and responsibilities. His main argument – no other default power is available.

He refers back to the rare moments in history “when one international system gives way to another,” including most recently the end of the Cold War. A quarter century after the era of bi-polarity, the surviving superpower remains the United States. However, its ability to command a broad set of power sources has diminished despite its relative paramount lead.

Does China’s relationship with the United States resemble the end of the nineteenth century, when national rivalries plunged Europe into the carnage of World War I and brought America to dominate the world stage? Joffe is skeptical, but he concedes that the United States can lose its advantages by not recognizing them. Here, he places a great deal of emphasis on immigration as a power source for a society along with its educational capacity and innovation culture. But they can also fall victim to national squabbling and mudslinging.

Those of us engaged in transatlantic learning communities can use Joffe’s arguments to debate the merits and shortfalls of our respective insights and practices. He delivers a bi-focal look at both U.S. policies and underlying national narratives while also shining a light on how other countries are struggling with their own geostrategic position, as contested as they can be.

Joffe – full disclosure, an AGI Trustee – offers a “translator’s” guide for all those seeking to make sense of the Americans’ internal debate. But he also provokes questions for other countries, who need to grapple with their self-images and responses to a world in which the United States may not decline but may gradually seek to detach itself from common responsibilities.

Joffe directs those questions at the European Union, which he says is “neither a state, nor a strategic actor…” leaving the answers open as to how the EU or the eurozone will fit onto the twenty-first century power map.

The final verdict is that the United States has become what Joffe calls a reticent power with a more circumscribed set of interests and more preoccupied with itself. He finishes with a question—will the decathlon power still act as the default power in the twenty-first century. And, if not, can anyone else do the job?

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.