While policymakers debate about whether or not the United States is in a state of relative decline, defined as a steady loss of its edge over rising powers such as China in terms of military might and economic affluence, one question sits quietly in the background: If we are in decline, then what?
MIT political science PhD candidate Joshua Shifrinson has some ideas. His dissertation, “Life on the Downward Slope: Explaining State Decisions to Support or Exploit Declining Great Powers,” assumes decline as a given. And the answers he has found in terms of what’s next run counter to recent strategic military moves. As a result, his work has spurred its own ongoing policy debate.
When Shifrinson came to MIT in 2006 from Brandeis University, where he had studied politics and history, he had, he says, “a 22-year-old’s interest in the military.” His interests were firmly rooted in the events of the time, such as the Iraq war, which began and surged during his undergraduate years.
He came to MIT to mature his ideas and put them to work. “Analyzing real-world political questions scientifically is very hard to do,” he says. “MIT is the best at bringing rigorous academic skills to bear on policy-related questions.”
Shifrinson built his skills while at the same time paying attention to news and talk among professors and speakers about the rise of China and India. Then, when it came time to develop a question for his thesis, the real-world shifted again. “The great economic crash occurred,” he says. “It just smelled like great power rise and great power decline.”
Taking notice, Shifrinson connected his interests in history and military strategy with current events and chose to focus his graduate research on trying to understand how economic and political change affect international security.
In a nutshell, Shifrinson found one measure that strongly influences the best strategic security approach for a great state in decline: the distribution of power. The concept of balance of power is as old as history itself. Yet among policymakers today, it isn’t always granted as much weight as other, more modern factors, such as open economies and democratization.
While Shifrinson agrees that these other factors matter, his work suggests that balance of power theory should not be ignored. Especially not in a world where many countries are vying for power.
In a bipolar world, similar to that during much of the 20th century where two superpowers competed for dominance, “one superpower’s decline gives the other superpower a strong incentive to prey upon its weakness,” Shifrinson says. “But the declining state can still use its military to deter predation.” Maintaining expensive military might, even in the face of decline, gives the other superpower pause.
But in a multi-polar world — for example, in modern-day Asia, where China is strong, India is rising and Japan and Russia maintain facets of their former might — the best strategy for a United States in decline is to back off. “Making an effort to maintain a regional power hold” — as the United States did this past fall with the strategic pivot toward Asia — “encourages allies to take a free ride at the expense of the declining nation,” Shifrinson says. “At the same time, it spirals up competition with rivals.”
While Shifrinson isn’t looking for an immediate seat at the policymaking table, he would like to find room in his career to contribute to policy debates that influence real-world security decisions. “It seems unfair to talk about the real world all the time without actually engaging in it,” he says.
Until then, his near-term plans involve searching for a university teaching position. “Political science is one of the few disciplines where everyone has something to say and some insight to offer,” Shifrinson says. “Teaching students how to intelligently grapple with real-world political issues is rewarding work.”