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"Graceful Decline? The Surprising Success of Great Power Retrenchment"

Journal Article, International Security, volume 35, issue 4, pages 7-44

Spring 2011

Authors: Paul MacDonald, Former Research Fellow, International Security Program, 2006-2008, Joseph M. Parent

Belfer Center Programs or Projects: Quarterly Journal: International Security



There is broad scholarly consensus that the relative power of the United States is declining and that this decline will have negative consequences for interna­tional politics. This pessimism is justified by the belief that great powers have few options to deal with acute relative decline. Retrenchment is seen as a haz­ardous policy that demoralizes allies and encourages external predation. Faced with shrinking means, great powers are thought to have few options to stave off decline short of preventive war. Contrary to the conventional wis­dom, however, retrenchment is not a relatively rare and ineffective policy in­strument. A comparison of eighteen cases of acute relative decline since 1870 demonstrates that great powers frequently engage in retrenchment and that re­trenchment is often effective. In addition, we find that prevailing explanations overstate the importance of democracies, bureaucracies, and interest groups in inhibiting retrenchment. In fact, the rate of decline can account for both the ex­tent and form of retrenchment, even over short periods. These arguments have important implications for power transition theories and the rise of China.


Read Stephen R. Rock's review of this article in H-Diplo's International Security Studies Forum (ISSF).



For more information about this publication please contact the IS Editorial Assistant at 617-495-1914.

For Academic Citation:

Paul MacDonald and Joseph M. Parent. "Graceful Decline? The Surprising Success of Great Power Retrenchment." International Security 35, no. 4 (Spring 2011): 7-44.

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