In Defence of a Unipolar World

Robert Lieber on what the U.S.’s future means for its allies – and for everyone else.
By: /
June 25, 2012
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With a few notable exceptions, the conventional wisdom among authors, pundits, and public intellectuals holds that the best days of the United States are behind it. Much of the American public agrees, and Chinese leaders and other foreign elites think it and say it. Type the words “Decline of America” into Google and it returns 22 million hits. Even the iconic comic-book hero Superman has become a skeptic and recently relinquished his U.S. citizenship.

Sage observers, too, have expressed pessimism, as with former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who has written, “the United States cannot afford another decline like that which has characterized the past decade and a half … only self-delusion can keep us from admitting our decline to ourselves.”

Yet, there are compelling reasons not to share this widespread belief about decline. Kissinger’s words were not written in response to the recent Great Recession, the slow pace of recovery, or congressional deadlock in resolving urgent budget problems. Instead, they appear in his 1961 book, The Necessity for Choice. In fact, warnings such as these are as old as the republic, and a hardy perennial in discourse about the American future.

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Contrary to a wave of fashionable pessimism at home and abroad, there is nothing inevitable about American decline. Of course the U.S. has problems – it has always had problems – but the focus on its difficulties is short-sighted. It remains a populous, rich, and powerful country with enormous human and material resources and a unique capacity for innovation and renewal. Throughout its history, the country has repeatedly faced and overcome daunting challenges.

The country’s well-being, and its fundamental economic, social, and geopolitical strength, is vital not only for its own people, but also for the security and prosperity of friends, neighbours, and allies. A generation ago, the trilateral powers (Europe, Japan, and North America) were the leading actors in world affairs. However, Europe and Japan have been experiencing economic stagnation and demographic decline. Both have been significantly weakened, while North America (the U.S., Canada, and, to a limited extent, Mexico) enjoy a significantly more advantageous position. 

To be sure, we do live in an increasingly globalized world, and one with a multitude of international and regional organizations and institutions. In addition, emerging powers such as the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) have become increasingly prominent in recent years. Yet, none of these institutions or countries could, or would, provide a sufficient substitute for the unique role of the United States. The BRICS and other rising regional states have shown little inclination to take responsibility for addressing common world problems, whether in providing humanitarian intervention, assisting failed states,  combatting nuclear proliferation, supporting regional stability, furthering free trade, fighting global climate change, or combating HIV/AIDS. The alternative to American involvement on these, and other, issues is unlikely to be the assumption of responsibility by other powers or by regional bodies and the UN. Should the U.S. pull back markedly from its accustomed international role, the consequence is likely to be a more disorderly and conflict-prone world rather than one with growing levels of co-operation and global order.

Of course, the U.S. does face pressing domestic and foreign problems. At home, the issues of debt, deficit, and entitlements require sustained attention and major policy changes before the fiscal situation spirals out of control. Tax and immigration reform are overdue, as well. On such issues, Congress and the Obama administration have either ducked or been unwilling or unable to come to terms in an atmosphere of political polarization.

Despite these challenges, the position of the United States remains considerably better than commonly understood. The size, breadth, and depth of its economy and financial markets are still unique. Meanwhile, projections that show China surpassing the U.S. in total share of world GDP are misleading. These are based on calculations of purchasing power parity (PPP), which the International Monetary Fund considers less relevant as a basis for comparing economic size than market rates where data show the U.S. with 21 per cent of world GDP – double China’s share. And on a per capita basis, the U.S. margin is 8:1.

Moreover, the U.S. retains enormous material advantages in military capacity, technology, and power projection. Despite the costs of a still-ongoing war in Afghanistan, the defence budget consumes a lesser share of GDP (4.7 per cent and declining) than during any of the Cold War years. In addition, the U.S.’s high technology, R&D, and great universities remain unmatched.  With 313 million people, a healthy birthrate, and a strong flow of immigrants, the U.S. has a growing population – the world’s third largest – and possesses a demographic profile more favourable than those of Europe, Japan, or even China, which is rapidly getting old before it gets rich.

Natural resources constitute another huge asset, and the importance of the renaissance in U.S. natural gas and oil production, and of Canada’s development of oil sands, can hardly be overstated. These domestic energy resources not only reduce dependence on imports and lessen security and economic vulnerabilities, but also provide a major stimulus to competitiveness, industry, and employment.

Compared with other countries, the U.S.’s edge has been so great that, despite some attrition in recent years, it remains in a unique position. Declinist authors often cite a parallel with the way imperial Britain was overtaken by other powers beginning a century ago, but the analogy is wrong. One hundred years ago, Germany and the United States had already surpassed the U.K. in population, GDP, and military power or potential.

Instead, the real challenges for the U.S. lie not so much in the material realm, but in policy, beliefs, leadership, and choices. To avoid decline at home and abroad, the U.S. must come to grips with its fiscal and budget problems. Tax and immigration reform, as well as an energy policy based on what’s effective, not what’s fashionable, will be needed, as will measures to reduce regulatory and bureaucratic burdens. Foreign policy needs to be prudent, in the sense of applying American resources where it matters most, but it remains essential to avoid outright withdrawal from Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. (Realist authors urge the U.S. to engage in “offshore balancing.”) Again, the alternative to an engaged and leading U.S. would far more likely be instability, disorder, and conflict than a somehow benign order sustained by emerging powers.

Over the centuries, the U.S. has responded to serious challenges, some of them far more serious than those we face today. To be sure, the response has often been belated until a manageable problem has become a true crisis, and at greater cost than earlier action would have required.  The great French observer of the United States, Alexis de Tocqueville, captured this in his observation written in the 1830s: “The great privilege of the Americans does not consist in being more enlightened than any other nations, but in being able to repair the faults they may commit.” It is a good bet that we still have the capacity, resources, and adaptability needed to do so. In short, despite its problems, the U.S. is not destined to decline.

Photo courtesy of Reuters