Power and decline: Why other countries ought to envy the United States

A recurring theme in this year's presidential election is (fear of) American decline, with both candidates seeking to convince voters that they will reverse recent trends and foster an American resurgence. President Obama portrays himself as having repaired some of the self-inflicted wounds imparted by the Bush administration, and he pledges to do still more if reelected. For his part, challenger Mitt Romney promises voters that electing him will ensure that the next 88 years will be an "American Century" just like the last one. Both pitches seek to exploit the lingering fear that America's best days are behind us.

This is hardly a new concern. Americans seem to have been fretting about losing their mojo ever since World War II. We worried that communism was on the march in the 1950s, saw Sputnik as a grave challenge in the 1950s, and feared becoming a "pitiful, helpless giant" (to use Richard Nixon's phrase) in the 1970s. During the 1980s, Americans grew anxious about "Japan as #1" and thought we might succumb to "imperial overstretch" that same way Britain had. There was a brief burst of triumphalism following the collapse of the USSR, but it barely lasted a decade. Since 2000, the combination of 9/11, the debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the lingering effects of the financial collapse have reanimated the perennial fear that we are in an irreversible descent.

How seriously should we take this issue? Let's start by acknowledging that measuring the power of different countries is a very imprecise business, even among professional IR scholars. We don't have a clear consensus on how to define or measure national power, so we end up using various crude approximations like GNP or more complicated indices that combine GNP, population, military strength, technological capacity, etc. But such measures ignore geography, "soft power," national cohesion, quality of life, etc., and all the other intangibles that can help states to secure their interests and provide both safety and prosperity for their citizens.

Matters get even more complicated when we shift from power to "influence." Power is most usefully conceived as capability -- no matter how it is measured -- and stronger states can generally do more things and affect others more than weaker states can. But having a lot of power doesn't translate directly into influence, which is the capacity to get others to do what you want. Sometimes very powerful states can't convince weaker states to do their bidding, because the weaker powers care more about the issue in question and are willing to make greater sacrifices to get their way. And sometimes even very powerful states lack the capacity to dictate or shape events because the tools they have available aren't up to the task. Having a lot of power doesn't enable a country to defy the laws of physics, for example, or guarantee that it can successfully engage in large-scale social engineering in a distant foreign land. Among other things, this is why it is pretty silly to criticize the Obama administration for failing to "control" the Arab spring, as if any U.S. president has the capacity to control a vast and fast-moving social upheaval involving hundreds of millions of people.)

When we think about power, there's an inevitable tendency to look at trends over time. The question we tend to ask is whether Country X is getting stronger or weaker. Here in America, this approach is usually accompanied by a nostalgic yearning for some by-gone era where the United States was supposedly near-supreme and could do whatever it wanted. Leaving aside the obvious point that things were never really like this, the history of the past century does tend to make Americans more worried than they ought to be.

Why? Because there have in fact been a couple of historical moments when a combination of good fortune and skillful policy put the United States in a highly unusual position of primacy. The United States produced about 50 percent of gross world product in 1945 and had unmatched military power, mostly because the other major economies were mostly in ruins. This was a decidedly unnatural condition, however, and there was nowhere to go but down once the rest of the world recovered from the war. Similarly, the breakup of the USSR and the collapse of Japan's bubble economy in the early 1990s briefly put the U.S. back on top by a significant margin, and all the more so because other potentially powerful countries (e.g., Japan and the EU) had been free-riding on the US and were punching below their weight.

The point is that relative decline from these two lofty perches was essentially unavoidable, and especially because some less-developed countries like China, India, or Brazil were ideally positioned for rapid growth after 1990. America's relative decline was accelerated by Bush's blunders and the financial crisis, but it would have happened anyway regardless of who had been in the Oval office.

There is another way to think about America's power position, and it ought to give comfort to those who worry that the country is slowly sliding into a position of vulnerability. Just compare the U.S. to other countries today, and ask yourself which states are in the best position to defend their true vital interests (as opposed to all those optional objectives that great powers habitually take on). Which states are masters of their own fates to a considerable extent, instead of having to worry constantly that others might threaten their independence or territorial integrity? Put differently: If you were going to be put in charge of any country's foreign policy, which country would you pick?

From this perspective things still look pretty good for the United States. It still has the world's largest and most diverse economy, and its per capita income is much higher than China's, which means there is more wealth available to mobilize for shared national purposes. It has no serious enemies nearby. It has thousands of nuclear weapons, which means that no state could attack us directly without risking its own destruction. U.S. conventional military forces are far larger than needed to defend American soil, and that remarkable level of territorial security allows U.S. leaders to take on lots of discretionary projects in places like Afghanistan or Yemen or the Phillipines or Africa or Colombia or Libya and to have endless debates about whether we ought to be taking on even more.

The U.S. economy isn't doing great, of course, but it is performing better than most of the other industrial powers. And despite the current level of partisan rancor and a level of government dysfunction that ought to embarrass us all, there's virtually no risk of major political upheaval here.

If all we were trying to do was defend Americans against major threats and foster continued economic advancement, running U.S. foreign policy would in fact be relatively easy. The main reason American foreign policy looks difficult is because Washington keeps taking on really difficult objectives, like occupying Iraq, trying to turn Afghanistan into a modern, Western-style state, attempting to coerce Iran into giving up all nuclear enrichment in exchange for precisely nothing from us. And that's just for starters. No matter how strong you are, you can make your job more difficult if you consistently try to do things that are both very, very hard and not necessarily all that important.

Now consider how the world looks to some other countries. If you were a member of China's leadership, you'd be deeply fearful of an economic slowdown that might trigger a major challenge to communist party rule. You have border disputes with many of your neighbors (some of them close allies of the mighty United States), and there's a least some risk that some of them might turn hot. You're dependent on trade that flows through a variety of maritime choke points. You have more power and more influence than your Maoist predecessors did, but you don't have any powerful allies and you don't have an attractive ideological model to offer the rest of the world. From a geopolitical perspective, you'd be thrilled to switch places with the United States, which has no serious rivals, no border disputes with anyone, and still has lots of allies around the world.

And if you were Japanese, Spanish, Iraqi, Iranian, Bahraini, Israeli, Greek, Egyptian, Vietnamese, or Indian, you'd have even more to fret about. So the next time you hear someone bemoaning American "decline," tell them to get a grip and be grateful for the country's good fortune. And while you're at it, remind them that most of our foreign policy problems are voluntary: They result from projects we've chosen to take on rather than ones that have been forced upon us by necessity. That's another sign of U.S. power: we have the luxury of choosing how much or how little to do (though it seems to be mostly the former).

In short, Bismarck may have been right when he said God had a "special providence for fools, drunks, and the United States." Which is not to say we can't make it harder for Him.


National Security

How to evaluate China's rising power

One of my favorite Cold War stories is the tale of the Moscow air show of 1955, when Western observers were awed by a flyover of what seemed to be hundreds of Mya-4 Bison long range bombers. The CIA later determined that this was a Potemkin armada: Visibility was low that day and the Soviets in charge just had the same group of planes fly out of sight and then circle back over the field, creating the impression that they had a much larger arsenal than they did. Such antics helped fuel fears of a bomber gap, much as Khrushchev's later missile rattling fueled fears of a so-called missile gap. Neither existed, and neither did the Stanley Kubrick's infamous "mine shaft gap."

I thought of this episode when I read about the launching of China's first "aircraft carrier." I put those words in quotation marks because the vessel isn't carrying any aircraft, because China has yet to build any that can land on a carrier deck. For the moment, in short, it's just a big vessel that doesn't add to China's actual military capability at all. Even so, this development is being interpreted as a sign of China's growing military muscle, and the New York Times story quotes officials in Asia describing the launching itself as an act of intimidation.

China is obviously growing wealthier and stronger, but the United States and others have a powerful interest in assessing this trend as accurately as possible. If we are complacent and understate China's capabilities, we might unpleasantly surprised at some point in the future. But if we inflate the threat and overstate China's power, we'll waste money trying to stay ahead and we might even end up deterring ourselves. Exaggerating Chinese power could also convince some of Beijing's weaker neighbors that standing up to it is just too hard. So the United States (and others) have a big incentive to get this one right, despite the unavoidable uncertainties that military assessments entail.

Unfortunately, there are lots of people and groups with an incentive to distort public discourse on this broad issue. Some of our Asian allies are likely to cry wolf every time China does anything remotely worrisome, in the hope of scaring Washington and getting us to do even more to protect them. Defense contractors and think tanks that depend on their largesse are likely to threat-inflate as well, in order convince the Pentagon to fund new weapons. Politicians from both parties will offer their own worst-case assessments if they think they can make their opponents look bad on this issue. For all these reasons, developing and maintaining a reasonably accurate sense of what China can and cannot do is going to be hard.

You might say that we can just let the "marketplace of ideas" operate, and over time competing views about China's capabilities will contend with each other and we'll gradually converge on a more-or-less accurate appraisal. It would be nice if things worked like this, but this is sort of issue where intellectual market failure is likely. Why? Because there will be a lot more money supporting the hawkish side of this debate, and lots of bureaucratic interests committed toward worst-case appraisals. That view might be the right one, of course, but it's going to be hard to be sure.

Of course, my remedy for this problem (and some others) is to get a lot of smart people who don't have a professional or financial stake in this debate involved in the discussion. I don't want the debate on China's capabilities to be dominated by people working for the U.S. Navy, the Air Force, Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics, or D.C.-based think tanks funded by such groups. I don't want to exclude them either, but I'd like to see a lot of other disinterested voices too. And to follow up on yesterday's post, this is another reason why we want a healthy, diverse, and engaged set of scholars in the academic world, who aren't directly beholden to anyone with a dog in particular policy fights.

That participation won't occur if universities don't support training and teaching in security studies, or if university-based scholars disengage from the public sphere and spend their time debating minor issues that are mostly of interest only to each other. In this issue, as in many others, getting academics and other independent voices to be an active part of public discourse is essential to making accurate assessments and reasonably smart decisions.

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