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American Power

Source: Getty

has-been hegemony?

What's Happening to American Power?

Why you should care

Because our geopolitical fault lines are shifting. And it affects a few billion of us.

Power: It’s what Americans instinctively associate with their country’s role in the world. In fact, most Americans have grown up assuming that the United States is the world’s leading power and will remain so.

But with the Middle East spinning out of control, Russia challenging the European order, terrorism surging again, and China aggressively expanding its influence in Asia, it’s fair to ask: Is the sun setting on the so-called Pax Americana? Is our power draining away?

Power is a slippery concept whose sources are tough to track. There’s power that comes from fixed things, like geography and natural resources. And there’s power that comes from things over which countries have control: industrial policies, governing systems, even population, and of course, the heft a country places behind military power. There is, too, the “soft power” influence countries can exert through the appeal of their culture or values. And what Walter Russell Mead calls “sticky power,” exemplified by economic agreements or interdependencies that make it hard for nations to drift too far apart.

To lead in this new world, we must set our internal priorities in order. And we must be prepared to lead in a different way.

It was the slippage in that latter arena after the 2008 financial crisis that changed the state of American power, upsetting the 17 years of unprecedented dominance the U.S. had after the USSR’s 1991 collapse — and jarring the global order that had been calcifying since the end of World War II. Since 2008, thanks to flawed financial policies in the United States and Europe, we’ve seen a denting of global confidence in one of the foundations of American power and influence — the one that everyone else had come to depend on — our economic system. It makes sense, then, that the kernel of hope for American dominance lies in figuring out the right route back to economic-based power.

To lead in any manner in this new world, we must set our internal priorities in order. And even then, we must be prepared to lead in an altogether different way.

Decline Anxiety?

It’s easy to see all the factors that could herald the end of American dominance: Our global share of economic activity is declining (some calculate by more then 30 percent in the last decade); we have overextended ourselves during a decade of war; the world is reverting to a more natural balance among powers after an abnormal period in which two World Wars left the United States No. 1.

Not so fast. We’ve been through “decline anxiety” before: in the 1950s, when the USSR beat us into space with the Sputnik satellite; in the 1970s, after Vietnam; in the 1980s, when we feared what we called “Japan Inc” as Japanese industry was besting us and buying up American icons like the Rockefeller Center.

A few factors could tip the balance of power irrevocably — and these are factors on the homefront.

But today’s challenges are different. Take China. Unlike the old Soviet Union, it’s consistently seen real economic growth. Unlike Japan, it has a population four times our size and can swiftly reallocate resources and labor. And the Chinese have thought deeply about how to prepare themselves for a globally competitive world; when I asked a senior Chinese official not long ago to name their No. 1 national security concern, she didn’t mention a single overseas issue but swiftly replied: “Internal development!” The Chinese know what’s up: They know that paying attention to your own affairs guarantees success in the wider world.

Still, we must remember that the U.S. has repeatedly renewed and adapted, as after Sputnik and Vietnam. And no country rivals its global cultural appeal. No major world problems can be solved without America — though we cannot solve them alone. And all of America’s competitors, including China, are hobbled by societal divisions much deeper than any America could imagine.

Sputnik 1 launch, October 4, 1957.

Source: Corbis

Sputnik 1 launch, October 4, 1957.

So, What Could Tip the Balance?

But all things aren’t equal. And on our constantly dynamic planet, a few factors could tip the balance of power irrevocably — and these are factors on the homefront.

  1. Internal Priorities. We aren’t innovating in government, at least not at the federal level. Our system at its 18th-century inception was the most innovative the world had ever known. But we’ve forgotten that this came about through compromise — an art we’ve all but lost. To compete today, we simply must learn how to break the partisan gridlock that prevents us from keeping pace with today’s challenges.
  2. Education. Our universities still lead the world, but everyone knows that our secondary schools — the feeder system — are slipping in science and math; 25 nations now score ahead of us. But our low averages result from a subtler problem: the inequalities built into an educational system that produces top students in our most affluent areas and poor performers elsewhere. And with the well-documented growing income gap in America between the top one percent and everyone else, the spillover into education — and therefore into our competitiveness — seems inevitable.
  3. People and Borders. Demographics favor America. So far. China will face an “aging crisis” in a decade or so. India suffers from a split between “haves” and “have nots.” Most of the Third World is burdened by overpopulation, high unemployment and a “youth bulge.” The U.S. population, by contrast, is growing at a balanced rate; it’s constantly refreshed by immigration (no matter how controversial), and is able to improve upon itself thanks to meritocracy (certainly compared to the rest of the world.)

And even with all of our internal priorities in order, we won’t be able to lead alone. We will depend on alliances. With transnational problems flaring in the midst of a global information revolution, we can’t do what we did post-WWII, when we single-handedly devised many of today’s institutions and had the luxury of mobilizing others against a single common menace; today we’ll have to be more orchestra conductor than soloist.

At the same time, we will probably still carry the major burden for providing “public goods” serving the rest of the world — security at sea, “honest broker” mediation of disputes, organizing against common dangers like terrorism or nuclear proliferation. To do that, we’ll have to be on guard against the isolationist impulse that periodically afflicts American policy; our coming self-sufficiency in energy could tempt us to turn inward once again.

But the good news about tipping points? They can be pushed one way or the other, so in a very real sense, they’re in our control — either way.

This OZY encore was originally published July 17, 2014.

John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY called “The Spy Who Told Me” and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).

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