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October - November 2008


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Book Corner
Authors Predict Declining U.S. Power

by Michael J.G. Cain, Professor of Political Science and Director of the Center for the Study of Democracy

Americans born after 1975 have experienced a world where the United States was the lone super power. For most of their adult lives, they lived in a “unipolar” world – a world where the power of the United States has been virtually unchallenged by any other nation state, a world where American dominance in military, economic and international affairs appeared to be the natural order of things.

In 2000, the conservative think tank, Project for a New American Century, optimistically declared, “The American peace has proven itself peaceful, stable, and durable. It has, over the past decade, provided the geopolitical framework for widespread economic growth and the spread of American principles of liberty and democracy… The history of the past century should have taught us to embrace the cause of American leadership.”

But two wars with few good options for ending them, the debacle at Abu Ghraib, and prisoners held indefinitely in the Guantánamo detention camp have shaken the confidence of many in uncontested American leadership. When persistent international problems are combined with uncertainty in the housing market, rising gas prices, bank failures and a sluggish economy, Americans may be forgiven for not worrying enough about our unchallenged geopolitical dominance in world affairs, and instead focus on more mundane issues of food and carpools.

Many policymakers, authors, and commentators in Washington are indeed worried about declining U.S. power in the geopolitical marketplace. Is the United States losing its dominance in world affairs and, if so, what does this mean for the future?

The End of American Dominance?

Observers of American history seem to agree that our “unipolar moment” is over. Our unchallenged position in the 21st century is being eroded by other centers of power, much the same way as Great Britain’s empire was eroded by American power in the mid-20th century.

There is an added concern for us: The American people may be the last to know because being on top brings with it the illusion of durable, eternal greatness. Arnold Toynbee, one of the most celebrated historians of his age, recalled as a young boy the feeling of Britain’s greatness when watching the 60th anniversary of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee celebration in 1897. Britain was on top of the world “… and we have arrived at this peak to stay there forever. There is, of course, a thing called history, but history is something unpleasant that happens to other people. We are comfortably outside all of that, I am sure.” About that time the United States and Germany had already surpassed Britain on most industrial measures, and just five years later the historian Lawrence James wrote that the British were ‘friendless” because of their brutal wartime tactics in the Boer War. The British Empire was already in a precipitous decline.

Two recent books tackle the consequences of a new global order. They disagree on why American power might be declining, but each agrees that China and the European Union (EU) have either caught up with us or may soon surpass us on many dimensions of power.Two recent books

In The Post-American World (W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2008), author Fareed Zakaria argues that the decline of American geopolitical influence is more about the rise of the rest than any precipitous decline in U.S. power. He points out that, unlike Britain, the United States has had the largest economy in the world for over 120 years – an economy that has remained remarkably stable, producing on average 25% of total gross domestic product (GDP) in the world. Although other countries are catching up, especially the European Union, U.S. economic advantages are likely to remain: Compared to the Europeans, the U.S. is demographically vibrant, with an increasing population to support growth. By contrast, Europe’s population is virtually stagnant, with an aging population being supported by fewer and fewer young workers. Without more flexible immigration policies, the EU will face serious demographic challenges later in the 21st century. Our ability to welcome and assimilate immigrants, Zakaria argues, is indeed our economic engine for this century.

Our Achilles heel is our dysfunctional political system. Whether or not we can fix persistent domestic problems – low rates of savings for retirement, higher deficit spending by government, and low investment in infrastructure – is the wild card in predicting where America will be in 2050.

Author Parag Khanna’s fascinating new book, The Second World: Empires and Influence in the New Global Order (Random House, 2008) takes the reader on a panoramic journey throughout the world, where he assesses the prospects of three empires – China, the United States and the European Union – competing for influence and securing the resources of second world countries in the 21st century. Second world countries, such as Brazil, India, Kazakhstan, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela, make up over half the countries in the world, and the ability of each empire to successfully influence and engage these states will create a new global order. According to Khanna, second world alliances may well be a new tipping point in the global balance of power between three empires.

Khanna worries that the United States is not up to the task of influencing second world countries because of our preference for military solutions to international problems. The U.S. has the largest military in the world (we spend more than the next 15 countries combined) but it faces new problems in the 21st century. Building coalitions to combat terrorism or securing oil resources have been seen as short-term military problems often at odds with longer-term diplomatic problems of promoting free markets, elections, or democracy abroad. The U.S. offers military and regime protection, but with strings attached, while China offers condition-free relationships while pursuing deep economic ties. Khanna worries that the second world will increasingly prefer an easy economic relationship with China, at the expense of more complexities with the U.S.

Role of U.S. Education

How should we respond to declining American influence? Many authors suggest that American “soft power” needs to be reinvigorated and promoted. Hard power is the ability to force people to do what you want. Americans, say the authors, have experienced the limits of hard power in the Middle East: we have used force but we are losing influence throughout the region.

Soft power is the ability to get others to want what you want—and it is arguably what America does best when doing good. In a world where borders are more porous, international travel and trade ubiquitous, and international financial stability indispensable to American prosperity, increasing America’s soft power may be even more relevant to achieving its strategic objectives and keeping its preeminent place in world affairs. Winning allies, securing markets, and eliminating terrorism cannot be won solely by the point of a gun.

Many analysts agree that one of the keys to American soft power is our post-secondary educational system and its influence throughout the world. According to the Center for European Reform, the U.S. invests 2.6 percent of its GDP in higher education, compared to 1.2 percent in Europe and 1.1 percent in Japan. American colleges and universities continue to be the most preferred destination for foreign students, taking in 30 percent of foreign students globally.

Most of all, America has a culture of challenging conventional wisdom, even if it means challenging authority. Students, graduate students and faculty who come to the U.S. get to experience our system of values, participate in our open discussions of difficult subjects in the classroom, and enjoy the inherent equality between all students, regardless of background. Educating the next generation of college students throughout the world is an important means to continue to project U.S. power in the world, and it will likely pay rich dividends to the children of those who had experienced our “unipolar moment.”