Build a Second American Century We've Got Big Problems, but We Can Still Command the Heights

By Haass, Richard N | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), May 26, 2013 | Go to article overview

Build a Second American Century We've Got Big Problems, but We Can Still Command the Heights


Haass, Richard N, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


In 1941 Time magazine's Henry Luce exhorted his countrymen to eschew isolationism, enter what became World War II and make the 20th century the first great American century. Fulfilling his vision, the United States managed a historic trifecta, prevailing in two world wars and the subsequent Cold War.

If Luce were alive today, he no doubt would urge his fellow citizens to make the 21st century the second great American century. This one, however, would focus not on winning ideological struggles and thwarting totalitarian bids for dominance, but on creating meaningful rules and international arrangements to contend with the defining challenges of the era: the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, climate change, infectious and non-communicable diseases, trade and investment protectionism, terrorism and providing for the 9 billion people who will soon inhabit this planet.

This notion of a second American century may seem bizarre, given the United States' obvious domestic troubles -- from poor schools and crumbling infrastructure to mounting debt and low economic growth -- and its external challenges, including terrorism, a rising China, an antagonistic North Korea that has nuclear weapons and an equally hostile Iran that appears to want them. Nevertheless, we could already be in the second decade of another American century. Here are six reasons:

* The United States is and will remain for some time first among unequals. This country boasts the world's largest economy; its annual GDP of almost $16 trillion is nearly one-fourth of global output. Compare this with $7 trillion for China. Per capita GDP in the United States is close to $50,000, between six and nine times that of China.

The United States also has the world's most capable armed forces. No other country comes close. Core U.S. defense spending of some $500 billion is greater than that of the next 10 countries combined. The American qualitative military edge will be around for a long, long time.

* There is no peer competitor on the horizon. Yes, China has been growing fast, and its GDP one day will equal or pass that of the United States. But that day will arrive later than many forecast, as Chinese growth is slowing. In addition, China's ability to translate its increasing wealth into power and influence is constrained by a deteriorating natural environment, an enormous and aging population, burgeoning social needs and a political system far less dynamic than the economy and society it seeks to control.

As for the European Union, despite a collective economy slightly larger than that of the United States and a population surpassing 500 million, it punches far below its weight due to it parochialism, pronounced anti-military culture and unresolved tensions between nationalism and unity. Europe also faces prolonged low economic growth.

Japan is saddled with a large debt -- approximately 200 percent of GDP -- while restrictive immigration policies deny the country an opportunity not just to increase its population and lower its average age, but to obtain new ideas and talent. It also labors under the burden of a feudalistic political system and a history that makes most of its neighbors wary of any Japanese reemergence as a political and military power.

Russia will also continue to be held back by its politics. It is hobbled by corruption and is more an oligarchy than a democracy, though the possibility exists for a "Moscow Spring." Russia also has a mostly one-dimensional economy, more influenced by government than markets, that depends on oil, gas and minerals.

In short, the alleged other great powers are not all that great.

* The United States has not acted in a way that has provoked a direct challenge. Yes, doubts about the wisdom and legitimacy of U.S. foreign policy are widespread, but they tend to lead more to denunciations, head-shaking and an absence of cooperation than to outright resistance. …

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