Can the U.S. Regain Global Supremacy? Should It?

November 08 2008 / by DSMason
Category: Economics   Year: 2009   Rating: 5 Hot

Cross-Posted FromThe End of the American Century.

I argue in The End of the American Century that the U.S. has already lost its global supremacy. But can it recover it? In a globalized and interdependent world, both the country and the world are better off without a superpower.

There is, first of all, both a descriptive (factual) and prescriptive (value judgment) aspect to this question. Will the U.S. regain its superpower status? And should it do so? I believe the answer is negative to both questions, but the reasoning behind them are similar.

Some scholars have argued that the world needs a powerful and stabilizing force, and that the United States is the only country in a position to play this role. The British historian Niall Ferguson has made this case in his book Colossus, as has the U.S. political scientist Michael Mandelbaum in The Case for Goliath. And through much of history, there has been a big single power that has played this role in great swaths of the planet—Rome, Britain, Spain, the Ottomans, etc. All of those are now gone.

The 21st century world is different in several important respects. First, power and influence are more diffuse. There are numerous “rising powers”—China, India, Brazil, Iran, Russia, South Africa—and they are spread all over the globe. None of them want or need a super powerful country encroaching on their turf, or telling them how to behave.

Second, the world is more interdependent, particularly in economic terms—“flat” in Thomas Friedman’s evocative phrase. Prosperity and security are being built on trade, cooperation and compromise. Some countries are bigger and wealthier than others and will naturally play a more substantial role in this globalized community. A “superpower”—economic or military—distorts and destabilizes such a system.

Third, the most important issues facing the globe now require cooperation, consultation, compromise and diplomacy rather than brute strength or intimidation. Global warming, environmental deterioration, epidemics, famine, and drought are the most pressing threats to humanity. All of them require the participation of all states, regardless of their wealth, power and ideology. A superpower, with its tendency to unilateralism and arrogance, can only hinder such cooperation.

For all of these reasons, the U.S. will not, and should not, play the dominant and directing global role that it did through most of the 20th Century.

In addition to these global factors are domestic U.S. ones. In the American Century, the U.S. had the world’s biggest economy, its richest citizens, the best schools, the finest system of medical care, and the most successful democracy. It can no longer make such claims, both because of our own decline in the past two decades, and because other countries have been catching up. Most developed countries now surpass the U.S. in the quality of life, health care delivery, and education, and have much lower levels of poverty, inequality and violence. The vaunted U.S. economy (which for so long was a house of cards built on multiple levels of debt) has now begun an inevitable decline. Until the encouraging results of last week’s election, even the U.S. political system was rickety, with low levels of voting and participation, very unequal representation, erosion of fundamental rights, and questionable electoral outcomes.

So whereas in the 20th Century, the U.S. carried global influence because of its own domestic model of success (in addition to its military strength), it can no longer make those claims of exceptionalism. The rest of the world has caught up.

The U.S. has already lost the status of sole superpower. Even if we wanted it, other countries don’t recognize or accept it. And both the U.S. and the rest of the world will be better off if we don’t regain it.

Comment Thread (3 Responses)

  1. It depends on where the world is going and if Russia and Iran are going to start trouble.

    You know, America fell on its face during the Great Depression and went on to become the premiere country on the planet. America can do the same again because honestly, I don’t see China being dominant since they are having a lot of difficulty getting their act together. With Obama president, it’s cool to be American again. Didn’t you get the memo?

    I am sorry that you like the U.S. but you can’t really say for certainty that we won’t be dominant anymore. All we need to do is lose some weight and eat better and we’ll be in tip top shape in no time. It’s really sad to see so much anti-americanism flying around these days. And if we’re not the superpower anymore, why does everyone still flock to the “land of opportunity”? Oh yeah, that’s right, you can make a lot of money over here and live in freedom.

    Posted by: Covus   November 08, 2008
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  2. The idea that the US is in decline is a myth. It wouldn’t be a disaster if it were true, but it’s still a myth. The US has a GDP five times bigger than (France, Germany, China, the UK) and more than twice as big as Japan. The US has enormous resources and assets. It will take more than a familiar recession, even a deep one, to create terminal decline.

    And even if the decline started it would take a long time. This is part of the reason the British Empire did not pop suddenly, but began a slow decline. The British Empire had military bases and economic links all around the globe. You can’t just wave a magic wand and make them disappear. And even if you could, no country can immediately fill the shoes of the old superpower. Also note that Britain is still a significant European power. Arguably the Roman Empire began its decline 200 years before it was actually “destroyed”.

    It wouldn’t surprise me if the USA was one of multiple, competing/cooperating superpowers for the next 100 years or so. And that’s assuming that China doesn’t do a Japan and halt its economic growth (same for the others). Superpower-dom is not a foregone conclusion.

    Posted by: CptSunbeam   November 09, 2008
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  3. I know as an Australian I am proud of my American brother’s and what they have and can achieve. A majority of the western world can thank the free air they breath and the free speech they enjoy because of this superpower. It would take more than a recession or depression to change that. Every generation of my family has fought for these freedoms. So the only way I see any change to this is through agression… Not a good idea!!!Regardless of the outcome, I, and the vast majority of Australians will stand sholder to sholder with our brother’s and we will not acknowledge any false super power!

    Posted by: LifeORiley   November 10, 2008
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