This is a re-up of my monthly column for The Diplomat for November. Here is the original. I must say I don’t find the comments to be particularly helpful over there, so please give me your thoughts.
My primary argument is that the media is far too shallow in judging “US decline” on passing issues of minor relevance to the lineaments of American power. Remember two months ago, when Obama ‘had’ to act in Syria, even against Congress? That his very presidency was in peril, that American would be perceived as weak and lacking credibility? And now, no one is talking about that. Or then there was the idea that Obama missing APEC amounted to handing Asia to
a bullying one-party state with a bad human rights record and no allies ‘rising China’? Good grief. Enough alarmism. Only the vanity of elites who think the very fate of the world hangs on their choices would lead one to believe that some missed meetings and airstrikes will change the balance of power. It won’t.
Always remember that Asian states need the US a lot more than the US needs them. US regional allies need us to hold back China, and even China needs us to buy all their exports and provide a savings safe haven. Sure, we benefit from cheap Asian exports and lending, but that’s a lot less important. The relationship is very asymmetric, and those who tell you otherwise are trying to cover the weakness of many Asian states and their desperation for US attention with bravado that America ‘needs’ Asia. That’s bunk. As I have been trying to argue on this blog for awhile, if they don’t want us in Asia, it’s no big deal for US security, and it’s an economic blow far worse for them than it is for us. And this is getting even more asymmetric as the US becomes energy independent because of fracking – so have fun fixing the Middle East, China! The US Founders identified the luxury of US distance from Eurasia long ago, so forgot all these hyperventilating Asian columnists (Kishore Mahbubani being the most obvious) who resent that America can be a lot more insouciant about Asia than vice versa. *natch
Here’s that essay:
Washington Dysfunction Does Little Damage to the Roots of US Power
The emerging conventional wisdom that China and Russia are somehow getting a leg up on the US because of Putin’s gimmicky Syrian deal, President Obama’s cancelled trip to Asia, and the US government shutdown is misguided. The United States has substantial structural resources of power and influence these cannot match – without changing their political forms so much as to be unrecognizable. That is, the only way China and Russia might seriously contend with US power in medium- and long-term would require the end of the Putinist and Chinese Communist Party oligarchies. Headlines about Obama’s stumbles or GOP intransigence do little to alter this, and it is strange how quickly this meme is spreading, even suggesting that the US is in decline.
Some of this may simply be the news-cycle. Journalists too often focus on the horse-race element of politics – who’s up, who’s down, who will get invited to Davos next year, speak at the next IMF conference, and so on. As Friedersdorf notes, there is a kind of glamor to such reporting. It flatters insiders that their choices are deeply meaningful. It suggests that these same insiders are living at a moment of great historical import and that they are therefore very important. And it is easy to read a few instances of a phenomenon occurring short order (US troubles) as a ‘wave’ or trend (US decline). A fair amount of this is also simply political. Fox News can always be counted on to spin any passing Obama set-backs as a collapse of American credibility in the world and so on. But even more thoughtful American conservatives particularly are prone to see Obama’s outreaches and dealings as signs of weakness
But I imagine the heart of such reporting is its appeals to our human ur-preference that here-and-now human agency has major impacts over structural forces, like economics, demography, or geography, even though much of the social sciences suggests otherwise. But if George W. Bush could do little damage to long-term American power given his (many bad) choices, then it is hard to see Obama doing so. Recall that Bush fought two unfunded wars that achieved little, doubled the national debt, pushed through a massive unfunded Medicare enlargement, presided over the financial industry expansion that sparked the Great Recession, and allowed Karl Rove to deeply divide the electorate with sharply polarizing campaign tactics including the semi-Christianization of the Republican party. Yet American global hegemony survived.
Zack Beauchamp and Daniel Drezner’s correctives are very useful here. They dwell on current medium-term geopolitical strengths, such as the massive global imbalance in defense spending, that America’s economy is still twice the size of China’s, that China is starting to struggle to achieve headline growth, that Russia exports mostly natural resources and weapons, and so on. But there are at least two long-term structures of US power that would be almost impossible for Russia and China to match:
1. Population. It is true that China’s population is four times America’s, but the one-child policy is inverting China’s population in ways whose impacts are almost certainly negative. A natural population skew roughly approximates a pyramid – the most people are at the bottom (the youngest) and the fewest people are at the top (the oldest). The pyramidal shape comes as people naturally die, leaving fewer and fewer people at the top. It is indeed well-known that people are living longer now and that the height of the pyramid – the age of the most elderly – is greater. But the one-child policy also systematically shrinks the bottom cohorts, generating a Chinese population skew today that looks more like a diamond (small on top and bottom, thick in the middle) than a pyramid. When those people in the middle reach the top in the next few decades, they will be supported by far fewer young people than nature would return. This is the root of the widely expected outcome that China will ‘get old before it gets rich,’ which may very well be a first in global history.
Russia’s demographic problems are also severe, and perhaps better known. Its population is just 143 million, rather close to Japan and less than half the size of the US. Russia also suffers from a brain drain of its healthiest and most educated.
By contrast, the US grows at a more normal rate, with a healthy supplement of immigration that keeps the birthrate above the replacement rate (2.1 live births per female). America’s aging is slower, so its political impacts less drastic than will occur in China. In the long-term, all those new Americans represent a massive injection of labor and manpower that fire the economy. China and Russia cannot, in their current forms, tolerate mass immigration, and their political systems highly discourage large families. These Americans will also operate in an economy that encourages risk-taking and innovation far more than cronyist Russia or Confucian China.
2. Geography. If demography is a structural pressure that takes decades to re-direct, geography is all but locked-in. Technology can shrink the relevance of distance but not eliminate it. Claims that missile technology had made the US and USSR ‘neighbors’ during the Cold War, or that globalization had made the world ‘flat’ are exaggerated. Time zones will always wreak havoc on the human body in long-distance travel, and long-haul air transport is not much faster today than it was fifty years ago.
The two wide oceans that divide the US from Eurasia have long been recognized as the foremost bulwarks of American security. The US Founders saw this early and counseled a general policy of distance, if not isolation, from Eurasia. While Eurasian states fought over land, class, and other ‘old world’ social hierarchies, the US could grow and expand off-shore, untouched by Eurasia’s turmoils except in the most dire circumstances. As such, American power, although great for almost 150 years now, has rarely been perceived as a direct threat to Eurasian states far more concerned about proximate neighbors. The US enjoys breathing room no one in crowded Eurasia has; this room allows the US to grow and expand without provoking what international relations theory calls the “security dilemma.” In other words, as the US grew more powerful, that power was mediated by the tremendous distance of the US from many otherwise logical competitors. The ‘lateral pressure’ of its growth is much diminished, because it has only two neighbors. American power, comfortably distant, did not provoke much Eurasian counter-reactions or balancing, even as it expanded.
The comparison to Russia and China is both obvious and striking. Both are encircled. Both have roughly a dozen land borders with other states, and hemmed-in sea access. Both have mixed-to-poor relations with many of their neighbors due to previous wars and invasions. Their elites may dream of contesting the US at the global level as peer competitors, but in reality, they are bogged down in protracted, irresolvable conflicts with secondary peripheral states and fractious provinces, such as Taiwan, Tibet, the Ukraine, and the Caucasus. It is noteworthy in this context that both Russia and China are almost ally-less. Neighbors may trade with them, but almost no one actually wishes to join a bloc with them. America may be the unipole, but the distance of that power makes it far less threatening. It is hard to see any technological solution that would overcome these long-standing problems in Russian and Chinese grand strategy.
So avoid the facile, tabloid-style alarmism of US decline hinging on this or that decision by a mediocre president like Obama. State power is rarely that shallow. The structural depths of American power carried the United States through the disastrous Bush 43 presidency, and they will through the ups-and-downs of Washington’s current dysfunctions.