We’re Still Number One

Reports of U.S. decline as a superpower are greatly exaggerated, says Tufts political scientist
Michael Beckley
“History shows that wealth, innovation and military power trump sheer economic size,” says Michael Beckley. “And by those measures, the United States will outpace China for the foreseeable future.” Photo: Alonso Nichols
July 13, 2015

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The United States is finished as a superpower. Or so you might think from recent media discussion. Bookstores are filled with titles such as The Post-American World and When China Rules the World, and opinion polls show that most Americans believe China is already the world’s dominant economic power.

Michael Beckley, an assistant professor of political science, argues that this view is wrong and that, in fact, the United States has advantages over other nations that will keep it at the top of the global pecking order for the rest of our lives. He recently spoke to Tufts Now about his research.

Tufts Now: How did you get interested in this topic?

Michael Beckley: When the 2008 financial crisis hit, I was a graduate student looking for a dissertation topic. Watching the U.S. economy implode, while other countries like China and India continued to grow rapidly, convinced me that the United States was doomed to decline, and that we needed to figure out a way to make sure U.S. decline happened smoothly and gradually.

So initially I thought I would write a dissertation about “decline management”—that is, how can the U.S. successfully hand off power to another country without sparking a war? But then I looked at the data and realized that the foundations of U.S. power are remarkably solid, and appear set to persist well into this century. I wrote a dissertation about this and then published some preliminary findings in an article in the journal International Security. A current book project of mine, The Unipolar Era: Why American Power Persists, expands on these findings.

Are you arguing that the idea of American exceptionalism is valid?

I want to be clear: Americans aren’t exceptional—there are smart, hard-working people all over the world—but the United States is blessed by exceptional circumstances. Specifically, it enjoys better geography, better institutions and a bigger lead over its rivals than any great power in history.

Geographically, the United States is a natural economic hub and military fortress. In international relations, as in real estate, location matters. If you were going to build a superpower, you’d build it where the United States currently sits. The continental United States contains the world’s largest piece of arable land, enormous stocks of minerals and energy resources and more navigable rivers and natural harbors than the rest of the world combined. The United States is also highly secure; it is surrounded by “friends and fish” (Canada and Mexico and two huge oceans).

How does that compare with the geographic position of other great powers?

The other great powers are packed together in Europe and Asia and often fight each other. For example, China shares sea or land borders with 19 countries, five of which China has fought wars with in the past 70 years. Because it is located in a rough neighborhood, China has to spend lots of money and energy just securing its home territory.

The United States, by contrast, has the luxury of living in the global equivalent of a wealthy, gated community. It is secure at home, so it can project more power abroad. In fact, it has a history of playing divide-and-conquer in Europe and Asia, and swooping in at the end of major wars to claim a share of the spoils. This is all possible because of its fantastic geographic position.

How are U.S. institutions better than others, and why is that so important?

The United States is the most democratic great power in history. Its institutions, though far from perfect, are more decentralized than those of other major nations, past or present. The open nature of the U.S. system not only encourages entrepreneurship and innovation, but also helps the United States suck up investment, technology and smart people from the rest of the world, like a giant sponge.

The U.S. system, with its competitive elections and free press, also helps the United States readjust after foreign policy mistakes and foolish wars. The United States obviously makes mistakes and has fought stupid wars, but historically it has been a better learner than other great powers.

What’s the significance of the lead the U.S. has  over other powers?

With 5 percent of the world’s population, the U.S. commands 25 percent of the world economy, 35 percent of global innovation and 35 percent of world military spending. It has more than 60 allies, and has leading positions in key international institutions. No great power in history has ever enjoyed this large of a power gap over its rivals.

This is important because it’s a lot easier to maintain a lead than to catch up to a superpower. Just like the rich often get richer, the powerful can use their power to stay on top. So while the United States is certainly not bulletproof, its advantages over other countries make the current unipolar system exceptionally durable.

China recently became the world’s largest economy, as measured by gross domestic product, or GDP. Doesn’t that show the U.S. is in decline?

China is obviously a very powerful country, and its economic growth over the past three decades has been remarkable. But GDP matters a lot less than many people think. After all, China was the world’s largest economy for most of its “century of humiliation” from 1839 to 1945, when it was ripped apart by smaller but more advanced countries. Among them was Britain, which ruled a quarter of the globe, despite having a GDP half the size of China’s.

In short, history shows that wealth, innovation and military power trump sheer economic size. And by those measures, the United States will outpace China for the foreseeable future.

Doesn’t GDP measure wealth?

It does, but not very well. GDP measures gross economic output, but wealth comes from net economic output. You would never analyze a business solely by its gross profits; you would also look at its net profits, the profits left over after covering costs. The same principle applies to countries. China’s 1.3 billion people produce a lot of output, but they also consume a ton of resources, they produce a lot of waste, and they demand lots of services. When you subtract all of the costs China bears to support its huge population, there’s surprisingly little wealth left over.

This gets to a broader point—the way scholars measure national power is totally screwed up. We have lots of data, but no study explains which indicators matter most. As a result, different studies cite different indicators and end up talking past one another. Basically, scholars can cherry-pick indicators to support any conclusion they want, so the debate about whether the United States is in decline or not goes on endlessly.

How could we make such discussions more illuminating and constructive?

We need a framework for measuring national power that provides a sound basis for policy analysis, and I’ve assembled one that I believe could be useful. It shows that the power gap between the United States and other countries is larger and has been more stable than most people think.

Marjorie Howard can be reached at marjorie.howard@tufts.edu.