Today, economic and fiscal trends pose the most severe long-term threat to the United States’ position as global leader. While the United States suffers from fiscal imbalances and low economic growth, the economies of rival powers are developing rapidly. The continuation of these two trends could lead to a shift from American primacy toward a multi-polar global system, leading in turn to increased geopolitical rivalry and even war among the great powers.
The current recession is the result of a deep financial crisis, not a mere fluctuation in the business cycle. Recovery is likely to be protracted. The crisis was preceded by the buildup over two decades of enormous amounts of debt throughout the U.S. economy — ultimately totaling almost 350 percent of GDP — and the development of credit-fueled asset bubbles, particularly in the housing sector. When the bubbles burst, huge amounts of wealth were destroyed, and unemployment rose to over 10 percent. The decline of tax revenues and massive countercyclical spending put the U.S. government on an unsustainable fiscal path. Publicly held national debt rose from 38 to over 60 percent of GDP in three years.
Without faster economic growth and actions to reduce deficits, publicly held national debt is projected to reach dangerous proportions. If interest rates were to rise significantly, annual interest payments — which already are larger than the defense budget — would crowd out other spending or require substantial tax increases that would undercut economic growth. Even worse, if unanticipated events trigger what economists call a “sudden stop” in credit markets for U.S. debt, the United States would be unable to roll over its outstanding obligations, precipitating a sovereign-debt crisis that would almost certainly compel a radical retrenchment of the United States internationally.
Such scenarios would reshape the international order. It was the economic devastation of Britain and France during World War II, as well as the rise of other powers, that led both countries to relinquish their empires. In the late 1960s, British leaders concluded that they lacked the economic capacity to maintain a presence “east of Suez.” Soviet economic weakness, which crystallized under Gorbachev, contributed to their decisions to withdraw from Afghanistan, abandon Communist regimes in Eastern Europe, and allow the Soviet Union to fragment. If the U.S. debt problem goes critical, the United States would be compelled to retrench, reducing its military spending and shedding international commitments.
We face this domestic challenge while other major powers are experiencing rapid economic growth. Even though countries such as China, India, and Brazil have profound political, social, demographic, and economic problems, their economies are growing faster than ours, and this could alter the global distribution of power. These trends could in the long term produce a multi-polar world. If U.S. policymakers fail to act and other powers continue to grow, it is not a question of whether but when a new international order will emerge. The closing of the gap between the United States and its rivals could intensify geopolitical competition among major powers, increase incentives for local powers to play major powers against one another, and undercut our will to preclude or respond to international crises because of the higher risk of escalation.
The stakes are high. In modern history, the longest period of peace among the great powers has been the era of U.S. leadership. By contrast, multi-polar systems have been unstable, with their competitive dynamics resulting in frequent crises and major wars among the great powers. Failures of multi-polar international systems produced both world wars.