Back to the Future
What 19th-century Britain can teach 21st-century America


Jim Lacey

The great strategic narrative of our time is about American decline. However, although we are facing some brisk economic headwinds that our political leaders seem clueless in dealing with, I remain unconvinced that we have entered a period of terminal decline. As Adam Smith noted two centuries ago, “There is a great deal of ruin in a nation.” At some point Americans, in their infinite wisdom, will elect officials committed to setting the ship of state on a sustainable fiscal course. One only hopes they will get around to it before financial collapse is staring the country squarely in the face.

In any case, our current $15 trillion economy means we are still, by a wide margin, the biggest kid on the block — a condition that is likely to continue for some time. Even if China maintains its remarkable growth for another couple of decades — a big if — it will only surpass us in the overall size of its economy. The United States will remain well ahead when economic power is measured on the basis of GDP per capita. This means that even if China becomes the world’s largest economy, huge numbers of its population will remain mired in deep poverty. In strategic terms, such poverty will limit China’s ability to mobilize enough of its economic power to build the type of military force required to challenge the United States on a global scale. Unless, of course, we decide to opt out of our current role and hand global leadership to the Chinese by default.

Although China remains decades away from becoming a true global power and peer competitor to the United States, its growing wealth ensures two things: China already is and will remain a regional superpower, capable of contesting U.S. power in regions we consider crucial to our future security. And China is not alone. The “rise of the rest” will, over the next couple of decades, present the United States with a radically changed strategic environment, one in which America remains the world’s dominant power, but in which over a dozen nations can make life difficult for us militarily. Of course, through the adroit use of diplomacy and the smart use of our economic and military power, we might well be able to persuade these nations to join us instead of challenging us, and help ease our strategic burdens.

Nothing about this new multi-polar world is truly new. This is the world as it has always been. Since the collapse of the Roman Empire there has not, until our current era, been an uncontested superpower. Although the United States enjoyed that role for most of the last generation, our uni-polar moment was always destined to end. When it does, we will once again have to master the old arts of diplomacy, so as to create the balances of power that can check potential enemies and support our friends.

We find ourselves in an emerging environment not unlike the one Britain was in from 1815 to the beginning of World War I. With the defeat of Napoleon, Britain became the superpower of the age. Through its uncontested control of the seas, Britain maintained a global empire, enforced the admittedly imperfect Pax Britannica, and maneuvered to balance the other great powers of Europe. Moreover, because of its head start in the Industrial Revolution, it was by a wide margin the globe’s dominant economic and financial power for nearly a century.