At some point, unfashionable though it is to do so, the United States will have to take stock of its position as a great power. Despite the globalization of a great range of issues, from the environment to terrorism, the world is still substantially directed by the applied influence of its principal countries. And however down-at-the-heel and -mouth it may be, or at least feel sometimes, the U.S. is incomparably the world’s most important country.
It has by far the largest economy and most productive work force, and the greatest military capability. And, though this is not especially an incitement to Americophilia, it has a preponderant pop-cultural influence as well. It also benefits from the retention of a level of collective optimism and national purpose that is comparatively greater than existed when Japan was mounting its great industrial challenge, the Soviet Union was a superpower, and Europe was intoxicated with the mirage of a renascence of its worldwide influence in a flush of Eurofederalist euphoria. This was all less than 25 years ago.
American strategic history evolved quite coherently for 240 years, from agitation (mainly by Benjamin Franklin) for removal of the French in Canada in the Seven Years’ War; to removal of the British from America, by Washington with the vital assistance of the French (induced by Franklin) and propagandized by Jefferson as the triumph of self-evident truths and inalienable rights; to the setting up of a new country with Madison’s Constitution and Hamilton’s Treasury; to maintaining slavery in the South but not tolerating secession (Jackson’s formula); to crushing secession and abolishing slavery under Lincoln; to laissez faire industrial and demographic growth; to tipping the balance for the democracies in the world wars under Wilson and Roosevelt; to the containment of international Communism until it quietly expired.
Since the Berlin Wall came down and the U.S. was left alone at the summit of the world, the country has inexplicably lost its strategic compass and stoked up annual $800 billion current-account deficits, suffered a terrible fiasco in public finances and an alarming self-inflicted debacle in corporate debt; the political class and Wall Street have failed badly, as have many whole industries. The education and justice systems have deteriorated alarmingly. Yet the U.S. has been an overachieving super-nationality compared with the stagnation, dyspepsia, and outright disintegration of, respectively, Japan, Europe, and Russia.
George Washington, in taking leave of the Continental Army in 1783, charged the Continental Congress, which he rightly despised, with the task of defending the new nation and building a strong currency (with no expectation that it would do so). He urged a constitutional convention four years later to establish an “indissoluble union” that would achieve the same ends. Lincoln resolved the question of indissolubility and the republic has been defended, but the recent and current leadership are undermining the currency.
But we would do a huge disservice to America not to realize that nothing has been lost, in strategic terms, that could not be relatively easily recovered, and that America’s position has declined only in relative terms — among its principal natural rivals, in the case of China, and not as starkly as the annoying Chinese ululations of imminent world preeminence would indicate.
The world awaits signs that U.S. deficit reduction is going to be taken seriously, including the projections for Social Security, the nightmare of student loans (over $1 trillion), and the fiscal hecatomb of the states and municipalities. It would not be so difficult: Incentives to increase domestic oil production and rational alternative-energy sources would reduce the current-account deficit and the bankrolls of terrorism-sponsoring states. Consumption and transaction taxes, tax simplification, and fair entitlement reform would reduce the deficit; income-tax cuts would spur a real economic recovery; genuine health care, education, judicial, tort, and penal reform will be produced by real leadership, which always turns up in America eventually.
In 1933, FDR famously said, “Our problems, thank God, concern only material things.” That the country is suffering only from material problems today is not so clear, as standards of public service, corporate and professional ethics, and cultural ambition have deteriorated and an analysis of the implications of that erosion cannot be made glibly or confidently.
But great powers don’t have to have universal health care and current-account surpluses. The vertiginous rise of America was due to capitalization on and refinement of the best of its British heritage (the English language, parliamentary democracy, enterprise economy, independent courts), and the vast wealth of its semi-continent and absence of hemispheric rivals.
It established a durable imbalance of power in its favor at the end of World War II, which enabled it, by patient containment, to induce the bloodless collapse of its last rival standing, Soviet Communism. By pitching the Cold War as a contest between totalitarian, Godless Communism and the Free World, the U.S. bequeathed democracy to the rest of the world. It little mattered that the Free World initially included Franco’s Spain, Salazar’s Portugal, Chiang Kai-shek, Syngman Rhee, the Shah of Iran, the House of Saud, and the bemedaled juntas of Latin America. Most of them were democratized eventually, but the irony is that the U.S. is not today an especially well-functioning democracy, nor one whose operations reflect particularly favorably on the Constitution. Madison and the other authors of the Bill of Rights never intended the U.S. to have six to twelve times as many incarcerated people per capita as other sophisticated democracies; nor to have half the lawyers in the world, accounting for nearly 10 percent of the country’s GDP; nor for the corrupt abomination of the present plea-bargain system; nor for the African Americans, nearly 150 years after their emancipation, to provide nearly five times as large a percentage of prisoners as they comprise of the population.
These less pecuniary issues will be more complicated to deal with than the deficits, since their resolution relies on the spirit of altruistic reform, the motivation of the early abolitionists and the Progressives of a century ago. This spirit is not really now discernible in an America whose politics are governed almost entirely by money: its adequacy of distribution as perceived by principal groups of claimants, and the application of it by interests to the soft points of government. No one today produces legislation like the Roosevelts or Woodrow Wilson did, to make life more equitable. They follow the money and the votes like heat-seeking missiles. This too could change with leadership, but the reform faction now is in the hands of time-warp, Obama quasi-socialists, the authors of the anesthetizing $800 billion stimulus, and other, similar, exaltations of policy.
However, flippant comparisons with the Roman Empire, audible from time to time, are nonsense. That was a city-state based on paganism, oppression, and comparatively sophisticated organization. It never had workable central institutions or even a hard currency, and suborned or intimidated the Mediterranean littoral and Western Europe with sales of citizenship and offices, and military occupation, and distracted the intermittently rebellious masses with bread and circuses.
The U.S. is not desperately overextended, as Rome or even post-war Britain became. With a little encouragement, India, Japan, Russia, Indonesia, South Korea, Thailand, and other regional powers can contain China. And some arrangements can always be made to divide belligerent Muslim countries from one another, if one is not too particular about having reputable allies and protégés. Despite its current sophomoric histrionics, Turkey might take a lead there. Obama’s petulant withdrawal from Iraq may have scuttled whatever chance there was of long-term power-sharing in Iraq; nonetheless, continued American involvement in the region is not particularly necessary, or even credible. The U.S. hasn’t contributed anything to Middle East peace since the Bush-Sharon settlements agreement, which this administration has tried to pretend did not happen. Europe is under no threat apart from its own lassitude. The U.S. can put its own house in order without unduly discountenancing any other country.
Great powers can endure much more disappointing and unsuccessful government than the U.S. has had lately, as China, a corrupt dictatorship of a largely command economy in a country that still includes over 750 million almost indigent peasants, demonstrates. Terrorism, though ghastly and barbarous, is a nuisance, like the 19th-century Assassins, not an alternative authority in the world.
America’s best days are not ahead of it, as platitudinous Republican orators tediously claim at every opportunity, but the future can be a bright and extended plateau. As the British say, it is all to play for.