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.
American retrenchment could have devastating consequences. Without an American security blanket, regional powers could rearm in an attempt to balance against emerging threats. Under this scenario, there would be a heightened possibility of arms races, miscalculation, or other crises spiraling into all-out conflict. Alternatively, in seeking to accommodate the stronger powers, weaker powers may shift their geopolitical posture away from the United States. Either way, hostile states would be emboldened to make aggressive moves in their regions.
As rival powers rise, Asia in particular is likely to emerge as a zone of great-power competition. Beijing’s economic rise has enabled a dramatic military buildup focused on acquisitions of naval, cruise, and ballistic missiles, long-range stealth aircraft, and anti-satellite capabilities. China’s strategic modernization is aimed, ultimately, at denying the United States access to the seas around China. Even as cooperative economic ties in the region have grown, China’s expansive territorial claims — and provocative statements and actions following crises in Korea and incidents at sea — have roiled its relations with South Korea, Japan, India, and Southeast Asian states. Still, the United States is the most significant barrier facing Chinese hegemony and aggression.
Given the risks, the United States must focus on restoring its economic and fiscal condition while checking and managing the rise of potential adversarial regional powers such as China. While we face significant challenges, the U.S. economy still accounts for over 20 percent of the world’s GDP. American institutions — particularly those providing enforceable rule of law — set it apart from all the rising powers. Social cohesion underwrites political stability. U.S. demographic trends are healthier than those of any other developed country. A culture of innovation, excellent institutions of higher education, and a vital sector of small and medium-sized enterprises propel the U.S. economy in ways difficult to quantify. Historically, Americans have responded pragmatically, and sometimes through trial and error, to work our way through the kind of crisis that we face today.
The policy question is how to enhance economic growth and employment while cutting discretionary spending in the near term and curbing the growth of entitlement spending in the out years. Republican members of Congress have outlined a plan. Several think tanks and commissions, including President Obama’s debt commission, have done so as well. Some consensus exists on measures to pare back the recent increases in domestic spending, restrain future growth in defense spending, and reform the tax code (by reducing tax expenditures while lowering individual and corporate rates). These are promising options.
The key remaining question is whether the president and leaders of both parties on Capitol Hill have the will to act and the skill to fashion bipartisan solutions. Whether we take the needed actions is a choice, however difficult it might be. It is clearly within our capacity to put our economy on a better trajectory. In garnering political support for cutbacks, the president and members of Congress should point not only to the domestic consequences of inaction — but also to the geopolitical implications.
As the United States gets its economic and fiscal house in order, it should take steps to prevent a flare-up in Asia. The United States can do so by signaling that its domestic challenges will not impede its intentions to check Chinese expansionism. This can be done in cost-efficient ways.
While China’s economic rise enables its military modernization and international assertiveness, it also frightens rival powers. The Obama administration has wisely moved to strengthen relations with allies and potential partners in the region but more can be done.
Some Chinese policies encourage other parties to join with the United States, and the U.S. should not let these opportunities pass. China’s military assertiveness should enable security cooperation with countries on China’s periphery — particularly Japan, India, and Vietnam — in ways that complicate Beijing’s strategic calculus. China’s mercantilist policies and currency manipulation — which harm developing states both in East Asia and elsewhere — should be used to fashion a coalition in favor of a more balanced trade system. Since Beijing’s over-the-top reaction to the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to a Chinese democracy activist alienated European leaders, highlighting human-rights questions would not only draw supporters from nearby countries but also embolden reformers within China.
Since the end of the Cold War, a stable economic and financial condition at home has enabled America to have an expansive role in the world. Today we can no longer take this for granted. Unless we get our economic house in order, there is a risk that domestic stagnation in combination with the rise of rival powers will undermine our ability to deal with growing international problems. Regional hegemons in Asia could seize the moment, leading the world toward a new, dangerous era of multi-polarity.
— Zalmay Khalilzad was the United States ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq, and the United Nations during the presidency of George W. Bush and the director of policy planning at the Defense Department from 1990 to 1992.