America – with its Unique Resilience – Remains the Indispensible Power     Print Email
Heinrich Kreft

Despite Barack Obama's election victory as impressive evidence of the vitality of U.S. democracy, the financial crisis emanating from that country has set off voices, again announcing its demise. Once more this is premature, at best: the resilience of the United States is chronically underestimated.

True, the 44th President will inherit a difficult legacy and daunting challenges: a sustained financial and economic crisis, huge budget deficits and trade deficits, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and his country's seriously damaged international reputation as a result of his predecessor's controversial war on terror. Phrases such as "imperial moment" and "hyperpower" status (in which a majority of Americans never believed anyway) already seem forgotten. U.S. decline seems all the more plausible as rising countries such as China and India, Russia and Brazil – and the European Union too – keep extending their economic, and hence political, influence and thus seem bound to at least dilute the leading international position of the United States.

Together with these major weaknesses and challenges, however, the United States possesses enormous strengths. They form a foundation on which the U.S. can continue – for a good long time to come – to play the leading role in an emerging multi-polar world. These strengths include:

Demography

The United States not only possesses large deposits of natural resources and vast areas of productive farmland but also enjoys favorable demographic trends in the medium and long term. Thanks to immigration and a high birth rate, the United States has a young population compared with those of its potential competitors. The U.S. population is likely to increase by 65 million by 2030 to over 370 million – in contrast, population growth is stagnating in Europe. So by 2030 Europe will have twice as many senior citizens (over the age of 65) as children (under 15) whereas the U.S. will still have more children than senior citizens. The ratio of working-age people to pensioners in Europe will fall from the present level of 3.8:1 to 2.4:1, while in the U.S. the decline will be from today's 5.4:1 to 3.1:1. This makes the financial burden of an ageing population far less onerous in the U.S. The same trend is even sharper when comparing the U.S. with Russia, Japan and China (where the long-standing policy of one child per family is exacerbating problems in the country's welfare system).

Business and research

In spite of the present crisis, the U.S. economy has been historically vibrant. Its GDP of almost 14 trillion dollars accounts for more than a quarter of the world's aggregated domestic product and over the past 25 years averaged more than 3 percent annual growth – significantly higher than in Europe and Japan. U.S. productivity growth has exceeded that of Europe by a full percentage point over the last ten years. The U.S. economy is adaptable and more innovative than any other. It has the world's biggest and best universities and research institutes. (Its research establishments regularly occupy three quarters of the top slots in global ratings.) The Davos-based World Economic Forum acknowledges the U.S. economy as the most competitive in the world, identifying its particular strengths in crucial strategic areas such as nanotechnology and bioengineering. The United States also trains more engineers in relation to its population than any other major economy. It invests 2.6 percent of GDP in higher education – compared with 1.2 percent in Europe and 1.1 percent in Japan. Even if the present recession were to bite harder in the United States than in Europe and elsewhere, the basic conditions described above probably ensure that the country emerges strengthened from the crisis.

Military power

In the military domain, no other country comes close to matching the capability of the United States. No other country is able to project its military power on a global scale. The United States' defense budget is bigger than the combined total of the 14 countries that follow it in the table of military expenditure, accounting for almost 50 percent of global military spending. (The United States spends six times more than its only potential rival, China, even using the unofficial estimates of the Chinese defense budget as triple the official figure.) Current U.S. defense spending (4.2 percent of GDP) remains far below the 6.6 percent figure under the Reagan Administration. Even if the cost of intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan runs to an annual figure of $125 billion that is less than one percent of GDP (the Vietnam War cost 1.6 percent of GDP in 1970). Military power is not the reason for U.S. strength but its consequence. It is fuelled by the solid economic and incomparable technological foundations of the United States.

Soft power

The war in Iraq (and consequences such Guantánamo Bay and Abu Ghraib) have severely dented the image of the United States, diminishing its "soft power." But the structural components of U.S. soft power remain intact – from U.S. mass culture (including the dominance of American providers in global communication media such as the Internet and television) to the unflagging appeal of its universities for the world's best and brightest. Of all students studying abroad, 30 percent are enrolled in U.S. universities. The election of Barack Obama as President has restored much of U.S. "soft power," according to Joseph Nye, the Harvard professor who coined the term. This assessment may be premature, but the new President has a great opportunity to make rapid and lasting improvements to the United States' image in Europe and elsewhere.

The will to lead and to shape the future

Part of the ability to exercise leadership is the political will to do so. Even if the experience of recent years with the intervention in Iraq and some of its disastrous consequences have reduced the ranks of advocates of an interventionist U.S. foreign policy to a small minority, it is hardly likely to have given rise to a second "Vietnam trauma" marked by an instinctive escape into isolationism. Under Obama, the United States will not devote itself to maintaining the status quo, but it will continue to support democratization globally on the basis of a conviction that democracy is the most legitimate form of government. The policy of using military power to bring about regime change, however, will be abandoned for the foreseeable future.

Potential rivals

There is no doubt that the relative power of the United States in the world is diminishing. The percentage contribution of the U.S. economy to global GDP is falling, particularly because the emerging economies of the populous newly industrialized countries are growing faster than the U.S. economy. The global connections of the U.S. economy are also expanding rapidly, particularly with the People's Republic of China, which has replaced Japan as the United States' main creditor. Europe has become the preferred partner for many countries. In spite of these developments, however, there has been scarcely a sign, not even here in Europe, of any significant "ganging up" on the United States, which has been extremely unpopular here under the presidency of George W. Bush. No country or coalition of countries has emerged as a credible adversary or worthy rival if one sets aside the long-term possibility that China might one day be able to mount a serious challenge to the United States.

Europe

Europe's GDP is larger than that of the United States, and in the realm of economic and fiscal policy the EU has long been an equal partner of the United States. But for want of progress in political unification, the Europeans are not yet strategic players on the world stage. So the EU at best is a major power in the making. With Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy in charge in Berlin and Paris, the principal EU capitals, there has been a reversion to a more realistic view of the union's role in the world: their immediate predecessors seriously harbored the intention of making the EU a counterweight to the American "hyperpower."

Russia

Russia undoubtedly has the political will to challenge the United States. Over the past two years, Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev have scarcely missed any opportunity to stake their country's claim. With a national economy comparable in size to that of the Benelux countries, however, its economic basis is too weak and its dependence on revenue from energy exports too great. These factors, along with a spectacular decline in the size of the population (already only half that of the United States), hardly provide a basis for Russia to aspire to global leadership, even in the long term.

China

China has a great interest in internal and external stability. Although China has achieved an impressive economic, and hence political, upsurge over the past 30 years, the social and environmental "debit side" of this development is becoming ever more plainly visible. Since China's high rate of economic growth, which is regarded as a prerequisite for the country's social stability, and thus its political stability, is dependent on exports and on imports of raw materials and energy sources, China has a great interest in global free trade and stable international relations.

India

India undoubtedly possesses great growth potential. But its oversized bureaucracy and inadequate infrastructure still weigh like millstones on this emerging economy. There are also major social challenges and a growing terrorist threat of the sort seen in the recent attacks in Mumbai. India needs regional stability to be able to concentrate on its major domestic challenges.

Japan

Japan has a declining, ageing population, and the idea of playing a leading role in international politics is alien to its political culture. In view of the growing strength of China, whose long-term political intentions are distrusted in Tokyo, Japan's relations with the United States, particularly in the realm of security policy, have become even closer in recent years.

For the time being, all potential rivals are lacking either the will or the strength to challenge the leadership of the United States. This is due in part to U.S. policy since the Second World War, which has been designed to ensure that these countries do not perceive the United States as a threat to their vital national interests. Moreover, the United States has created and maintained an international order from which these and other countries have greatly benefited and the preservation of which remains very much in their interests.

Still the indispensable nation

During the election campaign, both Barack Obama and his Republican opponent John McCain expressed the view that the United States is and ought to remain the guarantor of international stability and the indispensable stabilizing power. Against the backdrop of the present financial and economic crisis and the rekindled discussion about the decline of U.S. power, it is easy to overlook the fact that the United States is structurally superior to all other countries today and will remain so for the foreseeable future. Beyond the assets cited above, liberal political and economic traditions are the ingredients of U.S. superiority. It has a capacity to heal its own wounds unmatched by any other country. The United States is frequently underestimated, and we Germans are no less prone to that mistake than others.

From the perspective of the President-elect and his advisers, more U.S. leadership rather than less is needed in present-day international politics. The threats currently posed by the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, by terrorists operating on a global scale and by "failed" and "failing" states but also by climate change and risks to energy and food security demand vigorous involvement on the part of the United States. It is clear to the new team that the security and prosperity of U.S. citizens depend on the security and well-being of the people of other countries.

In Obama's view, leadership means, first and foremost, leading by example – an approach that distinguishes him sharply from his predecessors. By contrast with George W. Bush, he is not likely to let his foreign and security policy be guided by the war on terror. Even though no one could suggest that the danger of terrorist attacks on U.S. facilities abroad or within the United States has been eliminated, Obama's statements during and after the election show his intention to opt for a liberal and multilateralist interpretation of his country's leadership role. To this end, he might borrow from the U.S. foreign-policy blueprint that emerged after 1945 and revive the role of a liberal or benign hegemon for the United States. It is no coincidence that he not only cited Franklin D. Roosevelt on domestic issues during the presidential campaign but also embraced Roosevelt's vision of a new multilateral world order which created international institutions whose rules were to apply to all countries, including the United States. Obama wants the existing institutions to be reformed because they still reflect the world of the immediate post-war years and need to be adjusted to take account of subsequent shifts in the balance of power and thus be made stronger. In particular, emerging powers such as India, Brazil, South Africa, and Nigeria would be given greater responsibility. He wants to see new institutions or agreements, particularly with a view to strengthening the global financial architecture in the light of lessons learned from the current crisis in the financial markets. With regard to the shift in the balance of power to and within Asia, the Obama administration is confronted with the question as to how China can be integrated into the East Asian and Pacific region in the field of security, and Obama apparently intends to form a permanent security forum for the region, building on some strategic reflections of the Bush administration that led to the institutionalization of the six-party talks designed to resolve the second North Korean nuclear crisis.

As the incoming President, Obama has raised great expectations, not only in his own country but throughout the world. Besides a substantial contribution to solving global problems, what is most expected of him is strong international leadership by Washington.

 

By Dr. Heinrich Kreft, a German Career Diplomat and currently the Senior Foreign Policy Advisor to the CDU/CSU Parliamentary Group in the German Bundestag