Re-Thinking World Power, from Shanghai to Silicon Valley

by Francis J. Gavin

Assessing whether the United States is in decline requires a better sense of what it is that is declining and compared to who or what.  This revolves around the question of state power – what is it, how can it be measured, and how is it different from the past?  From about the middle of the seventeenth century until the end of the last, we had a rough sense of how these things worked.  Core state power was some combination of wealth, geography, and population that could be translated into military power, which is what really mattered in world politics.  This military power was used either to conquer other states, so that the territory and population could be added to the invader’s aggregate power, or to defend or deter such an attack.  There were rough measurements of these kinds of things: the soldiers, tanks, ships, sea port access, land mass, rivers, mountains, population, and natural resources, etc. within a state could be counted and compared to others, and one could get a sense for which of the powers was rising and which was declining.  The United States was obviously endowed with great assets in this system, and was the greatest world power throughout the 20th century.

But how we think about power – its sources, its uses, its measurements – has changed dramatically in the past few decades.  The most important reason is that both the sources and purposes of state power have changed.  Wealth still matters, though how it is created and distributed have changed significantly.  But it is not clear that land and population figure into the formula in the same way it did historically.

Take geography: there are a number of reasons it is less important than it was in the past.  First, the agricultural revolution of the 20th century and globalization’s ability to create an efficient global market for food, commodities, and finished goods means that a state needs far less land to thrive than it did in the past.  Combined with a dramatic drop in birth and death rates, the wealthier countries of the world don’t face the kinds of scarcity that drove fear and conquest in earlier centuries; if anything, their problems are ones of plenty.  Second, conquest is far more difficult than it was in the past.  Nuclear deterrence makes great power war absurd.  But even in non-nuclear countries, invasion and occupation – as we found in Iraq and Afghanistan — is are costly and counterproductive.  Conquest and empires don’t pay like they used to.   In the 21st century, it may be better to be Singapore than Russia.

Nor is it clear that population works like it once did.  Will China and India’s one billion plus people add to their state power?  Part of the answer depends upon the demographic composition of the citizenry and how prepared it is to contribute to the economy.  Will they be an older population, more likely to pressure expensive social welfare and health systems than to innovate, as could be the case in China, Europe and Japan in decades to come?  And in states where the population is younger, will they be healthy and educated in a manner that allows them to add to a nation’s wealth, as opposed to being a source of instability?  Whether fast growing states in South Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America can create the infrastructure necessarily to prepare the majority of their younger populations (and not just an elite minority) to compete in and benefit from a globalized world is an open question.   Even in the realm of military power, the sheer mass of high-population states matters less than having an integrated, educated, well-trained force armed with the latest technologies (outside of the United States, how many militaries around the world could prevail in a contest with the tiny but highly effective Israeli Defense Force?).

For those that are skeptical that the sources and nature of power have changed dramatically, consider the following thought experiment.  Which would be more likely to harm U.S. power: reducing the U.S. military budget to zero (yes, zero) for a year, closing Wall Street for twelve months, shutting down Silicon Valley until next summer, shuttering the Ivy League plus Stanford and MIT, or putting Hollywood on hold for the same length of time?  While in some ways an absurd exercise, just thinking it through reveals how much the source and uses of power have changed in recent times.  A zero military budget would be unlikely to lead to an invasion of the United States by China or Russia.

This exercise also highlights the importance of a particular kind of wealth.  In the past, harvesting wheat, mining coal, and producing steel formed the basis of state power.  Today, the ability to finance, insure, and fund much of the word’s economic activity, to create and distribute cutting edge technologies, to educate and retain the globe’s best minds, and to influence the world’s culture – these matter more now than arming a levee en masse to conquer an undefended Canada.

Despite enormous problems, the United States is actually well placed to thrive in this new world against its competitors.  While it can create countless low-level engineers, it is not clear that China can produce the sustained culture of innovation, transparency, and accountability that creates high-end wealth.  Europe and Japan face fiscal crises worse than ours, with a less favorable demographic pattern to boot.  Other potential competitors – India, Brazil, Turkey – have their merits but are still far from being consequential actors on the world stage.  And should military power once again become the thing that matters most in international affairs, the United States is in a far better position than anyone.

We should not rest on our laurels, of course.  Under these new metrics of power, having a highly-educated, healthy, adaptable, and tolerant population with faith in the institutions that produce stability and encourage robust wealth-production and its fair distribution (such as local, state, and national government, schools, universities, banks, investment firms, media, major corporations, etc) is paramount.  There is much work to do to achieve these goals, but fortunately, the United States has both a head start and built-in advantages that provide a large and potentially growing lead over any potential rival.

Francis J. Gavin is the Tom Slick Professor of International Affairs at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and the Director of the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law at the University of Texas-Austin.

 

By winboden Posted in GT2030

American Decline: Is Perception Always Reality?

by Jason Brooks

The only thing declining in America is our own faith in our capacity for hard work, innovation, and entrepreneurship. America is relatively strong and poised for another surge in ascendancy. However, this is understandably a contested position, so let us consider the notion of American decline.  For a nation to be in decline, it should first be assumed that it is in economic or military decline, or both. Second, it should be assumed that said nation is in decline either relative to the rest of the world or some other nation – usually China is held to be the prime contender. Let’s review each of these propositions in turn, beginning with military decline relative to the rest of the world and then relative to China.

America suffered a devastating homeland attack on September 11, 2001. In response, we mobilized the U.S military, invaded Afghanistan, and rolled into the capital, Kabul, in just a few months cheered on by enthusiastic crowds of Afghans.

In 2003, America invaded Iraq and toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein in a matter of weeks. While many  have criticized the George W. Bush administration and the U.S. Military for falling down on the job in Iraq and Afghanistan in the years after 2003, a very different story can also be told–one of organizational learning and tactical and technological innovation. Learning and innovation occurred on two fronts. First, the U.S. military adapted to the changing nature of conflict in a few short years adopting a counter insurgency strategy that turned the tide of the war in Iraq and has made marked improvements in the Afghan theatre as well.

Second, the U.S. military and the CIA have made staggering progress in waging counterterrorism campaigns, led especially by innovations in intelligence and drone technology. With the help of these tactical and technological innovations, America has all but dismantled Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan and is eviscerating their network in Yemen. Most importantly, the CIA, in conjunction with the U.S. military, succeeded in locating and eliminating Osama Bin Laden.

What about the American role in the Arab Spring and the broader Middle East? With U.S. military leadership, an international coalition supported an indigenous rebel movement in ousting legendary Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi. An impressive aspect of this feat was America’s ability to garner support from regional Arab nations and organizations such as the Gulf Cooperation Council, Arab League, and African Union (not to mention getting European powers to play a leading military role).

The United States also helped guide the Egyptian revolution to a peaceful conclusion culminating in the ousting and recent imprisonment of long time authoritarian President Hosni Mubarak. Now the United States is working with another international coalition of partners (including regional players) to squeeze the Iranian regime in an effort to constrain its nuclear aspirations while at the same time fending off Israeli ambitions to address the problem unilaterally. Those are just a few highlights which, notably, skip over America’s diplomatic inroads in the Middle East and Asia.

Is China rising militarily relative to the United States? Not likely. One aspect of U.S. military exceptionalism is our well-funded, highly trained, all-volunteer force. China relies on a conscript military that is underpaid and poorly trained. China’s defense budget lags well behind America’s. Moreover, the Chinese military has not been seriously combat-tested since the Chinese Communist revolution (brief engagements in the Korean War and Vietnam notwithstanding).  China’s technological capabilities are improving in some areas such as its Anti-Access/Area Denial strategy but, in others, they are far from impressive—not to mention unproven. For example, China now has its first operational aircraft carrier—a Soviet era hand-me-down—that will take China five to ten years to master the operation of.

Conversely, the U.S. military is comprised of combat veterans hardened over a decade of combat in two theatres. During this time, the U.S. military has developed and battle tested leading strategies, tactics, and technologies. Joint operation capabilities are growing and deepening and American reserve units have become ever more integrated while repeatedly proving their salt on the battlefield.

What about economics? Surely the 2008 financial crisis signals America’s economic decline. Not so fast.  Thanks to swift bi-partisan efforts, U.S. government action staved off total economic meltdown, arguably preventing a spiral into depression. Those efforts were much more successful and effective than the political-economic debacle unfolding across the Euro zone.

Since 2008, high oil prices have been a drag on U.S. economic recovery. Moreover, they buoyed vexatious middling petro-states like Venezuela and Iran while propelling others like Russia to the status of emerging economic power. However, high oil prices allowed American innovation and entrepreneurship to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. An American shale oil and gas boom is shaking up the global energy industry led by production innovations such as hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling. This development has reinvigorated the American economy and pushed global oil prices well below the mark needed to sustain the budgets of belligerent petro-states.

The American economy is slowly climbing out of recession only to peer over the precipice and see BRICs crumbling. The BRIC economies are slowing and fading from the limelight. The most important, of course, is China. China’s GDP is slowing; critically, this is a deliberate move on behalf of a Chinese Communist Party (CCP) coming to terms with the fact that prolific Chinese growth is edging toward volatility.

In relative terms, America has little to fret over. While China’s GDP is now the second largest in the world, it is still, per capita, a very poor country.  CCP rule is tenuous and relies heavily on China’s future economic prospects. Overall, China is a long way from realizing economic strength that puts America in relative decline.

As has been demonstrated over the last decade, hard work, entrepreneurship, and innovative ideas allow American’s to transform our problems into “probletunities.”

Jason Brooks is a former U.S. Marine Sergeant, Iraq veteran, and graduate student in the Master of Global Policy Studies program at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at The University of Texas-Austin.

By winboden Posted in GT2030

The Austro-Hungarian Legacy: Creative Citizens Need Innovative Governance

by Jeremi Suri

Vienna was the center of European creativity in the years between 1780 and 1914. It was the city of Mozart and Beethoven. No place could rival its music. It was also the city of Klimt and Kokoschka. Vienna pioneered modern art as we know it. In addition, the Austro-Hungarian capital led the new science of psychoanalysis with the work of Sigmund Freud and his many followers in medicine, philosophy, and literature. The mix of ethnicities and cultures in this uniquely cosmopolitan nineteenth century city made it a true crucible of innovation and creativity. You can still see and hear the remnants of that long-gone golden age today in the music, the art, and the libraries that have outlasted their political masters.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire did not collapse in 1918 because it failed to cultivate new ideas or nurture personal freedom. It was filled with expressive, entrepreneurial, and free-thinking groups. The problem was that the Habsburg political system, which for three centuries had held diverse groups together, generated remarkable wealth, and defeated foreign tyrants (notably Napoleon), failed to adjust to new demands for national independence and democratic participation. Franz-Josef served as Emperor for more than sixty years before his death in 1916, as a pious, hard-working, and fair-minded political leader. He even encouraged equality for Jews at a time of rising anti-Semitism throughout Europe. Nonetheless, the system of imperial monarchy that he directed failed to address the growing demands for independence, development, and wealth redistribution throughout his lands. Despite his efforts, he was a prisoner of a stagnant and outdated set of political institutions.

Even with the best of leaders and institutions, large societies cannot prosper if they cannot adjust to change. At the same time that the cosmopolitan city of Vienna entered a terminal crisis in 1914, much more provincial cities like Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, and Cleveland led a rapid growth in American wealth and power behind their flexible political systems of governance. These midwestern cities were the heart of a Progressive Movement that courageously assessed the needs of businesses and citizens at the time, and experimented with institutions in ways that traditional Europeans would never contemplate. The Progressives believed in the U.S. Constitution, but they took their inspiration from the needs of the time, what William James and John Dewey called a “pragmatic” impulse.

Pragmatic reforms were the engine behind the transformations that allowed American society to grow and adjust while European society stagnated. Americans in the late nineteenth century created the public high school before any other society, with the expectation that all workers needed some basic vocational and intellectual preparation for a modern economy. Americans invested in railroads and highways on a scale that no other society would match until Nazi Germany in the 1930s. Most important, Americans expanded political participation for poor citizens, for immigrants, and for women beyond other countries at the time. (African-Americans, still frequently denied the right to vote in the former Confederacy, were the notable exception to this final trend.)

When the Austro-Hungarian Empire entered the First World War it was a sophisticated but stagnant political regime, unable to harness the creativity of its citizens for victory in war or prosperity thereafter. When the United States entered the First World War it had a still provincial but incredibly dynamic government, ready to experiment with new policies and institutions, best embodied by the creation of the Federal Reserve System to manage a modern economy in 1913, and President Woodrow Wilson’s articulation of the “Fourteen Points” to manage a modern world system in 1918. People in Chicago and Detroit were not better innovators than their counterparts in Vienna, but they had a government that was more responsive and encouraging of their new solutions for contemporary challenges.

This basic historical analysis is the source of my combined frustration and optimism about the future of the United States in the early twenty-first century. Our society is filled with more creative young people than ever before. Just look at our technology, our medicine, our entertainment industries, and our university campuses. No other country has as many diverse individuals pushing the boundaries of innovation on a daily basis. We continue to nurture and attract the best people in these and other fields. American society is as creative as it has ever been, as impressive as the Vienna of Mozart and Beethoven.

The problem is our governance, and that is the source of my frustration. I believe this is a frustration shared by millions of other Americans. Our political system that served us so well in the past does not harness the creativity of our citizens today. It does not address the core challenges that most need flexibility and innovation. Our political system is stagnant and non-responsive to needs across society. Our political system often disgusts us in its daily operations, and it does not inspire us. Citizens do not look up to our politicians for good reason.

Despite all of our new technology, we have failed to build twenty-first century infrastructure for our society. Our electrical power grid, our roads, our airports – they are all crumbling. Despite our remarkable advances in medicine, we have made absolutely no progress during the last decade in delivering health care to all citizens in a way that is affordable, cost-effective, and sustainable. We are, in fact, bankrupting ourselves because we cannot manage the best medicine in the world. And then there is education. Since the 1970s our system of education has failed to provide the social mobility for hard-working people of modest means that it pioneered in prior generations. Children of well-educated professional parents get a high quality education today, preparing them for success. Children of poorly educated non-professional parents get an inferior education, and they are statistically stuck in the same circumstances where they started. What happened to the American dream of self-improvement for the unwashed masses?

The real “game changer” for the American future is whether our society can summon the will to bring the creative impulses of our citizens into government. We have good solutions for our challenges, but they are not getting attention from our government as it exists. American citizens must demand creative leaders and more dynamic political institutions, as they have not in the last decade. American voters must begin, as they did in the late nineteenth century, by electing school board leaders, mayors, and governors who offer innovative policies, not the empty rhetoric about cutting waste or class warfare that animates this year’s presidential election so far. The United States needs more innovative and responsive government if it is to avoid the fate of Habsburg Vienna.

Jeremi Suri holds the Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs at the University of Texas-Austin, where he has appointments in the Department of History, the LBJ School of Public Affairs, and the Strauss Center for International Security and Law

By winboden Posted in GT2030