Discretionary Decline

by Celeste Ward Gventer

 The United States has outlasted at least five previous episodes of declinism and in the last hundred years has navigated the dangerous waters of international politics with surprising adroitness.  It has bested great power rivals, helped stamp out noxious ideologies, and built enduring global institutions. It has done this without sacrificing the legitimacy of its domestic system or crippling its economy by creating a garrison state.  While the country suffers from a variety of pathologies today – fiscal prodigality, declining educational standards and attainment, sclerotic politics, et al – the U.S. also possesses long term advantages compared to its challengers that may end up mattering most for national power in coming decades, as Francis Gavin has pointed out in this forum. If results are what count, America must be doing something right.

But extending America’s time on the broad, sunlit uplands requires not only that global forces outside of U.S. control break our way, but that the U.S. skillfully manages its power in the next few decades. Decline will come, but its timing may depend on choices that will either enhance or weaken the U.S. position.  If ever a time came for the U.S. to husband its power, this is it.

Unfortunately, there is a fiendishly – if curiously – persistent tendency in American foreign policy that risks the opposite: promiscuous military adventures in the name of nation building.  Exorbitantly expensive, improvident in the expenditure of American lives, strategically fraught with peril, and frequently attended by abject failure, incompetence, and waste, the U.S. has nonetheless sought to transform cultures and societies from the Philippines to Vietnam, Afghanistan, Haiti, Iraq, and beyond.  The U.S. can little afford such missions in the coming decades.

This is not a call for isolationism or even offshore balancing.  The U.S. has succeeded when it has engaged with the world, and there are times when it has had strategically defensible reasons to intervene with force (though even these are not without controversy).  The benefits of fighting the Nazis or imperial Japan and even some counter-proliferation and humanitarian interventions, while controversial, have often justified the costs. The difference is that the objective in these engagements was not to transform societies but rather to address core American interests.  What about Germany and Japan, you ask?  Both countries had enormous head starts in terms of wealth, a highly educated workforce and relatively homogeneous societies.  More importantly, these successes were driven less by the desire to refashion societies than the larger, long-term effort to contain communism and Soviet expansion.

Yet America’s penchant for nation building reappears with determined frequency, the proverbial triumph of hope over experience. Iraq was an eight-year, trillion-dollar-plus project resulting in a still troubled, violent nation and ambivalent “ally.”  The United States remains mired in Afghanistan for an eleventh year and counting, and the future there looks grim under even generous assumptions. While arguably neither of these conflicts began with nation building as a core purpose, both soon devolved into such projects, with the attendant results.

Given the poor outcomes, risks, and expense, why is this (seemingly peculiarly American) tendency so tenacious? It is a puzzle, but one can venture a few possible answers.  At least in the last few decades, we intervene because we can. The U.S. military remains the most capable and powerful on earth and, crushing national debt notwithstanding, the country can continue to finance military action on credit.  Since the creation of an all-volunteer force in the 1970s, very few Americans experience any pain when the military is committed or are seemingly aware of what those forces are doing. Less than one percent of the nation serves, and the agony of repeated deployments and the horror of possible (or real) loss of a loved one are restricted to a tiny minority of families and friends. There are other possible reasons, such as a steadily expanding definition of American “interests” in the last twenty years, a growing consensus across the political spectrum for greater activism after September 11th, 2001, and a foreign policy cadre educated in similar institutions, using many of the same texts, and raised in a post Cold-War foreign policy era when the U.S. was at the height of its power.

But these possible explanations are of recent vintage; America’s recurring bouts of enthusiasm for nation building go back much farther.  Perhaps the American can-do spirit is a factor, as well as American hubris.

Whatever the reasons for the U.S.’s historical proclivity for nation building, the coming decades can and should be different.  After over a decade of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan, American policymakers should take this moment to reflect on the causes of this recurring folly, and seek ways to avoid, as a Russian expression would have it, stepping on the same rake.

Nation building risks draining the Treasury, distracting policymakers and analysts from long term global trends, expending lives on problems that are not central to maintaining U.S. power, and exposing the country to needless strategic risk.  The countries that are growing in significance and have seen the greatest advancements in their citizens’ quality of life – from Brazil to India and China – are often those who resisted American intrusions, built their own nations, and focused on growing their power while the U.S. fought its “Long War” in the Middle East and South Asia.  Decline may not be a choice, but the time of its arrival might; U.S. wisdom and prudence in its foreign policy may go a long way towards extending the nation’s predominance.

Celeste Ward Gventer is Associate Director at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law at the University of Texas-Austin.  She previously served as  Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Stability Operations Capabilities.

By winboden Posted in GT2030

Will America Thrive?

by Kristin M. Lord

Ten years into the 21st century, America confronts upheaval abroad and two crises at home, one economic and one a crisis of vitality.  All carry risks for the United States, even dangers.  They are also entwined, in cause and effect, and in the responses required.

Together, these challenges threaten to undermine American power, stature, and confidence.  But, regrettably, the political difficulty of confronting them will tempt American leaders to do precisely the opposite of what is required.  This would be tragic since, in the era we are entering, the United States should be poised to thrive.

The World America Faces

Upheaval abroad encompasses the violent and unpredictable turmoil engulfing the Middle East; cataclysmic natural disasters; the prospect of persistent conflict in Afghanistan and Iraq; China’s evolving ambitions in its neighboring seas and territories; the spread of powerful capabilities to groups and individuals who lack a stake in the international system; and other political, economic or natural eruptions  not yet apparent.

These upheavals are merely symptoms of a broader global power transition now underway — driven by technology, demographic change, and markets, and by powerful new coalitions between people, industries, and states. This transition features the oft-noted rise of new powers such as China, India, and Brazil but also the less-remarked on rise of new powers within states: massive middle classes that will lift vast numbers out of poverty and initiate a period of economic and social dynamism even as they create intense new stresses on resources and the natural environment.  This transition will also create intense new political stresses on governments, which are likely to become more pluralistic even if they do not become more democratic, and pressure to deliver economic growth to nations and jobs to ever growing numbers of individuals even as technology makes some jobs unnecessary.

Within countries, these pressures will spur new competition for influence as new centers of power and populations grow.  (The population of Pakistan, to give just one prominent example, is projected to grow from 169 to 295 million by 2050.)  These political and economic competitions will create new winners and losers, and will spawn anger in some.  While nothing new, those with grievances now have within their reach a historic potential both to connect with others who share their distress and to inflict harm, extensively and far from their native homes.

Globally, as countries compete for jobs and markets, resources and influence, their competition is likely to be cloaked in nationalism as peoples and their political leaders grasp for what unites them as so much pulls them apart.  This competition may usher in more frequent military confrontations, often on the seas or in cyberspace, and always with the risk of escalation.  Yet, given the diffusion of military capabilities and the damage they can wreak, more conflict may not beget more war, at least not between states.  Competition, in many forms, will dominate.  And the United States must be prepared for this world.

America’s Path

Because the world will grow more complex, with more nodes of influence and more vectors of conflict, it may appear to require a vastly higher investment in America’s military, diplomacy, and foreign assistance.   It may seem to require a grand strategy that will align resources and contingency planning for every eventuality.   It may seem to call for an even more robust commitment of American forces abroad to protect wide-ranging interests from wide-ranging threats and to reassure American allies who will be ever more anxious of threats and wary of abandonment.

Yet the scope and scale required of effort required for this approach would be unaffordable.  It would also be counterproductive, and it would drain the lifeblood of American security.  It undervalues key modes of influence and inflates the ability of U.S. government agencies and armed services to control global events.  A different path is necessary.

At its very foundation, American security derives from its strength, which in turn derives from an economy that is robust and adaptive, a society in which mobility is possible and innovation is rewarded, and a shared commitment to justice that extends to all and unites the many in a common venture.  It derives from a sense of vitality and possibility that attracts both dollars and talent, and rewards exertion and ingenuity.  And it is nourished by a thirst for innovation that betters the lives of Americans but also serves the world.  Economic strength generates not only the resources but also the global connections and creative power that will enable the United States to confront the range of unexpected challenges it is likely to face in the future.  Many of these challenges are unpredictable, so the greatest protection against them is 1) strength 2) a dynamism that enables a people to believe that solutions are possible and 3) the agility and wisdom to use those assets well.

This strength and dynamism is in jeopardy.  America’s debt is crippling and, if not addressed, will constrain American options in the years ahead.  Military spending sustained at post-9/11 levels would divert minds and dollars from investments with greater potential to generate sustained economic power; meanwhile, the military acquisitions process is ossified and slow, forcing Americans to overpay for military capabilities, some of which quickly become outdated. Some entrepreneurs and scientists no longer consider America the land of greatest opportunity, and are lured abroad by better-funded laboratories and faster growing markets.  Social mobility in America is declining, and with it the meritocracy that challenges the system and undergirds the social contract in which achievement is rewarded handsomely but ultimately open to all.

Alternatively, a turning inward may seem fitting.  America is overstretched and, in countries around the world, the political grandstanding that accompanies globally diffused power may lead to an America berated, not venerated, even as Americans die protecting others who then curse us and even as America depletes its coffers to help those who then either spurn us or thrive without us. Such isolationism would be erroneous, however, even if it were possible (which is unlikely), and even if retrenchment and rethinking are in fact in order (which they are).  In the world we are part of, global engagement is necessary to both security and prosperity.  Strength will come from connection and leverage not retreat.

To protect America’s national security in the years ahead, then, six things are necessary.

1)      A robust but reshaped military presence in the world, retaining the strength necessary to defend against a range of often unpredictable threats but emphasizing flexibility and limiting America’s visible military footprint, which generates opposition in a world where power is diffusing and nationalism is increasing.

2)      A renewed economic foundation, built on fiscal sanity but also an economy and society that rewards innovation, empowers the many, and allows potential to flourish.  The time of vilifying business must conclude and a more nuanced treatment of business should follow.  The business community is essential to creating the global connections, national wealth and individual opportunities America will need to thrive.

3)      A new appreciation of politics within foreign countries and the dedication to reduce political leverage over the United States by those we do not wish to empower.  This will require new dexterity in American diplomacy, not just by diplomats but also by military leaders and all those who represent American interests on the world stage, with increased sensitivity to the complex political environments of foreign nations , and with greater focus on cultivating relationships with multiple centers of power.

4)      An embrace of both competition and connection, a national mindset that will enable strength, project vitality, and engender resiliency.  America is served well by a vibrant global economy, but must be prepared to compete within in it.  We will not always come out on top.  But we will benefit more than we are hurt; a reaction to limited losses should not torpedo far vaster gains.  Competition strengthens, even as it challenges, and that strength is America’s fiercest weapon.

5)      A recognition that the world will evolve faster than we can predict and in ways beyond our ability to control.  Preparedness will therefore require flexible capabilities, adroitly applied.  Intervention abroad should be undertaken with a fundamental humility about how what we can accomplish.

6)      An acceptance that many of the best, fastest and most responsive solutions to the many stresses described above may not come from government.  However, government can invest in and establish a conducive environment for the more agile private and not-for-profit enterprises that develop these solutions.

Together, these principles would promote economic growth, spur a new national confidence that encourages bold solutions to difficult challenges while improving the lives of individual Americans, and enhancing American power on the global stage.  They could herald a new American exceptionalism, born not of arrogance, but of a renewed potential for greatness.

The world will be increasingly contentious and America will be challenged.  We should face that competition squarely, without fear or resentment.  In the years ahead, security may need to come less from the sword and less still from the shield, and more from leverage, agility and reinvention.  These traits encapsulate America’s history but also its best path forward.  If they are embraced, no country is more poised to thrive in the turbulence that will define the 21st century.

Kristin Lord is Executive Vice President and Director of Studies at the Center for a New American Security.

By winboden Posted in GT2030

The First Five Centuries

By Paul Romer

Any discussion about decline in the US should look to Britain for historical guidance.  

Like the US, Britain started from a position of technological leadership and absolute economic preeminence.  As the technologies diffused, it was doomed by its small population to relative decline. Even if it had maintained its leadership in terms of income per capita, its total GDP would inevitably be eclipsed by GDP in US, just at GDP in the US will surely be surpassed by GDP in China. 

Britain has, nevertheless, remained a world leader. It has an asset that GDP can’t buy.  

Gordon Brown once observed that in establishing the rule of law, the first five centuries are always the hardest. Does this mean that each country follow this same slow path? 

Of course not. The Privy Council now acts as the court of appeal for many nations in the Commonwealth. They retain local executive and legislative capacities, even their existing legal traditions. But through this arrangement, younger nations get instant access to a credible form of judicial independence. The new debate in Britain asks whether this arrangement could voluntarily be extended beyond the Commonwealth. See, for example, the discussion about Honduras’ preparation to send appeals to the Privy Council.

This debate has opened up because of efforts in Honduras to develop a new city-scale reform zone. (For more on this strategy, as highlighted in Brandon Fuller’s recent post.) The conjecture is that Britain could encourage in other places the kind of development that it spurred in Asia by fostering an outpost of British law in Hong Kong. 

If, indeed, the rule of law is among the most important human inventions, the UK could continue to exert for decades — perhaps forever — an outsized influence on world affairs. All it needs to do is keep encouraging the spread of its most important invention. 

Paul Romer is Professor of Economics at New York University’s Stern School of Business and Director of its Urbanization Project. The Urbanization Project addresses a truly historic challenge and opportunity: welcoming an additional 3 – 5 billion people to urban life in less than a century.