Column: Continued U.S. Pre-eminence Is Likely But Not Certain

It was in 1941 that Henry Luce exhorted his countrymen to eschew isolationism, enter the war and make the 20th century the first great American century. Fulfilling his vision, the United States managed a historic trifecta, prevailing in two world wars and the subsequent Cold War.

If Luce were alive today, he would no doubt be tempted to urge his fellow citizens to make the 21st century the second great American century. This one, however, would focus not on winning ideological struggles and thwarting totalitarian bids for dominance, but on creating meaningful rules and international arrangements to contend with the defining challenges of the era: climate change, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, infectious and noncommunicable diseases, trade and investment protectionism, terrorism and providing for the 9 billion people who will soon inhabit this planet.

This notion of a second American century may seem bizarre, given the country’s obvious domestic troubles — from poor schools and crumbling infrastructure to mounting debt and low economic growth — and its external challenges, including terrorism, a rising China, an antagonistic North Korea that has nuclear weapons and an equally hostile Iran that appears to want them.

Nevertheless, we could already be in the second decade of another American century. Here are six reasons:

To start, the United States is and will remain for some time first among unequals. This country boasts the world’s largest economy; its annual GDP of almost $16 trillion is nearly one-fourth of global output. Compare this figure with $7 trillion for China and $6 trillion for Japan. Per capita GDP in the United States is close to $50,000, somewhere between six and nine times that of China.

The United States also has the world’s most capable armed forces. No other country comes close to competing with it on the modern battlefield. Even with the sequester, core U.S. defense spending of some $500 billion is greater than that of the next 10 countries combined. The American qualitative military edge will be around for a long, long time.

Second, there is no peer competitor on the horizon. Yes, China has been growing fast, and the day will come when its GDP equals or passes that of the United States. But that day will arrive later than many forecast, as Chinese growth is slowing. In addition, China’s ability to translate its increasing wealth into power and influence is constrained by a deteriorating natural environment, an enormous and aging population, burgeoning social needs, and a political system far less dynamic than the economy and society it seeks to control.

Nor is any other major power in a position to challenge the U.S. Despite a collective economy slightly larger than that of the United States and a population surpassing 500 million, the European Union punches far below its weight in the world as a result of its parochialism, pronounced anti-military culture, and unresolved tensions between nationalism and the commitment to building a collective union. Europe also faces prolonged low economic growth.

Japan, meanwhile, is saddled with a large debt — approximately 200 percent of GDP — while restrictive immigration policies deny the country an opportunity not just to increase its population and lower its average age but to obtain new ideas and talent. The nation is also limited by political parties that are more like personal fiefdoms and the burden of a history that makes most of its neighbors wary of any Japanese re-emergence as a political and military power.

Russia will also continue to be held back by its politics. It is hobbled by corruption and is more an oligarchy than a democracy, though the possibility exists for large-scale popular protests, a “Moscow Spring” that would challenge the legitimacy and durability of the regime. Russia also has a mostly one-dimensional economy, more influenced by government than markets, that depends on oil, gas and minerals.

In short, the alleged other great powers are not all that great. None has the means to overthrow the existing order and, at least as important, none is committed to doing so. Each is largely preoccupied with its own economic, social and political problems. This is the third reason the century could turn out well for Americans.

Fourth, the United States has not acted in a way that has provoked a direct challenge. Yes, doubts about the wisdom and legitimacy of U.S. foreign policy are widespread, but they tend to lead more to denunciations, head-shaking and an absence of cooperation than to outright resistance. The world’s most powerful countries may not always agree with the U.S. but they do not normally see America as implacably hostile or as an impediment to their core objectives. Meanwhile, challenges from the likes of Iran, North Korea and al-Qaeda, while significant, are neither global nor existential.

The last two reasons the 21st century could replicate the 20th — America’s unique demographics and the potential for renewed economic growth — relate to this country’s internal advantages. The gods have smiled on the United States, providing its citizens with vast stretches of arable land, plentiful fresh water and bountiful energy reserves. Indeed, those reserves have recently become more bountiful thanks to technologies that have dramatically increased the production of oil and gas.

The U.S. population is large but not so large that it is a major burden. More important, the population is relatively balanced by age. The ratio of working-age people to those too young or too old to work is better in the United States than almost anywhere else in the developed world, leaving this country better positioned to deal with its looming social obligations.

The United States has one other big demographic advantage: the mix and talent of its society. This is the most open country in the world, by a long shot. America accepts more than 1 million immigrants a year on a permanent basis, far more than any other nation. Numerous studies highlight the positive links between immigration, innovation and entrepreneurship. One statistic alone — that immigrants established nearly one-fifth of the Fortune 500 companies — speaks volumes.

The final reason to be upbeat about the prospects for a new American century is the potential to return to high rates of economic growth. The country’s post-World War II average is slightly above 3 percent, impressive for an advanced economy and well above the current pace. The United States can get back to this level or even surpass it because of the world-class quality of much of American higher education, the availability of capital for business start-ups, a legal system that encourages risk and does not unduly penalize failure, and a culture of innovation.

There is nothing inevitable, however, about American sway over this century. The advantages this country enjoys are neither permanent nor sufficient to ensure continued primacy.

So, what needs doing? A partial list includes fixing broken public schools, repairing or replacing aged infrastructure, modernizing immigration policy, reforming health care, negotiating new trade accords, lowering corporate taxes, reining in spending on entitlements, and reducing debt as a share of GDP. Abroad, it includes resisting wars of choice where the interests at stake are less than vital and where there are alternatives to the use of force. This would also mean accepting that we cannot remake other societies in our image.

What stands in the way of the next American century is American politics. To paraphrase Walter Kelly’s Pogo, we have met the problem, and we are it. Special interests often crowd out the general national interest. Partisanship can be healthy but not when it leads to an inability to govern and to make difficult choices.

Either we resolve our political dysfunction, rethink our foreign policy and restore the foundations of American power — and in the process provide another century of American leadership — or we fail. The alternative to a U.S.-led 21st century is not an era dominated by China or anyone else, but rather a chaotic time in which regional and global problems overwhelm the world’s collective will and ability to meet them.

Richard N. Haas is president of the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of Foreign Policy Begins at Home: The Case for Putting America’s House in Order.