US battling against its own decline
Leaders define a set of goals for a group and lay out acceptable strategies to achieve them, as the US did after the second but not the first World War. Naturally, outcomes reflect leaders’ interests, but these must be expressed in institutions that facilitate co-operation and are less costly than war.
Power, authority and influence and relative or absolute decline must now be assessed against six criteria, Keohane suggested.
Geography still matters, since physical boundaries reduce authority. Demography too remains central, since size confers it. Economic resources are crucial determinants of power, but they are hugely affected by reliability and policy coherence. Soft power – the ability to project values others accept – is arguably as important as the hard military kind. And, finally, nationalism, meaning the ability to accomplish great things together with emotional solidarity, mobilises and empowers leadership.
Measured against these criteria Keohane evaluated the prospects of the US, the EU and China as world leaders over the next 10 to 20 years, the three most plausible candidates for that role. On geography the order is US, China, EU; on demography China, EU, US; on economics US, EU, China; on reliability and coherence US, China, EU; on soft power US, EU, China; and on nationalism US, China, EU.
On this rough but useful benchmarking the US remains predominant over the coming period. But there are many uncertainties, including China’s fate, the outcome of the global financial crisis, whether Iran and Israel will be prudent or reckless – and not least whether the US itself can be sufficiently coherent to exert the leadership otherwise available to it. That will depend on overcoming its endemic political gridlock, raising taxes and finding compromises on welfare entitlements.
This is a relatively optimistic scenario for the US. It probably underestimates the sheer pace of China’s recent economic catch-up. One writer has described the US’s loss of some 30 per cent share of world output as a far greater loss of relative power in a shorter time than any power shift among European great powers from the end of the Napoleonic wars to the second World War. It may also underestimate the EU’s ability to repair itself, though Keohane doubts it can. Historically such transitions are dangerous and can lead to wars.
The two US military studies call for a radical cut in the US military budget, major compromises with China, withdrawal from Europe, and boosting infrastructure and education to regain smart growth. It’s a tall and perhaps unachievable order.