America’s Undiminished Power of Attraction
Image Credit: Flickr (The White House)

America’s Undiminished Power of Attraction


President Obama has nominated two representatives who will lead United States trade talks over the next two years: Michael Froman, former White House economic aide as U.S. Trade Representative and Penny Pritzker, Hyatt scion and Chicago fund raiser as the new Secretary of Commerce. Together their appointments signal America’s new focus on increasing international trade as a stimulus to the domestic economy. The two representatives will deal with proposals for a customs accord with the European Union (TAFTA and an investment agreement) and a commercial union with Pacific nations in the Trans-Pacific Partnership. But the new stress on trade represents a more profound reorientation than just a new way of seeking economic development. It underscores America’s undiminished power of attraction to other countries in both international politics and economics.

Many have speculated that the (relative) decline in U.S. GDP compared with rising Asia (only partly offset by the recent inclusion of new investment indicators in GDP measures) could inaugurate a new era of global uncertainty and instability. These critics have correctly pointed out that rising countries frequently get into conflict with established hegemonic powers as Germany did with Britain in 1914 and as Russia did for a considerable time with America after 1950. Harvard’s Joseph Nye and others have countered that America’s “soft power” partly mitigates this decline. A country’s “soft power” offered a global example of effectiveness in its society, democracy, or culture which other countries might be tempted to emulate.

More important, however, is the political and economic attraction which flows from America’s soft power as well as from trade arrangements the U.S. is consummating with Europe and Asia.

In the past great theorists like Machiavelli and later Hobbes never understood that the balance of power could be transformed internationally. They did not realize that the world was not condemned to endless balance of power rivalries. Every now and then “powers of attraction” would create a stunning overbalance of force in which joining parties would emerge satisfied. In Europe it did so for a half century after 1815. The Cold War came to an end because the United States had created an overbalance of power that made Soviet resistance counterproductive and ultimately attracted Moscow to begin (the still unfinished) process of political and economic reform.

Today, the United States stands athwart Asian and European worlds. It offers trade and investment to both continents. The attractive force of America’s open invitation to join a greater economic unit can change the game of world politics. If TAFTA and an investment agreement are negotiated, the U.S. and the EU would then represent an economic unit of $32 trillion, about half of world GDP (of $61 trillion). If TPP emerges, it would combine an additional $2.3 trillion; if Japan, Canada and Mexico join, as seems likely, another $7.9 would be inputted into the growing commercial enterprise, rendering a total of over $40 trillion.

Those who center attention on the U.S.- China rivalry and its potential consequences do not fully observe the attractive force of customs unions in this process. China’s $8 trillion GDP could not stand against or balance such a combination of economic strength. An overbalance of power would be concerted that China would then have to join. Where else could it sell its goods? Where else could it get the revenue to continue to import the largest share of energy on the planet? The balance of power would then yield to overbalance, and Beijing, perhaps ineluctably would be drawn into a more cooperative trading unit in world politics. China may of course have other short term ideas, but in the longer run, its own economic development will depend upon sturdy economic connections with the West, Japan, and free Asia. An overbalance will then begin to assert itself.

Richard Rosecrance is an adjunct professor at the Harvard Kennedy School, where he is director of the Belfer Center’s Project on U.S.-China Relations. He is author of the forthcoming book Resurgence of the West (Yale University Press, 2013). This piece original appeared on the Harvard Kennedy School Power and Policy Blog.

May 20, 2013 at 06:43

Just like Japan in the 80′s?

It’s great that the Chinese economy is catching up with ‘developed country’ status, but let’s not misstake this for world domination.

Admiral Cheng
May 15, 2013 at 12:53

Kris, you wait and see. The Whole World will be lining up to kow tow with us the Chniese soon as we are very much on course to reach the "Middle Kingdom" status sooner rather than later.

May 15, 2013 at 05:00

applesauce:  If the US, Japan, the EU, the TTP, Mexico, and Canada were all in one trade block, who's left for China to form a trade block with?  The answer is nobody of consequence.  And as for joining both trade blocks, joining a trade block with China is not going to be an option for most countries, as they would be concerned about Chinese behavior and honesty, as open, free societies are always and will always be skeptical of authoritarian, police-state countries that oppress and systematically deceive their own people through information control.  If they treat their own people like that, what's keeping them from treating other countries with even *less* respect?  Notice that the list of countries that the author suggested would make up the US block are all real democracies. 

Matthew Hall
May 15, 2013 at 03:50

China won't have trading blocks of its own. It has no allies and threatens its neighbors constantly. It tries to buy allies in Africa and Latin America, but it doesn't work. Sounds like a reasonable assumption to me.

May 15, 2013 at 01:13

This author gives way too much credit to US softpower.  First, the USSR collapsed because of fundamental internal contradictions.  Second, the rest of the world is as drawn to as they are repelled by US softpower.  Nobody, not even Americans, think the US has a well functioning democratic system or a truly independent judiciary.  Nobody wants anything to do with the arrogant values associated with American exceptionalism.  Finally, even Americans can be deeply divided about how to engage with the rest of the world, including free trade agreements.  The US Senate couldn't even ratify a recent, benign treaty on the rights of the disabled, for cripes sake.  This article is just so simplistic, playing the world like a jigsaw puzzle populated by fawning wannabe Americans.

May 14, 2013 at 12:04

Looks like a bigger EU. What will be the new trading commodities and services in TAFTA and TPP? I can't think of any. It will be the same goods at competitive prices which will push weaker competitors in EU-US-Canada-Japan into oblivion. Biggest winners will be Germany and Japan, once again. NAFTA in the past failed to achieve much. 

May 14, 2013 at 05:41

but the author assumes china will not have trading blocks of its own, and in fact nothing prevents a single country from joining both the TPP and a trading agreement with china meaning it isnt "rest of world" vs china. and frankly with china being the top trade partner now for many of these asian countries, it has quite a bit of pull itself

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