US Power Can Withstand Some Dysfunction
Image Credit: REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

US Power Can Withstand Some Dysfunction


The emerging conventional wisdom that China and Russia are somehow getting a leg up on the U.S. because of Putin’s gimmicky Syrian deal, President Barack Obama’s cancelled trip to Asia, and the U.S. government shutdown is misguided. The United States has substantial structural resources of power and influence its would-be rivals cannot match – without changing their political forms so much as to be unrecognizable. That is, the only way China and Russia might seriously contend with U.S. power over the medium- and long-term would require the end of the Putinist and Chinese Communist Party oligarchies. Headlines about Obama’s stumbles or GOP intransigence do little to alter this, and it is strange how quickly this meme is spreading, even suggesting that the U.S. is in decline.

Some of this may simply be the news cycle. Journalists too often focus on the horse-race element of politics – who’s up, who’s down, who will get invited to Davos next year, speak at the next IMF conference, and so on. As Friedersdorf notes, there is a kind of glamor to such reporting. It flatters insiders that their choices are deeply meaningful. It suggests that these same insiders are living at a moment of great historical import and that they are therefore very important. And it is easy to read a few instances of a phenomenon occurring short order (U.S. troubles) as a “wave” or trend (U.S. decline). A fair amount of this is also simply political. Fox News, for instance, can always be counted on to spin any passing Obama setbacks as a collapse of American credibility in the world. But even more thoughtful American conservatives are prone to see Obama’s outreaches and dealings as signs of weakness.

But I imagine the heart of such reporting is its appeals to our human ur-preference that here-and-now human agency has major impacts over structural forces, like economics, demography, or geography, even though much of the social sciences suggests otherwise. But if George W. Bush could do little damage to long-term American power given his (many) bad choices, then it is hard to see Obama doing so. Recall that Bush fought two unfunded wars that achieved little, doubled the national debt, pushed through a massive unfunded Medicare enlargement, presided over the financial industry expansion that sparked the Great Recession, and allowed Karl Rove to deeply divide the electorate with sharply polarizing campaign tactics including the semi-Christianization of the Republican party. Yet American global hegemony survived.

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Zack Beauchamp and Daniel Drezner’s correctives are very useful here. They dwell on current medium-term geopolitical strengths, such as the massive global imbalance in defense spending, the reality that America’s economy is still twice the size of China’s, the struggles China is starting to have to achieve headline growth, the fact that Russia exports mostly natural resources and weapons, and so on. But there are at least two long-term structures of U.S. power that would be almost impossible for Russia and China to match:

1. Population. It is true that China’s population is four times America’s, but the one-child policy is inverting China’s population in ways whose impacts are almost certainly negative. A natural population skew roughly approximates a pyramid – the most people are at the bottom (the youngest) and the fewest people are at the top (the oldest). The pyramidal shape comes as people naturally die, leaving fewer and fewer people at the top. It is well known that people are living longer now and that the height of the pyramid – the age of the most elderly – is greater. But the one-child policy also systematically shrinks the bottom cohorts, generating a Chinese population skew today that looks more like a diamond (small on top and bottom, thick in the middle) than a pyramid. When those people in the middle reach the top in the next few decades, they will be supported by far fewer young people than nature would return. This is the root of the widely expected outcome that China will “get old before it gets rich,” which may very well be a first in global history.

Russia’s demographic problems are also severe, and perhaps better known. Its population is just 143 million, rather close to Japan and less than half the size of America’s. Russia also suffers from a brain drain of its healthiest and most educated.

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