Features | Diplomacy | Politics

US Power Can Withstand Some Dysfunction

America has some substantial advantages over its nearest rivals, which won’t quickly be eroded by Washington dysfunction.

Robert E. Kelly
US Power Can Withstand Some Dysfunction
Credit: REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

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.

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.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

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.

By contrast, the U.S. grows at a more normal rate, with a healthy supplement of immigration that keeps the birthrate above the replacement rate (2.1 live births per female). America’s aging is slower, so its political impacts will be less drastic than those that will occur in China. In the long term, all those new Americans represent a massive injection of labor and manpower that fire the economy. China and Russia cannot, in their current forms, tolerate mass immigration, and their political systems highly discourage large families. These Americans will also operate in an economy that encourages risk-taking and innovation far more than cronyist Russia or Confucian China.

2. Geography. If demography is a structural pressure that takes decades to re-direct, geography is all but locked-in. Technology can shrink the relevance of distance but not eliminate it. Claims that missile technology had made the U.S. and U.S.SR “neighbors” during the Cold War, or that globalization had made the world “flat” are exaggerated. Time zones will always wreak havoc on the human body in long-distance travel, and long-haul air transport is not much faster today than it was fifty years ago.

The two wide oceans that divide the U.S. from Eurasia have long been recognized as the foremost bulwarks of American security. The U.S. Founders saw this early and counseled a general policy of distance, if not isolation, from Eurasia. While Eurasian states fought over land, class, and other “old world” social hierarchies, the U.S. could grow and expand off-shore, untouched by Eurasia’s turmoil except in the most dire circumstances. As such, American power, although great for almost 150 years now, has rarely been perceived as a direct threat to Eurasian states far more concerned about proximate neighbors. The U.S. enjoys breathing room no one in crowded Eurasia has; this room allows the U.S. to grow and expand without provoking what international relations theory calls the “security dilemma.” In other words, as the U.S. grew more powerful, that power was mediated by the tremendous distance of the U.S. from many otherwise logical competitors. The “lateral pressure” of its growth is much diminished, because it has only two neighbors. American power, comfortably distant, did not provoke much Eurasian counter-reactions or balancing, even as it expanded.

The comparison to Russia and China is both obvious and striking. Both are encircled. Both have roughly a dozen land borders with other states, and hemmed-in sea access. Both have mixed-to-poor relations with many of their neighbors, a legacy of previous wars and invasions. Their elites may dream of contesting the U.S. at the global level as peer competitors, but in reality, they are bogged down in protracted, irresolvable conflicts with secondary peripheral states and fractious provinces, such as Taiwan, Tibet, the Ukraine, and the Caucasus. It is noteworthy in this context that both Russia and China are almost without allies. Neighbors may trade with them, but almost no one actually wishes to join a bloc with them. America may be the unipole, but the distance of that power makes it far less threatening. It is hard to see any technological solution that would overcome these long-standing problems in Russian and Chinese grand strategy.

So avoid the facile, tabloid-style alarmism of U.S. decline hinging on this or that decision by a mediocre president. State power is rarely that shallow. The structural depths of American power carried the United States through the disastrous Bush 43 presidency, and they will through the ups-and-downs of Washington’s current dysfunctions.

Robert E. Kelly (@Robert_E_Kelly) is an associate professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science and Diplomacy at Pusan National University. More of his work may be found at his website, AsianSecurityBlog.wordpress.com.