Not Post-American Yet

Several years ago, in the course of the great recession and the aftermath of the Iraq and Afghanistan invasions, a wave of books depicted, dissected, and debated America's purported decline. Excellent scholars and writers, from Ikenberry to Kupchan to Kagan to Edelman to Zakaria to Friedman and Mandelbaum to Lieber to Bremmer to Brzezinski, examined America's power in the context of a rapidly changing international system. The debate was evocative of the late 1980s, when Paul Kennedy and Samuel Huntington led a similar national discussion during what should have been a geopolitically happy time, the period of Soviet glasnost and perestroika followed by the end of the Cold War, but which became a period in which America doubted its long-term competitiveness and thus its long-term ability to remain a superpower.

This time, the stakes are arguably greater still. Instead of Japan and Germany worrying America about its future ability to sustain preeminence, it is a somewhat less friendly China that is providing much of the basis for concern.

Into this debate now steps Bruce Jones, my colleague at the Brookings Institution but also the director of the New York University Center on International Cooperation. That latter vantage point has provided Jones a perspective many scholars who write on this weighty subject do not have, as he has been a close and careful student of the workings of the UN system as well as many other dimensions of the contemporary international order. Armed with that perspective, as well as his remarkable breadth that makes him a rock-solid student of global economics, military affairs, energy markets, and various other aspects of today's world, Jones has produced what may be my single favorite book in the whole decline debate: Still Ours to Lead: America, Rising Powers, and the Tension Between Rivalry and Restraint.

On balance, Still Ours To Lead is an encouraging book about the United States and its role in the international system today and in the future. And that should be welcome news at this particular moment. While America's economy is doing somewhat better and China's is slowing, relative to a couple years ago, the basis for angst about our nation's future is still quite great even at this juncture in 2014. Everything from Iran and North Korea to Putin's shenanigans in Ukraine to the poor state of great-power relations in Northeast Asia to the souring of the Arab spring to a general sense of American fatigue and disengagement globally make this a moment of national hand-wringing about what lies ahead. Persistently poor showings on international education metrics, polarized politics in Washington and budget trends that augur badly for our competitiveness in the future (even if federal deficits are temporarily smaller these days) add to the sense of woe.

Jones is far from complacent about this nation's problems. Indeed, his original working title for the book, as he informs us in the introduction, was "Still Ours to Lose"—implying not too subtly that we could indeed enter a period of sustained and significant decline if we made bad decisions. That possible future is still one of the scenarios that could await us. But only if we collectively blow it.

Jones' basis for guarded optimism about the United States, and more generally the international system that it largely built and still upholds in various ways, includes some of the metrics that I have found compelling in my research and writings as well. America still leads the way in global research and development spending, in the quality of our universities, in innovation and patents, in advanced manufacturing of pharmaceuticals and aerospace and other key cutting-edge technologies, and in the openness and transparency and legal dependability of our investment and business climates. Despite our failure to enact immigration reform, we remain the world's most alluring melting pot, and arguably have the healthiest demographic profile of any major power (modest real population growth, and a population that is not aging nearly as fast as Europe's, Japan's, Russia's or China's). Despite our gradual pullback from the Middle East, and mixed record in recent wars there, we of course have far and away the world's strongest military.


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