Stewart M. Patrick

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“Still Ours to Lead:” Bruce Jones Explains Why the World Still Looks to the United States

by Stewart M. Patrick
April 30, 2014

U.S. president Barak Obama surrounded by leaders during the NATO summit in Lisbon, November 19, 2010.  (Yves Herman /Courtesy Reuters) U.S. president Barak Obama surrounded by leaders during the NATO summit in Lisbon, November 19, 2010. (Yves Herman /Courtesy Reuters)

Manifestoes about U.S. “decline,” have become a publishing juggernaut. But this literature is demolished in a beautifully written, persuasive new book from Bruce Jones, the Brookings Institution senior fellow. In Still Ours to Lead: America, Rising Powers, and the Tension between Rivalry and Restraint, Jones explains that the declinists have it all wrong. First, on nearly every measure of material power, the United States is the world’s dominant player—and will remain so for some time. Second, there is no plausible alternative to U.S. leadership, given weaknesses within and divisions among major emerging powers. Third, the United States remains the undeniable and indispensable pivot of world politics; it is the only player capable of forging effective global partnerships to confront pressing transnational threats. Lastly, most rising powers in today’s world have at least as many incentives to exercise strategic restraint as they do to engage in rivalry with the United States. In short, the United States is an “enduring” rather than declining power. And the world is still its to lead.

  • Still Number One:  Predictions of U.S. decline have a long pedigree, from Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers  to Charlie Kupchan’s The End of the American Era  and Fareed Zakaria’s The Post-American World and the Rise of the Rest. These doomsaying tomes have one thing in common: their prematurity. Challenging the conventional wisdom, Jones methodically documents the persistent geographical, economic, military, diplomatic, educational, technological, intelligence, and raw material foundations of U.S. might. Not only has the U.S. economy emerged stronger from the global financial crisis, not only does it have an enormous qualitative and quantitative military edge over any conceivable adversary, but it is also beginning to reap a massive bonanza from new means of extracting domestic oil and gas. During the 1978 NBA championship series, Washington Bullets coach Dick Motta famously declared: “the opera ain’t over til the fat lady sings.” For the United States, the opera is far from over.
  • BRICS? Don’t Believe the Hype: Jones really takes the emerging powers down a peg. Hype about the BRICS, he notes, has been based on straight-line projections of past meteoric growth—patterns that are ultimately unsustainable. Indeed, growth has already slowed in all the BRICS countries, as well as other members of the Trillionnaires Club (those with GDP of more than $1 trillion) like Mexico. All of these emerging nations face  tremendous challenges of internal economic and political development—and a real risk of falling into a “middle income trap.” Nor do emerging countries present anything resembling a united geopolitical front, given their strategic rivalries, divergent economic preferences, and incompatible political values. To be sure, Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa will continue to hold annual summits. But (as I have written elsewhere), there’s  not “enough ‘mortar’ binding these BRICS” together.
  • The Real U.S. “Pivot” is Global: While other pundits and strategists fret over the U.S. rebalancing to Asia,  Jones shows that the United States has neither the luxury nor the need to narrows its focus to a single region. Indeed, U.S. leadership stems from its unrivaled ability and freedom of action to “play” in all the world’s regions, as well as in global institutions, at once. And one of the main reasons it can do so is that it retains an unmatched set of allies and partners. Indeed, the “Global Electoral College”—as Jones cleverly labels it—is stacked so heavily in America’s favor that it’s a wonder anybody imagines that another country could take its place. The United States has more than forty formal treaty allies—including most members of the world’s largest economic bloc (the EU) and its third largest economy (Japan). Moreover, it boasts friendly relations with a comparable number of other countries—including major emerging players like Brazil,  India, and Indonesia. China’s dependable allies can be counted on one finger: North Korea.
  • Restraint Beats Rivalry: One of the hallmarks of our era is the simultaneous rise of multiple nations, creating enormous turbulence in the geopolitical pecking order. For strategists of a historical bent, this can be alarming, given the frequent collision between past rising and declining nations. Jones encourages us all to take a deep breath and recognize that today’s emerging players—including China—possess at least as many incentives to exercise restraint and pursue cooperation as they do to engage in strategic rivalry and embrace conflict. What is unique about today’s order is that major players—both advanced and advancing—increasingly cooperate not only in formal institutions but fluid, issue-specific coalitions. The frequent result, as in the anti-piracy coalition in the Indian Ocean, is a coalition of strange bedfellows that coalesces behind common interests. To be sure, big power rivalry will persist, particularly at the regional level. But it will tend to pit rising and declining powers in the second tier against each other rather than spur conflict with the United States. The China-Japan rivalry in the East China Sea stands as the archetypal example of this.

If there is a gap in this book, it is the incomplete treatment of how power translates into leadership. Jones shows that the United States dominates on  multiple measures of material power. The trick, of course, is to convert this potential into actual influence over actors and outcomes. Leadership, after all, implies “followers.” Jones offers little policy guidance on how the United States might better deploy its resources to shape the incentives of countries that are on the fence about following its lead. Nor does he fully explore the implications of what Susan Strange called U.S. “structural power”—that is,  the ability of the United States to get its way not merely by deploying incentives in one-on-one bargaining situations but indeed by determining the very context in which other countries must operate. Still, this is a concept he seems to appreciate intuitively, given his insights on the dollar’s role as the world’s main reserve currency, or of the geopolitical implications of U.S. control of the sea lanes. His analysis is weaker when it comes to “soft power”—that elusive, fragile influence the United States supposedly gains from its attractive political values, domestic institutions, and popular culture. The question the book never answers is whether—given its controversial national security policies,  corrosive domestic politics, and role in the global financial crisis—the bloom is now off the rose.

But the biggest lacuna in Still Ours to Lead is its inattention to the domestic preconditions of U.S. global leadership—specifically, the capacity of the U.S. political system to marshall the political will and domestic resources required to retain its historic role as the custodian of world order. And here there is grave room for doubt, given intense partisanship and legislative gridlock in Congress, as well as broad popular sentiments for retrenchment (if not true isolationism). To be fair, Jones explicitly concedes that he will not address this topic, leaving it to others to argue that foreign policy begins at home. And it may be too much to demand that one book do it all. In the end, Jones’ message is  a simple one: the world is still ready for U.S. leadership, if we grasp the nettle.

One of the delights of this book is its conversational tone. Manuscripts on weighty policy matters are often just that: heavy, self-important tomes laden with dense prose and groaning with jargon. Jones’ style is lighter and informal. He weaves data together with illustrative anecdotes and bits of humor to make his point. In short, it’s a lively conversation with an engaging and intelligent friend over drinks. (Full disclosure: Being one of Bruce’s lucky friends, I’ve had this pleasure to enjoy over many years).

Post a Comment 4 Comments

  • Posted by Paulo Augusto Lacaz

    Dear Colleague,
    I agree!
    Really the big issue of the USA and others nations, is in its internal conduct. According to my Doctrine of scientific nature based on the Positive Moral and Sociology Sciences, indicates that any civilization, to maintain its existence, which is figuratively formed by a tripod of three ” oscillating vectors” – the Intellectual Scientific Capital, Moral Scientific Capital and Material Capital ($) must be controlled to define and planning a development, with a little anarchic Progress and no retrograde Order, knowing quantitate each these legs of tripod. Otherwise it falls!
    In the USA the fragile leg of this tripod is the Moral Capital has brought the imbalance of the American Society porch, which is supported on this tripod. Each Nation has a tripod support.
    But to correct this weakness, the result is slow and gradual and that overlaps actions are not provided: short, medium and long term, the amorality that has a power of silent destruction than the atomic bomb; that destroys internally the Nation at long-term.
    Abraham Lincoln once said
    “What is Morally Wrong Cannot be Politically Correct” – posted in U.S. Capitol.
    Sincerely, I wish you
    Health, with respect and brotherhood,
    Paulo Augusto Lacaz

  • Posted by Kir Komrik

    Thank you for the great article,

    The author may indeed be right. However, my greater concern is not relativism but status. The U.S. is still a global leader for sure. Problem is, everyone is running out of energy and natural resources. So, all boats are sinking globally and proportionately, more or less.

    I’ve posted before on what can be done and the solution hinges on access to energy and elemental resources which the Earth itself can no longer provide alone. The elephant in the living room is the overall decline of civilization, imo. But I agree we (the United States) appear to be doing okay relative to everything else. But I’d rather not continue in exponential decline even if it is proportionate to status quo.

    Investors take note: If you want to accumulate more capital you’re going to need a much, much bigger feed pipe. And its not on the ground. It’s up there. Be bold.

    - kk

  • Posted by Alexis de Pleshcoy

    It is difficult to believe that with so much information available on the Internet, from so many sources, Mr. Bruce Jones can truly believe that there is a world out there “Still Ours to Lead”.
    First and foremost as my future is here in the US, I would love to agree with the author; I would even be ready to do it based on patriotic duty. But I would have to ignore too many facts. I will detail some in future posts.

  • Posted by Alexis de Pleshcoy

    “First, on nearly every measure of material power, the United States is the world’s dominant player”. With our GINI coefficient, our lack of social mobility, HDI, disappearing middle class, decreasing ability to compete in science and technology, incompetent financial engineers (who manage to pollute the world economy with their synthetic products), potholes (to enumerate a few), what material power are we talking here?
    Actually, unfortunately the author has a point here. If material power is judged by the increase in volume of our monetary base, then we are richer and richer, from 400 billion in 1994 to over 3000 billion in 2013 (and printing). So are we 7.5 times richer? Or are we 7.5 times poorer?
    After Bretton Woods the US dollar, backed by gold, became the cornerstone of the world financial system, and implicitly a reserve currency. Few noticed that since 1971 it is no longer backed by gold, but by the full trust in the Federal Reserve’s ability to manage its value; this implies that the Federal Reserve can increase or decrease the amount of dollars in circulation.
    In a global, expanding economy, the newly produced and acquired wealth is recognized in the reserve currency, US dollars. So the more global economic expansion, more dollars are being crated (and never removed from circulation) and absorbed in the black holes of the world economy. But at one point in time these black holes will spew back all these pieces of paper (not in the next Universe, unfortunately), and then the remnants of the middle class will have to match them with goods and services.
    Dominant player in military power? Military power must have behind it an industrial base, which can’t be located where the cheapest labor force is available, in the entire world; WWII was not won by outsourcing “the arsenal of democracy” to remote shores. Military power must have behind it a scientific research base; the LHC accelerator was built in Europe, at a cost which represents a fraction of the endowment of the Ivy League Universities (tax exempt, happily paid by the middle class), so we are behind in particle physics. If the actual trend continues, will we have the same military hardware advantage in 50 years, or 500 years? There is this obsession with Rome (including in the first pages of the book), but don’t forget that Rome lasted millennia; are we on track to match them?
    I could go on, but I have to point at one moment in time when the US missed the opportunity to create a more stable world, one in which we would have been more than “primus inter pares”, a moment when the course of history is decided for the next millennium. That was 1990, the end of communism, when the satellites of the Soviet Union rejected communism (including Russia). They were waiting for an economic development plan in the mold of the Marshall Plan (which reversed communism in France and Italy after WWII), which would have integrated them in what could have been a different world. Unfortunately they were not ready to work for a couple of dollars a day, plus Secretary of State (General) George C. Marshall, Jr. was now replaced by Milton Friedman. The rest is now history, those who accepted the couple of dollars/day challenge are now contesting the exiting order (and on solid grounds).
    When I read in the introduction of the book: “The ability to pull together coalitions for action is perhaps the most enduring feature of American power.” I could not stop thinking at the battle of Gaugamela; coalition is great, but who will do the fighting matters.
    But as I said in the previous post, let’s hope the author is right, and that (citation from the book):
    “The United States has a huge middle class, a comparatively young population, political stability, a good balance between production and exports, and huge advantages in its higher education sector. For example, American universities continue to dominate global rankings of the top performers.”
    The misconception about the American Universities will be analyzed in a different post, still at cfr.org.

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