Richard N. Haass is president of the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of “Foreign Policy Begins at Home: The Case for Putting America’s House in Order.” Follow him on Twitter: @RichardHaass
It was in 1941 that Henry Luce exhorted his countrymen to eschew isolationism, enter the war and make the 20th century the first great American century. Fulfilling his vision, the United States managed a historic trifecta, prevailing in two world wars and the subsequent Cold War.
If Luce were alive today, he would no doubt be tempted to urge his fellow citizens to make the 21st century the second great American century. This one, however, would focus not on winning ideological struggles and thwarting totalitarian bids for dominance, but on creating meaningful rules and international arrangements to contend with the defining challenges of the era: climate change, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, infectious and non-communicable diseases, trade and investment protectionism, terrorism and providing for the 9 billion people who will soon inhabit this planet.
This notion of a second American century may seem bizarre, given the United States’ obvious domestic troubles — from poor schools and crumbling infrastructure to mounting debt and low economic growth — and its external challenges, including terrorism, a rising China, an antagonistic North Korea that has nuclear weapons and an equally hostile Iran that appears to want them.
Nevertheless, we could already be in the second decade of another American century. Here are six reasons:
To start, the United States is and will remain for some time first among unequals. This country boasts the world’s largest economy; its annual GDP of almost $16 trillion is nearly one-fourth of global output. Compare this figure with $7 trillion for China and $6 trillion for Japan. Per capita GDP in the United States is close to $50,000, somewhere between six and nine times that of China.
The United States also has the world’s most capable armed forces. No other country comes close to competing with it on the modern battlefield. Even with the sequester, core U.S. defense spending of some $500 billion is greater than that of the next 10 countries combined. The American qualitative military edge will be around for a long, long time.
Second, there is no peer competitor on the horizon. Yes, China has been growing fast, and the day will come when its GDP equals or passes that of the United States. But that day will arrive later than many forecast, as Chinese growth is slowing. In addition, China’s ability to translate its increasing wealth into power and influence is constrained by a deteriorating natural environment, an enormous and aging population, burgeoning social needs, and a political system far less dynamic than the economy and society it seeks to control.
Nor is any other major power in a position to challenge the United States. Despite a collective economy slightly larger than that of the United States and a population surpassing 500 million, the European Union punches far below its weight in the world as a result of its parochialism, pronounced anti-military culture, and unresolved tensions between nationalism and the commitment to building a collective union. Europe also faces prolonged low economic growth.