Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The World Without America

NEW YORK – Let me posit a radical idea: The most critical threat facing the United States now and for the foreseeable future is not a rising China, a reckless North Korea, a nuclear Iran, modern terrorism, or climate change. Although all of these constitute potential or actual threats, the biggest challenges facing the US are its burgeoning debt, crumbling infrastructure, second-rate primary and secondary schools, outdated immigration system, and slow economic growth – in short, the domestic foundations of American power.

Readers in other countries may be tempted to react to this judgment with a dose of schadenfreude, finding more than a little satisfaction in America’s difficulties. Such a response should not be surprising. The US and those representing it have been guilty of hubris (the US may often be the indispensable nation, but it would be better if others pointed this out), and examples of inconsistency between America’s practices and its principles understandably provoke charges of hypocrisy. When America does not adhere to the principles that it preaches to others, it breeds resentment.

But, like most temptations, the urge to gloat at America’s imperfections and struggles ought to be resisted. People around the globe should be careful what they wish for. America’s failure to deal with its internal challenges would come at a steep price. Indeed, the rest of the world’s stake in American success is nearly as large as that of the US itself.

Part of the reason is economic. The US economy still accounts for about one-quarter of global output. If US growth accelerates, America’s capacity to consume other countries’ goods and services will increase, thereby boosting growth around the world. At a time when Europe is drifting and Asia is slowing, only the US (or, more broadly, North America) has the potential to drive global economic recovery.

The US remains a unique source of innovation. Most of the world’s citizens communicate with mobile devices based on technology developed in Silicon Valley; likewise, the Internet was made in America. More recently, new technologies developed in the US greatly increase the ability to extract oil and natural gas from underground formations. This technology is now making its way around the globe, allowing other societies to increase their energy production and decrease both their reliance on costly imports and their carbon emissions.

The US is also an invaluable source of ideas. Its world-class universities educate a significant percentage of future world leaders. More fundamentally, the US has long been a leading example of what market economies and democratic politics can accomplish. People and governments around the world are far more likely to become more open if the American model is perceived to be succeeding.

Finally, the world faces many serious challenges, ranging from the need to halt the spread of weapons of mass destruction, fight climate change, and maintain a functioning world economic order that promotes trade and investment to regulating practices in cyberspace, improving global health, and preventing armed conflicts. These problems will not simply go away or sort themselves out.

While Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” may ensure the success of free markets, it is powerless in the world of geopolitics. Order requires the visible hand of leadership to formulate and realize global responses to global challenges.

Don’t get me wrong: None of this is meant to suggest that the US can deal effectively with the world’s problems on its own. Unilateralism rarely works. It is not just that the US lacks the means; the very nature of contemporary global problems suggests that only collective responses stand a good chance of succeeding.

But multilateralism is much easier to advocate than to design and implement. Right now there is only one candidate for this role: the US. No other country has the necessary combination of capability and outlook. 

This brings me back to the argument that the US must put its house in order – economically, physically, socially, and politically – if it is to have the resources needed to promote order in the world. Everyone should hope that it does: The alternative to a world led by the US is not a world led by China, Europe, Russia, Japan, India, or any other country, but rather a world that is not led at all. Such a world would almost certainly be characterized by chronic crisis and conflict. That would be bad not just for Americans, but for the vast majority of the planet’s inhabitants.

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    1. Commentedn Sweeney

      Mr. Haass has brought out some reasonable points of discussion. Maybe it is now time to make the adjustments that we need to consider. Why must the United States bear the burden of being the peace maker to the world? Why should we interfere with affairs of other nations? Why do we continuously pour American resources into places who really do not have care or regard for this nation anyway?

      I know that this is a simplistic view and in some cases it could mean great difficulties for other nations. But America has a responsibility to its own people as well. Stop funding the world wide projects of other nations and deal with our own challenges here. A couple of thoughts for our leaders to consider:

      1. Withdraw all armed forces from around the world and reposition them within American borders. This not only reduces the cost of the military, it allows us to reopen bases that were closed due to cuts. We can continue to have a large military force, but now it would be in American communities, benefitting the people who are actually paying for them. Korea, Japan, Germany and all the other bases in the world cost us billions and generate income for the places where they are located. Move them home and help us. I am also open to the idea of reducing the size of the military, as long as we don't reduce the spending. Any money saved from a reduction in force should be funneled to American research and development for more sophisticated armaments. While we may withdraw from areas, we should make it Crystal clear we will respond accordingly if our people are attacked.

      2. Foreign aid is a nice thought. We can't afford it. Stop it.

      3. The UN has it's advantages, however, paying 1/4 of its operating costs isn't one of them. Americans need to weigh if there really is an advantage to spending our future of such an organization.

      It is time for a change. Leave other nations alone and act responsibly financially for our people.

    2. CommentedOLA BELLO

      Richard’s view here on America’s troubles and likely decline will sound a bit jarring to the ears of anyone who’s listened to the broad tone of US opinion on this issue in recent times. Perhaps unfairly, one might group him along with a few other commentators in what we could term the ‘unreformed declinist’ school which appears increasingly a fringe movement in the US. The tone within official circles, the “thinking” community and among public commentators in the States has become notably more optimistic especially on the back of the US’s broadly improving economic outlook and the shale gas boom which is radically changing the country’s energy and manufacturing outlook (this alone is bolstering America’s competitiveness vis-à-vis economic rivals and China in particular). When you get the studiously understated Timothy Geithner cooing about how unearned US strengths - including the shale gas boom and the dollar’s resilience to credit downgrades – potentially signalling a “game changing” epoch on the economic front, then it’s perhaps time one listened up and treat with more circumspection the alarm bells being sounded about the US’s terminal decline. The shale gas boom and other economic good fortunes will contribute little in terms of addressing directly many of the public policy issues identified by Richard, including the broken immigration system, infrastructure gap and the economic Russian roulette enabled by an ideological standoff at the US’s political centre. But experience teaches us that an economically rejuvenated US is well capable of growing its way out of its fiscal mess. Whenever that has been the case (witness the ascent in confidence through the Reagan-Bush-Clinton years), ploughing the economic dividends into the sort of national investments that can fix most of the afore-mentioned problems at source is a US pastime that should never be discounted.

      Richard’s other point on the indispensability of a visible American “hand of leadership” for global stability also misses half a point: Pax Americana was most successful when the US’s strategic heft served to anchor a broadly commanding economic and political vision to which the world was invited to aspire. In that case, prosperity in the North Atlantic Treaty community was underwritten by American military might and held up as an example for the bankrupt Soviet-led model to follow. A world in which China and other emerging economies are crafting a parallel – admittedly still complementary – geo-economic vision is one which is radically different from those of the post-War years in which America shoved aside the Soviet Union to rise to global pre-eminence. In the new emerging world of greater diffusion and co-leadership – here, both economic and military powers are rapidly converging among those at the top table – prudence discounts a geopolitical play script in which one of the indispensable co-leaders aspires to a muscular military dominance over the others, just as it discounts the delusion of an American global leadership that is so self-evidently superior that others would simply gravitate to it.

      The US’s relative decline is a present and even inexorable reality. But global order and stability today is less dependent on America’s pre-eminence than in the decades past.

    3. CommentedAvraam Dectis

      It is too late for the USA to put its house in order.

      The USA has descended to the point that it allows stalking gangs to openly poison people - effectively public torture murders. ( Do a web search on gang stalking if you do not know this ).

      Companies are avoiding the USA for this reason and this explains a large part of the economic malaise.

      The USA has millions employed in law enforcement and millions more in the military yet instead of acting like a sovereign it acts like a vassal handing its people over to be tortured and murdered to ensure its own security. This is a descent of such velocity that it appears that the direction cannot change.

      Avraam Jack Dectis

    4. CommentedJoseph Blower

      "While Adam Smith’s 'invisible hand' may ensure the success of free markets, it is powerless in the world of geopolitics."
      I disagree with this statement. Of course economics affects politics, directly and indirectly. It's just that prudent economic decision-making is often sorely lacking on the part of politicians.

    5. CommentedHamid Rizvi

      In one clean sweep you have rendered other great nation not to mention a union of nations incompetent and not worthy of leadership and innovation.

      There is no doubt that America is a great nation in a league of nations. It is also true that AT THE MOMENT it without a doubt occupies a leadership position and a platform for economic growth that is stimulated largely by the contributions of peoples from the same nations you consider second rate.

      Don't fool yourself that America or Rome or indispensible and wonder out loud of what might happen if this economic and military empire withers.

      No one in their right mind would wish anything to happen to America as it would to EU, Russia or China. If, according to you the World thrives because of America; I have news for you America thrives because of the World. Frankly, it is demeaning to even suggest the importance of any one nation over others in an increasingly global environment. It almost comes across as chicanery or bad journalism certainly awful policy imperative from an individual who has made a living in policy planning and advice. It is perhaps then not surprising that the global problems the World faces like increasing terrorism and hatred for America may be attributed to bad policy advice from people like Dick N. Haas.

      Next time try your hand at writing children stories. You already have the title “My America”. If Salman Rusdie can learn to write children stories there is hope for even you!

    6. CommentedPrakash Chandra Kandel

      It's undeniable that America promotes double standards vis-à-vis the global challenges, say, climate change, war crimes, and trade protectionism to name a few. Preaching and not practicing is the trademark of this country. I think America, obviously, is extremely important as regards to global politics, but not so significant that the rest of the world cannot survive without it, even though we may face some turbulence in the short term. The world has the strength to survive even if there is no America, and the its leaders should shed off their preconceived notions that world will be a worse place to live sans their state.

    7. CommentedJesse Parent

      The problems that the world *cannot* be led by a single country, especially now. 'Everyone should hope' that the US is a super power leader who will benevolently set the course for maximum goodness in the world? You've got to wonder who this talk appeals to - but I'm guessing not "the vast majority of the planet's inhabitants', which apparently Mr Haas is concerned about. This kind of egocentrism is going to have to be discarded; the US - just like a healthy person - should look to facilitate the growth and strength of others, rather than ...
      "Order requires the visible hand of leadership to formulate and realize global responses to global challenges."
      ... pretending like it knows best and falsely exalt itself. This kind of posturing and egoism doesn't work for relationships, international or otherwise.

        CommentedLutz Donnerbolzen

        True! Before just postulating that'd be best for most people if the world would be lead by the US one could ask what other people outside of the US think about that - and it won't be a response the author might like.

        It's also quite interesting how major parts of the US history and development are based on the trust that people can innovate, organize and generally just 'work things out' in a bottom-up way, but this author proposes a very distinctive top-down approach to foreign politics. Maybe this is one example of why many people in the world find the US politicians so guilty of hubris.

    8. CommentedJesse Parent

      Why political analysts spend energy talking about how important or significant their own country is strikes me as a bit off putting. America doesn't need an ego boost or a pick me up. There's a time and place for encouraging positive self talk, but I don't think IR/PLSC theory should spend a lot of time there.

      It's a bit like a football fan saying how much they like their team, how important their team is to the game.

      The US is not an indispensable nation. It's not a forgotten land, either. It's a state, as with other states.

    9. CommentedS.Mahmud Ali

      President Haas (I say this without irony; the phrase does have a ring to it) makes a very cogent set of arguments that speak to challenges facing both America and the rest of the world. I particularly liked his comment that "the US may often be the indispensable nation, but it would be better if others pointed this out."

      While the domestic foundations of America's strength and the domestic roots of its weaknesses are perhaps a little more apparent to many non-Americans now, that particular indispensability issue is one that has resonated especially powerfully since the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

      Dr Haas hints at subliminal hubris colouring, if not driving, aspects of US efforts to shape the rest of the very different, diverse, disparate, complex, and possibly confusing, world in its own image. The idea that a relatively small elite-group in any one country can appreciate the complexities involved in discerning, outlining and charting the most effective, meaningful and sustainable path to the future for other societies lost popularity at the end of the colonial-imperial era. It may have regained some traction in the post-Cold War years, but the fiery bowels of Iraq and Afghanistan may have precipitated questions about the wisdom of America's approach to lesser lands and peoples that Beltway politicians and officials have not yet found answers to.

      Dr Haas is correct in warning us about the dangers of a world without American leadership. He no doubt also understands why many of those who have been at the receiving end of the lethally destructive fount of America's power, its virtually insuperable military might, may not rejoice quite so fervently at the prospect of an indefinite extension of America's systemic primacy.

      It is just possible that all great powers find it almost natural to sleepwalk into conflating planetary beneficence with their own very specific national interests. Any questioning of that assumption appears, to their ruling elites, irrational and counterproductive. The suggestion that a rules-based system can be managed by an actor to whom these rules only apply when it chooses to accept them is a chimeric aspiration in an age when globalised interdependencies have transformed the political-economic landscape. America must continue to lead, as Dr Haas, posits; but the meaning and content of globally acceptable leadership have changed significantly since the Berlin Wall came down, but especially since the Wall Street faced a more recent meltdown.

      Dr Haas, no doubt, understands this.

    10. CommentedAndré Rebentisch

      "The US remains a unique source of innovation." - I don't like this talking down on the United States. We find too many "remains" in the US foreign policy comments recently, and even the pivot to Asia may be a pivot to diplomatic swamp lands at the expense of the Transatlantic community. For the United States regional governance and constitutional reforms may be overdue but even the current system seems capable to adapt to change and present solutions for the current challenges.

    11. CommentedJosé Luiz Sarmento Ferreira

      As a European, I'd rather live in a world where the USA continues to exist than otherwise. True, I'd feel a much deeper grief for the destruction of Florence than, say, Las Vegas, but I don't wish Las Vegas any ill; and I would certainly feel any schadenfreude if it were to be wiped out.

      But I don't feel the USA is irreplaceable as a source of innovation or ideas. If its universities ceased to be world class, the best and brightest young people in the world would go somewhere else, and so would the best scientists and teachers.

      In a world without America, somewhere else would be "unique". I suspect it would be a multicultural, ethnically diverse "somewhere" (hint, hint). The world wouldn't become leaderless.

      But I believe this is an academic, highly hypothetical discussion; short of some unimaginable catastrophe, America is not going to retire from the world stage any time soon.

    12. CommentedLeo Arouet

      Lastimosamente, esta afirmación no es demasiado cierta. Los que van a ayudar a Estados Unidos en su recuperación económica son, de hecho, toda Asia y Latinoamérica, mas no así al contrario. Europa busca su crecimiento acercándose más a Brasil y atoda Suramérica. Creo que estas mismas acciones debe emprender Estados Unidos ya que está en una crisis fiscal y necesita recuperar su crecimiento.

    13. CommentedPaul A. Myers

      The US economy may be poised for more productive future growth because during the recovery 5 million plus jobs have been added, virtually all of them in the private sector. Public employment is a smaller and leaner part of the overall employment pie. This is an important structural change indicating future strength.

      In contrast, "burgeoning debt" is a conservative bogeyman and as a problem is rapidly coming under control. Most likely, the US should borrow more and invest more.

      With future public budgets subject to greater constraint primarily due to rising health expenditures, the US will most likely reconfigure its military forces away from large land forces and more towards sea and air power. Sea and air power are efficient tools for keeping lines of commerce open--the big strategic need for the world economy--and for containing difficult situations such as Iran or North Korea. Containment has worked well for America in the past; it will again in the future.

      New methods of engaging the restive Muslim world must be developed by both the US and the world community at large. We are moving into a new era on the journey away from colonialism and imperialism where the whole concept of the Western national state is getting redefined in this part of the world.

      The American public is withdrawing its support for the current military and foreign policies of the US, in particular in the Middle East and South Asia, for the simple reason that they have not worked and can be seen to continue not to work. That is what lies behind the inertia on Syria.