Six reasons to keep America as No. 1 superpower

From Beijing to Paris, from Rio to Riyadh, you’ll find many people who say that American decline would be good for the world. For them, a diminished America could not arbitrarily throw its weight around, and a multipolar global order would work just fine in preserving global stability. After all, there are many rising powers that can step up to the plate.

Well, that sounds nice. But it’s probably wrong, says Steve Yetiv, professor of political science at Old Dominion University.

It’s not that other countries can’t play vital roles. They do. Nor are international institutions like the United Nations, the European Union, and NATO unable to contribute to stability. They certainly can, as can thousands of nongovernment actors from human rights groups to multinational corporations. But it’s not easy for other countries and institutions to do some of the things that Washington does around the world – at least not for the foreseeable future, says Mr. Yetiv.

What are these things? Here, Yetiv lists six.

1.Protecting the free flow of oil from the Persian Gulf

The American flag flies at the US Capitol February 8, 2009. Here are a few tasks where, for now, only Washington can lead: Protect the flow of oil in the Persian Gulf; keep the Asian balance of power; and prevent nuclear proliferation. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP/file)

Sure, the world definitely shouldn’t be so dependent on oil, but so long as we are, protecting its free flow at reasonable prices is vital. Most of America’s post-World War II recessions were triggered by oil price shocks. Many non-American approaches have been tried for protecting the oil flow, such as relying on Arab countries in the Persian Gulf; drawing on Egypt’s and Syria’s military muscle; or depending more on European forces. None have worked.

No other country or group of countries has the will and capability to do this job. For instance, were it not for US-led action in evicting Iraqi forces from Kuwait in 1991, Iraq would still be in Kuwait and quite possibly Saudi Arabia, disrupting the production and flow of oil in the region.

Bolstering the global economy

America supports a free-trading global regime, bolsters financial stability, and has a giant domestic market. Beijing can play a larger role, but it’s much less of a free-trader, has less influence in international institutions like the International Monetary Fund, and the yuan would uncomfortably substitute for the dollar.

If China were to sell more of its yuan, its currency would strengthen, hurting its exports, which drive its economy. How long would Beijing tolerate that at any major level? A weakened America might also resort to more protectionist practices to create more jobs at home, triggering dangerous trade wars.

Keeping the Asian balance of power

Were America to weaken significantly and to decrease its strong military commitment to Japan, Tokyo would likely increase defense spending significantly and shelve Article 9 of its 1946 constitution, which states that “land, sea and air forces, as well as any other war potential, will never be maintained.”

At present, Washington does want Japan to do more to balance China, but US withdrawal from Asia could trigger a regional arms race, leaving all countries less secure and possibly hurting regional and global economic stability.

Checking terrorist groups

Washington leverages all of its resources – diplomatic, financial, military – to meet this goal, and has had major successes against Al Qaeda. Granted, America is the main target of terrorism, but terrorism can hurt many others as well.

Preventing nuclear proliferation

For example, US-led sanctions or statecraft may help prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons – a goal of many Western and Arab nations as well.

Brokering Middle East peace

If Israel perceives any weakness in America’s regional role, it will be far less likely to make peace, because it can only make major concessions for peace if it feels strong.

Don’t get me wrong. American foreign policy should be primarily multilateral in a complex, interconnected world. And Washington must accommodate the rise of powers such as China, Brazil, and India, and try to see how they can contribute more to global security – especially China which has the financial wherewithal to do so and should contribute much more than it does.

But a weaker America would mean a much less stable world, chiefly because there are no sensible substitutes for the range of tasks it undertakes. And so the real goal for other major countries should be to preserve America’s global leadership or at least not undermine it. And the real goal in Washington should be to create slowly the diplomatic architecture to bring others into roles of greater responsibility.

If that works, maybe America can take a breather from its global tasks, some time down the road.

Steve Yetiv is a professor of political science at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va. He is the author of “The Petroleum Triangle” and “The Absence of Grand Strategy” and is working on a book on US decline.