The idea that the American Century is over may seem well founded. At home, the financial meltdown and imminent deep recession have exposed massive policy, regulatory, and enforcement failures. Overseas, the United States confronts partly self-inflicted dangers in the vast quadrangle bordered by Kurdistan, the Gaza Strip, Somalia, and Pakistan, alongside challenges from rising powers now coming into their own.
Yet there are reasons for optimism: Barack Obama's presidency could usher in an era of renewed American global leadership.
Even as the US appeared to be digging its own grave by recklessly invading Iraq and grossly mismanaging its own economy, few countries tried to exploit the opportunity to further weaken America. Allied nations in some cases vociferously opposed the Iraq war or refused to help in Afghanistan, but none sought to break its alliance with the US; it has even emerged that while former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröeder was lambasting the Bush administration, his intelligence agents were helping the US military strike Iraqi targets. China chose not to use America's Middle Eastern distractions to challenge the US-led order in Asia. India continued to seek closer ties with America. Even a newly aggressive Russia eschewed direct confrontation with Washington.
These countries – allies, strategic competitors, and potential foes alike – probably acted the way they did because they saw the downside of a world devoid of American power. For the allies, the calculus is simple: America guarantees their security.
For India, America provides a hedge against Chinese power. For China, an America-less Asia would bring to the surface latent but lethal rivalries among Japan, North Korea, South Korea, Taiwan, and China that could engulf Asia in war.
As for Russia, the demise of America would leave it alone facing a 1.3 billion-strong Chinese nation potentially eager to settle the empty former Chinese lands in the Russian Far East. America is uniquely valued as a market, a source of technology, and a place to educate elites.
Additionally, painful as it will be domestically, global recession ultimately will probably hurt other nations more than the United States. In China, Russia, Southeast Asia, and the poorer oil producers, economic downturns risk serious social and political upheavals. And in the developed world, neither the major European economies nor Japan are faring significantly better than the US. In relative terms, then, American power is not likely to decline as a result of the slump.
While these factors only mitigate the consequences of the financial and economic crises, they also suggest that the US could emerge stronger on a relative basis.
The US brings unique assets to the daunting challenges it faces. One is its extraordinary regenerative ability. In few other societies could a man with a name and background as exotic as Mr. Obama's hope to win much more than a seat on the city council. Though entrenched incumbents in the US are many, the barriers to entry into the highest echelons of public office are unusually low by international standards, as Obama, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Michael Bloomberg, and Bobby Jindal have demonstrated. Newness in itself is no guarantee of quality, but on balance is far preferable to rigid oligopolies. Japan, with four children or grandchildren of prime ministers (including the premier) in the cabinet, illustrates this.
Beyond political dynamism, US society continues to display a flexibility and openness that gives it not only renewal potential but also – despite its flaws – a high degree of competitiveness. It is no accident that so many of the discoveries, innovations, and new businesses and industries that are defining the early 21st century originate in America.
Finally, demography is a distinct advantage. The futures of Europe, Russia, Japan, and China are clouded by below-replacement fertility, in many cases low or near-zero immigration, and a rapidly aging citizenry. Though the US is not immune to population aging, its higher level of fertility combined with immigration gives it an enormous advantage.
Rebuilding a stable basis for American global leadership will of course require, among other things, changes in policy and strategy that restore the complex balance between diplomacy and force, and between consensus and coercion, so recklessly discarded during the Bush years. However, if the US is able to overcome the economic challenges of the coming years – something that cannot be taken for granted – there are structural and cultural factors that could cause it to emerge as an even more influential actor on the world stage.
Robert Dujarric is director of the Institute of Contemporary Japanese Studies at Temple University Japan in Tokyo. Andy Zelleke is a lecturer in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School and codirector of its Center for Public Leadership.