The Default Power

The False Prophecy of America's Decline

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Every ten years, it is decline time in the United States. In the late 1950s, it was the Sputnik shock, followed by the "missile gap" trumpeted by John F. Kennedy in the 1960 presidential campaign. A decade later, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger sounded the dirge over bipolarity, predicting a world of five, rather than two, global powers. At the end of the 1970s, Jimmy Carter's "malaise" speech invoked "a crisis of confidence" that struck "at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will."

A decade later, academics such as the Yale historian Paul Kennedy predicted the ruin of the United States, driven by overextension abroad and profligacy at home. The United States was at risk of "imperial overstretch," Kennedy wrote in 1987, arguing that "the sum total of the United States' global interests and obligations is nowadays far larger than the country's power to defend them all simultaneously." But three years later, Washington dispatched 600,000 soldiers to fight the first Iraq war -- without reinstating the draft or raising taxes. The only price of "overstretch" turned out to be the mild recession of 1991.

Declinism took a break in the 1990s. The United States was enjoying a nice run after the suicide of the Soviet Union, and Japan, the economic powerhouse of the 1980s, was stuck in its "lost decade" of stagnation and so no longer stirred U.S. paranoia with its takeover of national treasures such as Pebble Beach and Rockefeller Center. The United States had moved into the longest economic expansion in history, which, apart from eight down months in 2001, continued until 2008. "Gloom is the dominant mood in Japan these days," one Asian commentator reported in 1997, whereas "American capitalism is resurgent, confident and brash." That year, the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote that "the defining feature of world affairs" was "globalization" and that if "you had to design a country best suited to compete in such a world, [it would be] today's America." He concluded on a triumphant note: "Globalization is us."

In those days, any declinist harrumph sounded quirky or simply generic. The indictment delivered in 1994 by the Oxford fellow John Gray could have come from any time: "The U.S. no longer possesses any recognizable common culture." It had degenerated into a melee of "warring cultural and ethnic groups," with "ungovernability" just around the corner. For Gray, it all added up to a "spectacle of American decline."

But by the end of the Bush administration, declinism had returned with a vengeance. This year, inspired by the global financial crisis, Paul Kennedy revisited the arguments he had laid out in his book The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers over 20 years ago. "The biggest loser is understood to be Uncle Sam," he wrote. Chronic fiscal deficits and military overstretch -- the twin scourge of his 1987 book -- were finally doing in the United States, he argued, and the "global tectonic power shift, toward Asia and away from the West, seems hard to reverse."

Roger Altman, a former deputy secretary of the Treasury, has written in these pages that the financial crash "has inflicted profound damage on . . . [the United States'] standing in the world." The German finance minister, Peer Steinbrück, has crowed, "The United States will lose its superpower status in the world financial system," which "will become more multipolar." And the historian Niall Ferguson has gone halfway, warning that although "the balance of global power is bound to shift," "commentators should always hesitate before they prophesy the decline and fall of the United States."

No such hesitation has befallen the new crop of declinists. Some of their lore is simply generic, divorced from time and circumstance, and thus achingly familiar to those who remember 50 years of similar boilerplate. Last year, Parag Khanna, a fellow at the New America Foundation, intoned that "America's standing in the world remains in steady decline." This has a familiar ring to it, as does Khanna's announcement that U.S. power is "competing -- and losing -- in a geopolitical marketplace alongside the world's other superpowers."

Who are these superpowers? From the 1950s through the 1970s, it was the Soviet Union, and in the 1980s, Japan. Now, Khanna fingers the European Union and China. For Europe, it is the second time around the block -- the old continent was touted as the multipolar muscleman by the previous generation of doomsters.

Finally, two foreign voices. One is that of Kishore Mahbubani, Singapore's former UN ambassador, whose bid to succeed Kofi Annan as UN secretary-general was thwarted by Washington. As the title of his 2008 book, The New Asian Hemisphere: The Irresistible Shift of Global Power to the East, suggests, he chronicles not the degeneration of the United States as much as the triumph of Asia. His tone is avuncular, if not patronizing: "Sadly, . . . Western intellectual life continues to be dominated by those who continue to celebrate the supremacy of the West." So the West, in this case the United States, is losing its grip not only on power but also on reality -- going from Chapter 11 straight to the psychiatrist's couch. In contrast, "the rest of the world has moved on. A steady delegitimization of Western power . . . is underway." And who shall inherit the earth? Mahbubani suggests China, which "should eventually take over the mantle of global leadership from America." This is a subtly contemptuous version of America perdita -- wishful thinking posing as sober analysis.

A second voice is that of Dimitry Orlov, a Russian-born writer who saw the Soviet empire disembowel itself and, in an act of psychic revenge, has projected the same fate onto the United States. "At some point during the coming years," he wrote in his 2008 book, Reinventing Collapse: The Soviet Example and American Prospects, "the economic system of the United States will teeter and fall. . . . America's economy will evaporate like the morning mist." He calls both the Soviet Union and the United States "evil empires."

This brief history of declinism shows that doom arrives in cycles, and what comes and goes, logically, does not a trend make. Today, as after past prophecies of imminent debility, the United States remains first on any scale of power that matters -- economic, military, diplomatic, or cultural -- despite being embroiled in two wars and beset by the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. The question, then, is, how well can the projections, dreams, and fantasies chronicled above stand up to this enduring reality?


Ever since America was discovered, it has been an object of the imagination. Long before the 13 colonies jelled into a union, America was a construct more than a country -- a canvas onto which the rest of the world would endlessly project its fondest dreams and fiercest nightmares.

The canvas is painted in two colors: glee and gloom. Glee is mainly celebrated abroad. Wanting the United States to falter is the natural reflex of those forced to coexist with a looming Gulliver who terrifies simply by throwing his weight around. So every decade, hope springs anew that this Gulliver will be muscled aside by somebody else. Far from foreshadowing the United States' demise, these fantasies are actually a perverse way of paying homage to the giant's fearsome clout -- the troubles of small powers never provoke diagnoses of rampant debility.

The gloom is mainly Made in U.S.A. These nightmare scenarios come from a prophetic tradition in which the Jeremiahs hope to prevent what they predict by convincing the wayward to atone. Latter-day prophets use the language of decay to pursue a domestic agenda, whether it is a libertarian vision of isolationism and low taxes or a liberal one of more welfare and less militarism. These familiar motifs recall the words of the Founding Fathers, who saw aggrandizement abroad as a sure path to ruin at home. Thomas Jefferson warned against "entangling alliances"; John Quincy Adams did not want the United States to turn into "the dictatress of the world." If she did, "she would no longer be the ruler of her own spirit." Expansion, accordingly, equals the loss of America's soul.

Declinism has always oscillated between projection and prophecy, between those who cheer and those who fear finis Americae. A May 2009 New Yorker cartoon gently poked fun at recidivist doomsayers. It shows a penitent with a placard: "The End Is Still Coming," and has a passerby asking his companion, "Wasn't that Paul Krugman?" But simply pointing out the cycles and agendas found in any talk of decline does not dispose of the recurrent question: What is the United States' standing in the world, and what might topple number one from its lofty perch? It is time for a look at the facts and figures.


In all instances of declinism, economic failure serves as Exhibit A. But current figures show the U.S. economy to be worth $14.3 trillion, three times as much as the world's second-biggest economy, Japan's, and only slightly less than the economies of its four nearest competitors combined -- Japan, China, Germany, and France. Never before in modern history have the gaps between great powers been so wide. On the eve of World War I, the key players in the European balance of power were more or less evenly matched. The German economy, with a GDP of $237 billion, had just eclipsed the British economy, then $225 billion; France's GDP was $144 billion, and Russia's was roughly $230 billion.

Today, there is only one challenge to the dominance of the U.S. economy: the European Union's aggregate GDP of $18 trillion. But the more appropriate comparison may be with the 16-member eurozone, which has a common monetary policy and a rudimentary common fiscal policy -- and a collective GDP of $13.5 trillion, less than that of the United States. But an unwieldy conglomeration of 27, or even 16, states cannot be a strategic player.

The United States also comes out ahead among major powers in terms of per capita income, with $47,000 per inhabitant. It is followed by France and Germany (both in the $44,000 range), Japan ($38,000), Russia ($11,000), China ($2,900), and India ($1,000). It is not clear how China could soon best the United States in this regard, which has a per capita income that is 7.5 times as large as China's. A country becomes neither rich nor powerful by adding up 1.3 billion very poor people -- unless its riches are falsely measured by current account surpluses.

The gaps become exorbitant in the realm of military power, where the United States plays in a league of its own. In 2008, it spent $607 billion on its military, representing almost half of the world's total military spending. The next nine states spent a total of $476 billion, and the presumptive challengers to U.S. military supremacy -- China, India, Japan, and Russia -- together devoted only $219 billion to their militaries. The military budget of China, the country most often touted as the world's next superpower, is less than one-seventh of the U.S. defense budget. Even if one includes among potential U.S. adversaries the 27 states of the EU, which together spend $288 billion on defense, the United States still outweighs them all -- $607 billion compared to $507 billion.

Nor can any other great power boast the United States' naval strength, a measure of a state's ability to project power quickly and over great distances. In 2005, as Robert Work, a defense analyst and now undersecretary of the U.S. Navy, has shown, the U.S. Navy commanded a naval tonnage exceeding the world's next 17 fleets combined. This is a dramatic shift from 1922, when the Washington Naval Conference tried to set the rules for a balance of power at sea. The three top competitors -- the United States, the United Kingdom, and Japan -- were allowed navies in the ratio of 5:5:3. At the time, the United Kingdom, the world's greatest maritime power, had a total naval tonnage of 525,000 tons. Germany, France, and Russia also had navies capable of fighting halfway around the world. Today, however, China, India, Japan, Russia, and the EU put together could not conduct a major war 8,000 miles from their shores, as the United States has done twice in Iraq and once in Afghanistan in recent years.


The breathtaking rise of China is at the center of the current spate of declinism, much as Japan's was in the 1980s. This argument is not about the present or the absolute decline of the United States but about its relative loss vis-à-vis China -- the United States is supposedly doomed because China's economy has been growing at three times the rate of the United States' and therefore will surpass the United States in terms of output sometime in the next several decades.

This would be a safe bet only if GDP is measured using purchasing power parity (PPP), which raises China's 2007 nominal GDP from $3.3 trillion to almost $8 trillion because of its extremely depressed price and wage levels. Taking a high-end estimate of Chinese growth -- an annual rate of ten percent -- China's economy would double every seven years, overtaking current U.S. GDP as early as 2015 and leaving the United States in the dust seven years later. But whatever the tipping point, this calculation suggests that China will emerge as number one. Alas, global standing is not measured by the low prices of nontradable goods, such as haircuts, bootlegged software, and government services. Think instead about advanced technology, energy, raw materials, and the cost of higher education in the West. These items are critical for growth and must be procured on the world market. Influence bought abroad, say, through foreign aid, also comes at exchange-rate prices, as does imported high-tech weaponry.

The debate over whether to consider GDP based on PPP or nominal GDP as a measure of economic power is endless. The Australian economist Saul Eslake, who predicts the déclassement of the United States on the basis of PPP as early as 2015, offers a typical caveat: "Of course, these projections may prove inaccurate: by and large they extrapolate the growth rates of the recent past, and make no allowance for a global economic downturn, or for downturns in any individual economy, and they do not seem to make much allowance for demographic factors."

Life, however, is not linear. China's uninterrupted double-digit growth rates are of a recent vintage, essentially since 2003. In 1989 and 1990, growth in China was four percent. In 1967 and 1968, China's growth actually fell, by 5.1 percent and 2.9 percent, respectively, and in 1976, it fell by 5.8 percent. These last three years are not plucked at random; the first two marked the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, and the last one, its end, and they offer a useful reminder of volatility driven by wrenching domestic upheaval. History sounded a similar warning against straight-line projections in 1989, the year of the crackdown in Tiananmen Square, when growth plummeted to four percent, compared with 11.3 percent the previous year. Karl Marx asserted that economics drives everything else -- such turmoil suggests that politics is mightier still.

Estimates that China's economy will grow by six percent in 2009 are another cautionary tale. China's growth has dropped by half from a historical high of almost 12 percent in 2007, which serves as a warning that its miraculous growth is foreign made -- China is a place where the rest of the world essentially rents workers and workspace at deflated prices and distorted exchange rates. The Chinese economy is extremely dependent on exports -- they amount to around two-fifths of China's GDP -- and hence vulnerable to global economic downturns. In fact, China's exports have plunged by 26 percent this year. Such are the cyclical risks of playing offshore manufacturing heaven to the world. Export-led expansion may pick up in China again if world trade returns to earlier levels. But such a recovery would not solve the underlying problem: the structural deformation export dependency has wrought. Between 1991 and 1995, 100 million yuan in investment in fixed assets yielded 66.2 million yuan in GDP and 400 new jobs, according to Minxin Pei of the Carnegie Endowment. But ten years later, according to Pei's data, the same amount of investment added only 28.6 million yuan to GDP and 170 new jobs. The law of diminishing returns -- the oldest in economics -- has begun to bite.

This also has political consequences, which are never factored into linear forecasts based on past performance. Precisely because China is so export dependent, it devotes only 35 percent of GDP to private consumption, compared with 60 percent in many Western countries. Something will have to give, as some 70,000 civil disturbances each year in China suggest, the latest being the turmoil in Xinjiang in July 2009 that killed hundreds. If China does shift resources into social services and support, exports and export-led growth will necessarily fall. Germany is an instructive case: it has about the same export ratio as China, but it also supports a welfare state that eats up one-third of its GDP, which has resulted in an average annual growth rate of 1.5 percent over the last decade. The Chinese regime thus faces the predicament of choosing between exports and welfare. Authoritarian modernization à la Deng Xiaoping has managed to suppress this clash, but unless China is not of this world, society's chickens will come home to roost, demanding to be fed or freed.

Even if China manages to avoid the pernicious dynamics of authoritarian modernization -- war, revolution, and upheaval -- that eventually befell imperial Germany, Japan, and Russia, it will face another challenge in its demographic deterioration. Essentially, China will grow old before becoming rich, as Mark Haas, a professor of political science at Duquesne University, has noted. According to Goldman Sachs, by 2050 the Chinese economy will long have overtaken the U.S. economy, with a GDP of $45 trillion, compared with the United States' $35 trillion. But by then, the median age in the United States will be the lowest of any of the world's large powers, except India. The United States' working-age population will have grown by about 30 percent, whereas China's will have dropped by three percent. The economic and strategic consequences will be enormous. China's aging population will require a shifting of resources from investment to welfare, thus reducing China's growth. And as the economic pie shrinks, a growing number of pensioners -- 329 million by 2050 -- will demand a larger slice. This will necessarily cut into the share for the People's Liberation Army. If China cannot dodge this double whammy, how can it be expected to unseat the United States as the greatest military power the world has ever seen?

Perhaps it is time to play a different round of the compound-interest game so beloved by the declinists. Assuming China's economy grows at seven percent -- twice the historical rate of the United States' -- China's GDP will double between 2007 and 2015, from $3.3 trillion to $6.6 trillion, and then double again by 2025, to $13.2 trillion. By that time, assuming 3.5 percent annual growth for the United States (the historical average), U.S. GDP will have grown to $28 trillion. Given the myriad challenges China faces, this scenario is more realistic than projections based on China's recent growth rates. China, it seems, still has a way to go before it can dethrone the United States.


Compound-interest games are entertaining but not enlightening, since power, the most elusive concept in political science, is not just a matter of growth rates. What, then, makes a country great? A large population, a large economy, and a large military are necessary but not sufficient conditions. What puts the United States in a league of its own? For one, the world's most sophisticated military panoply, fed by a defense budget that dwarfs all comers and gives the United States the means to intervene anywhere on the planet. But there is even more: an unmatched research and higher-education establishment that continues to drive excellence. All projections that show China surpassing the United States in the first half of this century leave out these two unspectacular -- but critical -- sources of power. Of the world's top 20 universities, all but three are American; of the top 50, all but 11 are located in the United States. By contrast, India's two best universities are tucked away in the world's 300-to-400 tier. China does a bit better, its top three -- Nanjing University, Peking University, and Shanghai University -- are in the 200-to-300 group of the world's 500 best. Harvard and Stanford are not quaking, and neither are Cambridge and Oxford. China's public spending on education, meanwhile, has been in the range of 2.0-2.5 percent of GDP over the last quarter century -- this for a population four times as large as the United States' and an economy four times as small. In the United States, average spending has been close to six percent, higher than that of India, Japan, Russia, and the EU. The same pattern holds for research and development (R & D) outlays, with the U.S. rate almost twice as high as China's -- again as a fraction of a vastly larger GDP.

Education and R & D are critical because they condition future performance. True, an increasing number of U.S. graduates in the hard sciences are foreign born or first-generation immigrants. But far from betraying a failure on the United States' part, this trend actually dramatizes a unique advantage: no other country draws so many of the world's best and brightest to its labs and universities, especially from China and India.

Another aspect of national power is a warrior culture. The United States still has one, as does the United Kingdom. But Europe -- although it bests or equals the United States in terms of population, economic size, and military might -- no longer has the mindset that once made it the master of the world. The armies of European countries are no longer objects of national pride and no longer serve as ladders for social advancement, nor are they the principal agents for promoting the national interest. For all its marvelous riches, Europe is hardly a prime player in the contemporary great-power game: it does not think like a global power, nor can it move with the speed or decisiveness of a real state. The EU takes pride in being a civilian power that expands by force of example, rather than by force of arms. And why not, as long as the United States acts as the security lender of last resort?

What distinguishes the United States from the rest is its choice of role and mission in the world. This self-definition is best illuminated by a comparison with Russia, which wants back what it lost, and China, which wants more than it has. Both countries want more, but for themselves, not for all. Driven by selfish purposes, powers such as Russia and China cannot be what the United States was at its best in the twentieth century: a state that pursued its own interests by also serving those of others and thus created global demand for the benefits it provided. It is neither altruism nor egotism but enlightened self-interest that breeds influence.

The United States' choice of its role, in addition to its vast material riches, made it the twentieth century's indispensable nation. While acting on its own interests, it twice saved Europe from itself, and then saved it a third time, during the Cold War, from the Soviet Union. In the interwar period -- again, obeying its own economic interests -- the United States sought to blunt what John Maynard Keynes called "the economic consequences of the peace" by pumping dollars into Europe's economies. Although the Dawes and Young Plans, two U.S.-led economic assistance programs after World War I, were surely designed to make Europe safe and profitable for U.S. investments and exports, they also promoted recovery in Europe, as the Marshall Plan did a generation later. Much has been said about the splendid institutional architecture the United States put in place after World War II, from the United Nations to NATO, and from the International Monetary Fund to the Organization for European Economic Cooperation. But the point needs repeating: to find profit for itself, the United States provided for others. But all this occurred during times of war, hot or cold, when hard necessity generated the incentive to shoulder the burden and pay the price. What makes the United States indispensable now?

The United States is the default power, the country that occupies center stage because there is nobody else with the requisite power and purpose. Why not any of the others? On a speculative note, it may take a liberal, seafaring empire to turn national interests into international public goods. The United Kingdom built a global empire for itself, but in the process it produced a whole slew of precious public goods: free trade, freedom of the seas, and the gold standard.

It is difficult to imagine China, India, Japan, Russia, or the EU as guardians of the larger common interest. The EU comes close, but it has neither the means nor the will to act strategically. Japan, although rich enough to marshal the means, will continue to huddle under the United States' strategic umbrella as long as it is extended. India has the size and the population, but apart from being the poorest of them all, it is trapped in a permanent conflict with Pakistan (and a latent one with China), which monopolizes its resources and attention. China and Russia are revisionist powers in business only for themselves. They also lack the right polity. The United Kingdom and the United States are history's only liberal empires. To labor for a liberal order abroad requires such an order at home, and so does the habit, sincere or selfish, of articulating the national interest in a universal language. The British Empire's rule over India was more benign than Belgium's over the Congo under the rapacious reign of King Leopold, and it was also more pleasant than is China's in Tibet or Russia's in its former Soviet empire. The United States has routinely intervened in Central America -- where it once kept a lot of nasty company -- but China's rebellious students put up a replica of the Statue of Liberty in Tiananmen Square, and not one of Lenin's mausoleum. China and Russia might shine forth as models of authoritarian modernization, but to capture a wider swath of the political imagination, it takes a country that is not just rich but also democratic and free.


The United States was far from universally loved under President George W. Bush. Many foreigners saw it as taking advantage of the "unipolar moment" by going to war twice and defying a slew of international agreements and institutions, from the Kyoto Protocol to the International Criminal Court. The United States' autonomy, ran the message of Gulliver Unbound, was not going to be curbed or controlled by the world at large. And yet, for all the anti-Americanism that has coursed through western Europe, the Islamic world, and Latin America in recent years, the United States has remained the world's dominant power. When it adopted a hands-off policy toward the Arab-Israeli conflict in the early years of the Bush administration, no other state could fill the vacuum. And when it decided to reengage in the peace process in Annapolis in 2007, everybody showed up; no other government could have mustered that much convening power. Nor could any other nation have harnessed the global coalition that has been fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan. The six-party talks with North Korea were orchestrated by the United States; on the other hand, the three-party talks with Iran -- led by France, Germany, and the United Kingdom -- could not put a stop to Iran's nuclear ambitions. The moral is that either the United States takes care of the heavy lifting or nobody does. And this is the concise definition of a default power.

Nor can the rest truly constrain U.S. might. France, Germany, and Russia tried to do so in the run-up to the second Iraq war, in 2003, but ultimately could not stop the U.S. behemoth. In a grudging homage to U.S. power, German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder helped the war effort by granting the United States basing and overflight rights and agreeing to guard U.S. installations in the country to free up U.S. forces for duty in Iraq. More recently, in 2008, it was the United Kingdom and the United States -- rather than the G-20 -- that took the lead in battling the global financial crisis, with massive stimulus measures and injections of liquidity. The speed with which Barack Obama captured hearts and minds around the world after his election in November 2008 represented a rare moment in the annals of the great powers -- a moment of relief at having a U.S. president who made it possible for the world to love his country again.

Of course, the United States will not get its way always or everywhere, nor will worldwide affection for Obama translate into a surfeit of U.S. influence. The default power is still an überpower, and other states will seek to balance against it. China and Russia, for example, protect Iran and North Korea from painful UN sanctions. Meanwhile, China and the United States hold each other hostage in a state of M-MAD, or "monetary mutual assured destruction." China cannot unload hundreds of billions of dollars' worth of U.S. Treasury bills without destroying the dollar and its trade surplus, which created its hoard in the first place. Nor can Washington force Beijing to give up on its predatory trade and exchange-rate policies without suffering monetary retaliation.

But financial deterrence does not a new default power make. The economic storm that hit the United States in 2008 has triggered a tsunami in China, which has cut its growth rate in half -- although six percent is still a lot better than the negative growth suffered by much of the West. And like the world's other aspiring powers, China lacks the legitimacy that transforms muscle into leadership. The Obama administration grasps this enduring essence of world politics -- it adds kindness to clout, amicability to hard assets.

Take Obama's overtures to the Muslim world, outlined first in his inaugural address and then more fully in his speech in Cairo in June. Prince Obama needs no advice from Machiavelli, who famously counseled that it is best to be both loved and feared. By flattering the Islamic world and widening the distance between Israel and the United States, the Obama administration hopes to improve its chances of forging a Sunni Arab alliance against Iran. Forgoing the use of force against Iran's and North Korea's nuclear armaments may be more than just an act of prudence, especially when the costs of war -- say, retaliation by Iran against tanker traffic in the Persian Gulf or a North Korean attack on South Korea -- loom larger than the risks of proliferation down the road. What cannot be averted might just as well be turned into a diplomatic advantage. Tehran's and Pyongyang's unchecked nuclear ambitions may well facilitate U.S.-led coalition building against them. A default power always gains stature when the demand for its services soars.

The default power does what others cannot or will not do. It underwrites Europe's security against a resurgent Russia -- which is why U.S. troops remain welcome there even 20 years after Moscow's capitulation in the Cold War. It helps the Europeans take care of local malefactors, such as former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic. It chastises whoever reaches for mastery over the Middle East, thus the United States helped Iraq in its war against Iran between 1980 and 1988 and then defanged it in 1991 and again in 2003. Only the default power has the power to harness a coalition against Iran, the new pretender in the Middle East. It guarantees the survival of Israel, but at the same time, the Palestinians and the Saudis look to the United States for leverage against Jerusalem. Is it possible to imagine China, Europe, or Russia as a more persuasive mediator? No, because only the United States can insure both the Arabs and the Israelis against the consequences of misplaced credulity.

In the new Great Game, the United States offers itself as a silent partner against Russian attempts to restore sway over its former satrapies, and it leads the renewed battle against the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, signaling ever so softly that it will sequester Pakistan's nuclear weapons if chaos widens into collapse. At the same time, only the United States can rein in both India and Pakistan and protect each against the other. The United States has drawn India into its orbit, and in doing so it has added to the informal balance against China. Dreams of Asia Rising must pay respect to a strategic reality centered on the United States as the underwriter of regional security. Whether Vietnam or Japan, South Korea or Australia -- all of Asia counts on the United States to keep China on its best behavior and Japan from going nuclear.

Gainsayers will still dramatize China's growth rates as a harbinger of a grand power shift. The facts and figures and the story of the resistible rise of previous contenders should give pause to those who either cheer or fear the United States' abdication. Linearity is not a good predictor. Imperial powers have regularly succumbed to the ebb and flow of power, although in the United Kingdom's case, that took 300 years. How long will the United States' luck last? Addicted to constant reinvention, it should not fall prey to the rigor mortis that overwhelmed the Ottoman, Austrian, Russian, and Soviet empires.

As the twenty-first century unfolds, the United States will be younger and more dynamic than its competitors. And as a liberal empire, it can work the international system with fewer costs than yesterday's behemoths, which depended on territorial possessions and had to conduct endless wars against natives and rivals. A Tyrannosaurus rex faces costlier resistance than the bumbling bull that is the United States. A final point to ponder: Who would actually want to live in a world dominated by China, India, Japan, Russia, or even Europe, which for all its enormous appeal cannot take care of its own backyard? Not even those who have been trading in glee and gloom decade after decade would prefer any of them to take over as housekeeper of the world.

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