Sunday, June 08, 2003

OK. I'm going to try this again. My friend Adam Lipscomb asked in the comments if I saw another country acting towards us as we did towards Britain - benefiting from public goods and eventually overtaking the hegemon. I don't think that's likely in the foreseeable future, with a caveat. The current overwhelming US dominance of the world is unlikely to continue for more than another couple of decades. That is probably an historical aberration, although a fairly long one. I do believe, however, that the US is likely to remain the world's preeminent power for the forseeable future, and that there is little or no chance of a peer or near-peer state developing.

Most political scientists would argue that the decline of the United States to rough parity with other countries, so that it was at most first among equals, is essentially inevitable. The most powerful country in the international system is supposed to be opposed and imitated by the lesser powers until they neutralize its advantages. That's the core of balance of power theory, whether in its realist interpretation, as Hans Morgenthau laid it out in Politics Among Nations or Kenneth Waltz's neorealist theories, as described in Man, the State, and War (his doctoral dissertation!) or in A Theory of International Politics. Henry Kissinger was famously concerned with maintaining the balance of power, and it was these sorts of political theories that guided his thinking. Over time, other countries will line up against the United States, opposing its interests, until it is finally brought back to the mass. I've even heard some people argue that the events of the last few months leading up to the Iraq War are a classic example of this taking place.

Probably the single most powerful force that might cause the relative decline of the United States is simple regression to the mean. If two tall people marry, their kids are likely to be tall - but not as tall as they are. Over time, just about everything regresses back to the average for its population. Historically the United States has grown economically significantly faster than the rest of the word. That's unlikely to last - eventually it will regress to the mean. Against the Gods by Peter Bernstein has a great description of regression to the mean and its power, particularly in the financial and economic arenas.

Now, I don't actually happen to find balance of power theory all that convincing, for a wide variety of reasons. I've mentioned Robert Gilpin's hegemonic stability theory in an earlier post. Gilpin's idea is that if the most powerful state in the international system is overwhelmingly powerful, it can establish a hegemony and essentially police the system, like Britain after the Napoleonic Wars or the United States today. Like Morgenthau and Waltz, though, Gilpin believes that the downfall of the hegemon is inevitable. In his case he argues that the hegemon will have to continually overpay for collective goods. It will cost more to maintain freedom of the seas than the hegemon itself benefits (relative to its peers). But, in absolute terms, the hegemon will still benefit from providing these collective goods, and no other state in the system will do so. Eventually the economy of the hegemon will weaken under these stresses, and its competitors will catch up to and surpass it. This is what he believes happened to Britain over the course of the nineteenth century, until Germany caught up with it, causing the collapse of Britain's hegemony in Europe and leading eventually to the First and Second World Wars. Gilpin's book, War and Change in World Politics, was published in 1980, and in it he predicted that the greatest challenge facing the international system was the slow decline of the United States (the hegemon at the time) under the burdens of paying for collective goods, until states like the Soviet Union caught up with it. Paul Kennedy's The Rise and Fall of Great Powers made a very similar argument, using the term imperial overstretch. Right now this may seem implausible, but in 1980 this was very convincing, and Gilpin's general theory still seems, to me, to have a great deal of power in explaining international politics. It's worth noting, though that Waltz, to his credit, argued at about the same time that the fall of the Soviet Union was a much more likely outcome, although it's hard to see how this squares with his theoretical ideas.

That aside, these are pretty powerful arguments. Nations do often balance against one another, just about everything does regress to the mean, and hegemons do tend to overpay for collective goods. Look at Iraq - everybody benefits from getting rid of Saddam, but it's the US that's going to be paying most of the bills. Or, an even better example, look at European security and stability. Given the history of the first half of the twentieth century, peace in Europe is clearly in everyone's interest. So was, during the Cold War, the protection of Western Europe from Soviet domination. Even more clearly, the nations of Western Europe benefit more from these things than the US does. The United States, though, ended up footing the lion's share of the bill for the protection of Western Europe during the Cold War, and maintains by far the most powerful military forces in Europe today. Everyone benefits, but we pay a vastly disproportionate share of the costs - exactly what Gilpin would predict. So why don't I think these factors will bring the United States back to the pack?

Well, the first answer is - why haven't they yet? The US has been generally acknowledged as the most powerful nation in the world since 1918. Then, there were a few other contenders for that position. Now, 85 years later, our relative position is vastly stronger, not weaker, than it was then, and there's little or no prospect of that changing in the immediate future. You would think that if it were going to happen, it would at least have begun by now. But it doesn't seem to be happening at all.

Even more than that, there's the Yankees problem. (My thanks to General John Reppert for suggesting this example). All the factors described above should apply to organizations in any competitive scenario, not just nations. Why haven't the Yankees regressed to the mean? The modern secret to the Yankees success is their extraordinary financial advantage over the other teams in Major League Baseball. Where does it come from? Well, part of it is just from being in New York. That's a major plus for any team. But the Mets are in New York too, and they don't have anything close to the same record. The Braves get Atlanta all to themselves. The Dodgers get LA. The Orioles get both Baltimore and Washington, DC all to themselves. It's not just New York. More fundamentally, the Yankees' success has created conditions which increase their chances for future success. The Yankees have created a virtuous cycle. They don't just have fans in New York - the Yankees have fans all across America. Why? Because they win, and people tend to root for a winner. There isn't a city in America where you can't go and see Yankees caps and jackets. Maybe they aren't as popular as those of the home team, but you can guarantee that they're more popular than those of any other baseball team. By winning, they created a fanbase across America. This fanbase gives them the financial resources that allow them to win, time and time again. That winning further strengthens their fanbase, and so on. The Yankees - the hegemonic power of Major League Baseball - have used their power to create an environment that, for them, defeats regression to the mean, and has successfully done so for 80 years, with no change in sight.

Now, how is this relevant to the good ol' US of A? Well, the first thing is to realize the sheer scale of the American advantage over the rest of the world. For the sake of argument, I'm going to assume that China is the only real candidate for a country that could successfully challenge and/or surpass the United States. Let's say that China will become a near-peer to the US when its GDP reaches 75% of that of the United States. The current United States GDP is about $10 trillion, the current Chinese GDP is about $1.2 trillion. I'm ignoring purchasing-power-parity here because, first, as Chinese per capita income grows that Chinese advantage is going to erode and, second, because the high technology nature of modern weaponry suggests that the global price is likely to be relatively uniform. China has been growing much faster than the US over the last two decades or so, around 8% per year if you believe the official figures (I don't). That certainly can't last much longer, but a much higher growth rate than the US for quite a while seems reasonable. Let's say 6%. That would be a world-historic growth rate if it was continued for a couple of decades without interruption - I doubt there's another example of that sort of growth in history. The US is (hopefully) coming out of a recession right now. If we gave it an average growth rate of 2% into the future - a fairly conservative number - we can work out how long it would take for China to catch up to the US in terms of sheer economic capacity. Using those numbers, China would reach 75% of the US in 2047. That's quite a long time from now. I don't know what the world will look like in 2047, but I'm confident it will look a lot different from the world of today. That tosses one factor into the pot.

Even more than that, however, I think there are some fairly large obstacles in China's way, and some very large assets that the US still has. The first of those is geographic. The United States has no security threats on its borders, and no real prospect of any of them developing in the future. China, by contrast, has India to the south, Japan to the east, Russia to the north, and several smaller countries as well - and it doesn't have good relations with any of them. As China grows in power it is likely to drive all of those countries closer to the United States. We're already seeing examples of this, ranging from the new, closer relationship between India and the US (who are also driven together by their shared opposition to Islamic terror) to the quiet negotiations between the US and some southeast Asian countries about deploying American forces on their territory - even including Vietnam (Link courtesy of Instapundit). China, by contrast, already has territorial disputes with several of these countries, and is going to have to invest fairly heavily in defense spending if it wants to dominate the region against such formidable rivals.

The second major American advantage is that China, as it develops, is going to undergo a huge amount of social stress, and it doesn't seem to me that it has any real way to deal with that. Sam Huntington's work on modernization theory suggests that societies are most likely to undergo domestic strife not when they are desperately poor, but when they start to get rich - in particular when they suffer setbacks along that path. (A caveat - Prof. Huntington was a mentor of mine in college, so you might not give his arguments as much credibility as I do. I believe, however, that they are pretty generally accepted in political science.) As their economic status improves, people start to expect more from their life - that's the "revolution of rising expectations." As long as things continue to get better, they will stay happy - but they will expect continually faster improvements, and will be very unwilling to accept setbacks. Once they hit one, or even once their expectations begin to outpace what the economy can deliver - that's when you get social unrest, terrorism, and potentially even civil war (incidentally, Saudi Arabia, it seems to me, fits pretty neatly into this model. It modernised under the spur of oil revenues, but once oil prices crashed, we've seen living standards and per capita income there decline significantly over the past 20 years or so. I don't think it's a coincidence that this is the period when Saudi nationals have been active in international terrorism, as they were not before the 1980s). China hasn't hit this speed bump yet, and when it does, its people don't have any peaceful way to vent their frustration. Furthermore, economic development in China is so uneven, ranging from very high in the southern provinces to fairly low in the west (and, I believe, in Manchuria, where there are also some ethnic tensions) that this can only exacerbate internal problems. If I had to make a forecast about China's future between now and 2047, I have to say that massive internal civil conflict is a lot more likely than smooth development into an industrialized state.

There's a third argument, which is a little softer and fuzzier, but I think no less true. The American dominance of the global system is so total that we have been able, to a very large extent, to craft it in our own image. Think about the internet and computer techology in general for a second. I would posit that really successful internet and computer-focused organizations have a few characteristics in common. Among those are a very fast pace of internal change, a comfort with questioning established orthodoxies and adjusting patterns of behavior as circumstances shift, and a distribution of decision-making power throughout the organization, particularly to fairly low levels within the organization itself. All of these are almost stereotypically American traits - they are qualities that American culture, more than any other, tends to emphasize and inculcate. If the Internet was not a largely American creation, it seems at least possible to me that a different set of characteristics would lead to success, but it was, and so they do. I don't think this is just the internet, either. Look at biotechnology. Western Europe has, on the whole, almost entirely rejected genetic engineering, particularly for food, but really for a lot of things. In the United States, by contrast, it's barely even a topic of controversy, and the idea of banning bio-engineered crops would be considered nothing less than absurd. There's just no chance of that ever happening. I think this speaks to a fairly fundamental difference between our two cultures. American culture is just more comfortable with change, and with risk, than most other cultures are. Perhaps because we have been so influential in shaping the qualities necessary for success in the future, those are precisely the qualities necessary to do well. Over time other cultures may learn to imitate these traits, but I find it difficult to believe that they will ever be able to embrace them as thoroughly as we do.

There are a few other players in the game as well. India, Japan, and the European Union are other possibilities. They seem even less likely to me than China, however. India is much farther behind, and (sadly) doesn't seem to be moving forward as fast as China is. I have more faith in India's long-term stability and development than I do in China's, but that's really long-term. For the forseeable future, they just won't be in the global game. Japan and the European Union, on the other hand, have almost the opposite problem. If India and China are in a sense too young to compete, Japan and the EU are too old. Literally. Both of them have populations that are aging fast and are declining in absolute numbers. Those facts are putting significant stress on their governments' financial resources, but even more than that, the US has a population that is still growing fairly quickly and not getting much older, thanks in large part to a steady influx of immigrants that Japan and the EU nations seem culturally incapable of accepting. There are, so far as I can tell, no signs that either of those two powers is likely to do anything but decline further with respect to the US, and probably at a steadily increasing rate.

Thus I think it likely that for the forseeable future - let's call it my lifetime, and I'm 24, - the US is likely to remain the world's dominant power, without any significant competition for the top spot. It wouldn't surprise me if we have problems with China over an attempt on its part to establish regional hegemony in Asia, but the possibility of an equal - what the Pentagon calls a Global Peer Competitor - seems to me to be remote.
Son of a *****. I just wrote up a very long, in my opinion quite good, post on why the US's global dominance is likely to be maintained into the future. I then told myself to copy it to notepad to publish just in case something happened - and then, like an idiot, I didn't, clicked "Post and Publish", and lost the whole thing. Damn it.
Niall Ferguson has an interesting article on Opinionjournal.com today. He argues that the United States has an empire, and it should start acting like it. I think he's right in some senses, but wrong in a more important one. And it's not just because my Indian heritage makes my hackles rise up at the idea of an empire!

In all seriousness, the United States doesn't have an empire. Critical to the idea of an empire is conquering territory and running it from a central area (the metropole) for the benefit of the metropole, and doing so with the intention of doing it permanently. Even the best of imperialists - the British, for example - did this. The United States has, in the twentieth century, conquered a fair amount of territory. Germany, Japan, Panama, and Iraq come immediately to mind. But, although we did run (or are running) those countries from Washington for a while, we didn't do so permanently, and we never did it for our own benefit. As a friend of mine commented, if we were running an empire, "Where's my plunder?" The British got a fair amount of plunder from India, and a whole lot from the rest of their Empire - go take a look at the historical roots of where most of the Crown Jewels came from, just for a start. They weren't exactly sold for a fair price. We aren't doing that. The US is doing a lot of things in the world, but plundering just doesn't seem to be one of them. So an empire doesn't seem to be a fair description of what the United States has and is right now. When the treasures at the Museum of Antiquities are brought back to the Smithsonian for display - then we might have an empire. But not yet.

There actually is a word for what we exercise in the world right now - the word is hegemony. The United States isn't a global imperialist; it's a global hegemon. We aren't ruling the world for our own benefit, but we do have an overwhelming preponderance of power and influence - a preponderance entirely without historical parallel short of the Roman Empire, and even that almost certainly falls short. It's kind of difficult to make relative power comparisons across millenia.

A hegemon, though, has a very different role to play than an empire. Empires run areas directly, policing large portions of the world through main force. They usually employ extensive native auxiliaries - India was usually policed not by British soldiers, but by Indians trained by and working for the British who sometimes had British officers. But in the end the empire is maintained through force of arms. India challenged the British empire for the first time in the revolt that is variously called the Indian Mutiny or the Sepoy Rebellion, and this challenge was put down with (by British standards) extreme brutality - up to the level of the British firing captured Indian prisoners out of the mouths of cannons, things like that. The British government designed an economic policy for India that was carefully crafted to maximize British profit and Indian dependence on the British economy. Gandhi's policy of satyagraha was a direct challenge to that British economic policy, which was why the British Raj fought it so vigorously. After the First World War, though, Britain almost certainly lacked the capacity to maintain its empire in India by force - particularly as the United States was putting a fair amount of pressure on it to give up the Empire. That was about the time that people started to realize that Indian independence was a foregone conculsion, and people were just fighting over the timing. Gandhi might, arguably, have delayed Indian independence, actually, as a violent revolution after the First World War probably would have been successful, although of course at extraordinary cost. In any case, though, the characteristics of an empire - even the most benevolent one - are fairly clear here. The Empire was maintained by the threat of overwhelming force held fairly close at hand - everyone in India knew that Britain had the capacity to smash a rebellion again if it had to, and the occasional incident like the Amritsar massacre drove home the overwhelming reality of British predominance. Similarly, the Imperial economic system was designed to bring maximum wealth to the metropole (not the outskirts of the empire) and maintain the economic dependence of the periphery on the center. Some historians now argue that the Empire was not actually profitable for Britain - I'm skeptical of that argument myself, but certainly very few people at the time would have thought so.

At the same time that Britain maintained its Empire, however, it also acted as the hegemon of the world system. Following the Anglo-French defeat of Russia in the Crimean War in 1856, and at least until German reunification following the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, Britain was, without question, the preeminent European power. In fact, to be a little more generous, it was almost certainly that from 1815 to 1914, with Russia its only real rival for the first part of that period and Germany its rival for the second part. Not by coincidence, this was the era of the "long peace" in Europe - the longest stretch of European history since the Peace of Westphalia in which there was no general warfare between the European powers. Henry Kissinger argued that this was because Britain acted as an offshore balancer, resolving European conflicts, but, as Paul Schroeder and several other historians have shown, that is a fundamental misreading of world politics. In fact, Britain's clear preponderance of power meant that challenging it for preeminence in the European system was pointless - it would always win. Britain's two power rule (a British law mandating that the British Navy must be at least as large as the second and third largest navies in the world combined) was the most visible expression of that dominance. But, Britain did not use its power to try and establish an empire over other European actors - in fact, it specifically foreswore any territorial claims on the continent, giving up its German possessions at the Congress of Vienna. Instead, Britain fulfilled the role of a hegemon, as described in Robert Gilpin's classic War and Change in World Politics.

As a hegemon, Britain played several key roles in the international system. The first and most important was that it paid for collective goods. Britain maintained world order. The British Navy did almost all the work involved in stopping the slave trade, for example, and it was the British Navy that did most of the work in suppressing piracy and insuring the safety of everyone's goods - not just Britain's. Britain maintained free trade even when other countries did not, and paid the economic price of such a policy. Britain (not the US) enforced the Monroe Doctrine, eliminating the Western Hemisphere as an area for Great Power competition. The United States was actually the principal beneficiary of these policies. Instead of paying for our own defense, we pretty much let the British do it for us, and instead invested heavily in our economy. In terms of military potential, the US was probably already Britain's superior by the 1850s. The armies raised by the North during the Civil War vastly exceeded the power of those possessed by any European state. But instead of exercising that power, and paying the costs of doing so, we let the British pay all the costs of maintaining an open international system, and, almost without anyone in Europe noticing, grew and grew without counterbalance until, when we finally did act (in 1898 in the Spanish-American War and then, even more clearly, in 1917 in the First World War) we dramatically went from being a state at the periphery of the global system to (Europe suddenly realized) the most powerful country in the world.

What we're doing in Iraq is, I think, far more akin to Britain's hegemonic role than its imperial one. The difference is that the change in technology means that maintaining global order takes much more intervention in the internal affairs of other states than it did in the Victorian Era. By intervening against Saddam Hussein (both in 1991 and 2003) the United States is really paying for collective goods on behalf of the entire world. If Saddam had gotten control of Saudi and Kuwaiti oil in 1991, it would have been an economic disaster for everyone, not just the US. In fact, the US might well have been hurt less by it than most of Europe and Japan might have been. But the US, as the hegemon, was the state that ended up doing most of the heavy lifting in taking care of the problem. Similarly, in 2003, Saddam's possession of WMD was a problem for the entire world, not just us, partly because they would eventually allow him to threaten global oil supplies once again, and partly because if he was so foolish as to hand them off to some terrorist group, there really was no telling who they would use it on. But, once again, the US had to do the hard work of taking care of the problem. One reason that we had so much less help the second time around was simply that our relative power advantage over the rest of the world had increased by a great deal in the intervening 12 years. There were other reasons, but it's worth keeping that one in mind as well. In essence, taking over Iraq seems, to me, to have much more in common with stamping out piracy or the slave trade than it does with, say, conquering India.

So if the hegemon's job is maintaining global order, what does that say about our responsibilities in Iraq? Well, in the immediate future, being the hegemon means acting (for a little while) like an imperialist. We need to put serious resources into governing the country. But, over a slightly longer term, we actually need to act in an exactly opposite fashion. The goal of the hegemon isn't to rule an area for its own benefit. It is to reestablish stability in an area where it has to intervene in order to first, preserve its hegemony, and second, minimize the drain on its resources. Note that being a hegemon (unlike being an imperialist) is costly, not profitable. Paying for collective goods isn't really a metaphor - there's a lot of paying involved. So our goal in Iraq is to minimize our long-term costs. If we were running an empire, we would want to make Iraq as dependent on us as possible. As a hegemon, our goal is to make Iraq as independent of us as possible. Since, over the long run, the most stable form of government in Iraq will be (I believe) a federal, liberal, democratic republic - that's what we should be setting up there. If that means governing Iraq for five years, then we govern it for five years - as long as we don't have to govern it for fifty. Arthur Wellesley (later Duke of Wellington) smashed Tippu Sultan, probably the last credible opponent of the British Raj, at Assaye in the late eighteenth century. The British ruled India for the next one and a half centuries or so. That's exactly what we don't want to be doing in Iraq. It is hegemony, not empire, that we need to exercise in the Gulf. We can't ever afford to think of ourselves as creating an empire - partly because it runs against our essential self-conception as Americans, partly because that's a loaded word in the international arena, but mostly because creating an empire is a really bad idea, and conceptualizing our efforts using the language of empire will take us in exactly the wrong direction.
I've noticed that I've had 36 visitors so far - and not all of them are Adam and me. So someone's reading this, I guess, and I'm very curious as to who, and how you arrived at this page. If you have a spare moment, I'd appreciate it if you leave a comment - to assuage my curiosity, if nothing else.

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