Tag: United States (Page 1 of 2)

The United States: Not a Failed State, but a Failing Society

Note: This post began life as an op-ed; I have amended it slightly from the version shared on Facebook to add more social scientific perspective.

The United States set new single-day record for new COVID cases on June 24th through 26th, surpassing what had been hoped would the highest point of the curve on April 24. The United States is now in a two-horse race with Brazil to be the epicenter of the COVID pandemic. The economic and social sacrifices made to attempt to flatten the curve—sacrifices that include the highest unemployment rate since the Great Depression and school closures that will have lifelong consequences for student outcomes—from March to May have essentially been rendered completely moot.

This has many observers saying the United States is a failed state. George Packer argued this in the Atlantic. Chinese state media has leveled similar claims. 

The United States is not a failed state. It is something much more disturbing: it is a society that has the means but has decided not to try.

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When 70% is good enough

When I was a grad student, I had the privilege of student teaching with political theorist Eric MacGilvray. Eric was—and I’m sure still is—a brilliant teacher. He was always in motion, but in a way that felt deliberate. He often perched on an elevated windowsill while listening to students debate amongst themselves. He made even the most archaic and dense texts accessible. (The class was Classics of Social and Political Thought.) He also had a unique approach to grading. Rather than marking on a scale of 100, where 94 is an A, he introduced a seven-point scale. Actually, it was a ten-point scale, but when he introduced it to students, he explained that seven was what they should aim for. A ten on this scale was publishable work. At their level, students weren’t meant to be doing publishable work. They were meant to be learning. Seven was good enough. 

At an elite American university where too many of the students aimed for perfection, the idea that you didn’t have to be perfect was liberating. It allowed students to take up and internalize feedback. Even though we translated the seven-point scale back into US-based grades at the end of the semester, it opened a space for learning. I found Eric’s system brilliant. Only it turns out that it wasn’t Eric’s system.

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Christianity and the Sino-American Relationship

Last week, the Economist reported on the expanding sway of Christianity in China. While the numbers are difficult to pin down, The Economist reports that some argue that the number of Christians in China exceeds the number of official members of the Chinese Communist Party (87 million). What we are witnessing in China then is a dramatic shift in the constitution of domestic social systems in China as religion in general and Christianity in particular increasingly inform conceptions of what it means to be ‘Chinese’ and the accompanying systems of meaning.


From the vantage point of many in the US, the rise of Christianity in China is welcome news. Discourses about China, particularly those propagated by Republicans, occasionally highlight the ‘atheist’ nature of the Chinese regime. More broadly, the prevalence of discourses of Christian identity in the United States suggests the possibility of an emerging identity dynamic. As Chinese come to understand themselves as ‘Christian’, a harmonization in the identity dynamics between the US and China might occur as both come to see themselves as past of the same societal ingroup. This harmonization may be accelerated if tensions within China between the dominant Han ethnic group (where Christianity is growing fastest according to the Economist) and Tibetian and Uighur minorities (many of whom are Buddhist and Muslim respectively) increase. These tensions may then serve to activate the Christian/non-Christian identity duality in China, which could strengthen relations between China and at least some elements of American society. This in turn might provide some resilience to what has been and seems an increasingly fraught Sino-American relationship.


These hopes might be very premature and in fact misplaced. The function of identity in shaping socio-political relations is a product of activation and content, and on both counts Christian identity might not bind the US and China together as much as the case above suggests.


At least in the United States, and probably into the indefinite future for China, Christianity identity is not an identity that functions in the political realm (as compared to democracy in the US case or Maoism in China). That is, identity may inform the identities of some actors in both places, but a broader Christian identity does not function as a basis for understanding political behavior. For example, American politicians do not regularly invoke Christian identity to justify elements of foreign policy. Where such an invocation arises (e.g. George Bush’s use of the term crusade and religious laden language after September 11, 2001) controversy follows. Thus in the US, Christian identity is contested as a basis for understanding appropriate behavior and for establishing expectations of the self and others. That is, Christian identity does not provide a set of guidelines that govern political interaction because it does not provide a basis for political behavior expectations or political meaning-making. This in turn means that Christian identity would provide little basis for resolving political conflicts between the US and China—which predominate the relationship today and for the foreseeable future.


It may be that shared religious identity operates in the political background, generating a basic level of societal ease. Even if this is the case, the evangelical nature (as reported by the Economist) of Chinese Christian identity may prevent shared identity from operating in that way. If Chinese Christians see American Christians as wayward or even apostate members of the ingroup, that could further fuel, rather than ease, tensions between the states (see for example relations between Shi’a Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia–both Islamic states, but both at odds in part due to differences in the content of their religious identities). Thus the content of the identity has implications for the activation of the identity as well as how the identity functions, including corporate elements (who is part of the ingroup and who is not). Thus, scholars will have to be very careful in assessing what role the important changes in China’s social fabric will have on its relations with the rest of the world.


Bilateral Climate Cooperation between China and the United States: What Should We Expect?

One of this weeks big news items in international relations was the progress that China and the United States had made in their bilateral climate talks (gated but free registration available). While it is too early to say if the talks result in concrete action, this is the first time since forever that the two largest emitters are recognizing their common interest in  cooperating to mitigate climate change.

What should we expect? It would be naive to believe that these talks break the gridlock of global climate negotiations. Regardless of what China and the United States discuss in the talks, the grim reality of American politics is that any legally binding climate treaty would have a tough time in the Senate. The domestic political structure of the United States makes federal climate policy, let alone treaty ratification, very hard in today’s polarized environment. Even if China accepted binding emissions targets — and that’s a big if — I would not expect Republicans to vote for, say, a national cap-and-trade policy. After all, Republicans are currently accusing the Obama administration for waging a “war on coal”.

More modest achievements are possible. Cooperation on low-carbon initiatives and renewable energy could contribute to decarbonization, facilitate technology transfer, and send a signal to the clean technology industry that there are new opportunities in the horizon. Even modest steps to this direction could encourage other countries to increase their offers in different negotiations, such as those among major emitters. While Obama’s hands are tied as long as the Congress remains polarized on climate, he has a proven track record of acting on climate through executive authority. The Chinese political constraints are less transparent, and I am not a specialist in this field, but Beijing certainly has strong incentives to deploy clean technologies to mitigate air pollution and reduce the country’s energy intensity and dependence on coal.

As long as we accept the constraints on global climate cooperation and expect only modest gains at the international level until a fundamental shift in the domestic politics of fossil fuels, the bilateral climate talks between China and the United States are welcome news. They’re not that surprising either. China’s increasing carbon dioxide emissions are changing Beijing’s position in the negotiations. While the average standard of living in China is still much lower than in industrialized countries, China’s status as the world’s largest emitter makes it difficult for the Chinese leadership to hide behind the developing country status much longer. On a good day, I would say that China’s increased willingness to negotiate is a sign of recognizing the need to for a new, more proactive strategy. The world’s two largest emitters are the most important countries in the negotiations by a wide margin, and much depends on their ability to cooperate.


Failing at Football Diplomacy

clean fun soccerThere has been a bit of recent news lately suggesting international football* considerations are making the divisions between states greater, supporting the idea that sports might not be the path to peace and reconciliation.  While a few cases cannot disprove an idea, recent moves point in a troubling direction for the theory that we can settle differences between states on the football pitch.  Relating back to early theories of functionalism, any form of cooperation, even on the sports pitch, might be beneficial to countries at odds with each other.  The communication provided through spectacular sporting events might provide pathways for peace.  Others might argue that fighting it out on the pitch is better than fighting with guns and bullets.  While these ideas might be true in the abstract, it is tough to consider the viability of such proposals if states fail to even meet on the pitch in the first place.

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4 Quick Hypotheses on Why China Suddenly Declared this New Air Defense Zone


If you haven’t yet seen the zone’s geography, here it is to the left, complete with its overlap with the Korean and Japanese zones. The most important conflict of course is over Senkaku, but Korea watchers will also note that the Ieodo submerged reef, which Korea claims, is also in the zone. Gotta wonder what the Chinese were thinking by giving Korea and Japan common cause over anything. Foolish.

Dan Drezner asked the question I think pretty much everyone is wondering now: did the PRC really expect the US, Japan, and SK to just accept this out of the blue? Obviously they’re not, and it’s hard to find anyone besides the Fox News of Asia Global Times who thinks they should. The following are some quick ideas for where this suddenly came from. Each is more-or-less tied to a level of analysis, but the prose is laymen-style because it was originally written for media

1. Belligerence (anarchy, straight-up realism): the Chinese really are picking a fight with Japan. This is the worst possible reason. They may figure that the Hagel visit to Japan a couple months ago has made Japan into an open challenger to China now. And that is kinda true. America is hedging China, ducking and weaving, trying hard to avoid an open confrontation with it. But Japan is increasingly unabashed that is it balancing China directly as a threat. Abe is increasingly willing to call out China openly. So Asia is becoming a serious bipolar contest, and maybe the Chinese are thinking: ‘to hell with it; Abe’s playing tough; we have too also.’ Certainly my Japanese colleagues in this area increasingly talk about China this way.

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The Endlessly Fatiguing Japanese-Korean Squabbling is the Worst it’s been in Decades

rocksI am so burned out on this issue, I’m ready to say we should just nuke the Liancourt Rocks (left) to end this whole thing. But it’s everywhere now in the regional media. Park pointedly won’t meet Abe, which the Japanese media is reading as a huge snub. She even said she’d talk to Pyongyang before Tokyo (yikes!). The Japanese are getting more open in expressing loathing for Korea. The Americans are livid. And the Chinese and Norks are loving it all, I have no doubt. So here’s yet another essay on this topic. This is the English version of a long-form essay I wrote for Newsweek Korea last week.

The short, IR-ish version is that: a) S  Korea is a middle power that risks ‘overplaying its hand’ against Japan, as a think-tanker friend put it, because of the ‘moral hazard’ facilitated by the American alliance (as Katzenstein noted long ago, Japan is the US anchor state in Asia, and Koreans can’t change that no matter how much they resent that special relationship); b) the Americans believe in the democratic peace and simply don’t accept that Japan is some kind of proto-fascist state (this is a real breakpoint with the Americans); and c) Korean geography basically traps it in a ‘balance of threat’ quandary: even though it is small, its proximity means it will get pulled into the Sino-US/Japan stand-off whether it likes it or not. The only possible way out I can think of for Korea is unilateral nuclearization (more yikes). Also, my continuing skepticism of the pivot pops up. I still don’t think Americans actually care enough about Asia to really get pulled into a major competition with China. Here’s that essay…

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The United Nations and American Public Opinion

The following is a guest-post from Martin Edwards, professor at Seton Hall’s School of Diplomacy and International Relations. Martin’s website is here.

How do Americans think about the United Nations? The results of recent surveys by the Pew Research Global Attitudes Project and the Better World Campaign offer some insights on this question. These organizations have tracked opinions on the United Nations since 2004 and 2009, and the findings are based on random samples of adults and registered voters, respectively. One of the findings in both surveys is that there are partisan differences in the opinions of Americans regarding the United Nations. A finding in the Better World Campaign survey helps us to better understand why these partisan differences exist.

The figure below aggregates the percentage of respondents who view the UN as either “very favorable” or “somewhat favorable” in both surveys over time. Both surveys report an improvement of the UN’s numbers. In the Pew Research survey, the UN’s favorability numbers have gone up ten points since 2007, while the Better World Campaign reports a similar ten point jump since this time last year.

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Chinese Hegemony in Asia is Unlikely, so AirSea Battle Unnecessarily Provokes the Security Dilemma


The following is a re-up of a piece I wrote for the Diplomat last month as part of an informal back-and-forth series with the National Interest this summer on the US pivot to Asia and AirSea Battle. (Here and here are some of the other entries.) That pic, which has got to be the grossest river in all China, is from here.

In brief, I increasingly think that ASB is a mistake, because it’s almost impossible to read it as anything other than hugely provocative from the Chinese point of view, no matter what we say to them about our peaceful intentions. (Read this, and tell me reasonable Chinese wouldn’t flip out.) It’s a classic example of the security dilemma, but as I argue below, I am not really convinced that we actually need this high-tech, super-fearsome-sounding ASB right up in their face. More generally though, the pivot to Asia – a sharpening of American attention on the region – is probably a good idea. China is vastly more influential on American life than Israel or Iran. But the Middle East and Islam activates belligerent American religiosity so much, that I doubt we’ll really be able to pivot. In any case, the essay follows the jump and is written in an op-ed style.

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Big Brother meets Network Analysis?

A story in the New York Times this morning suggests that the National Security Agency has been analyzing our social networks through email and phone call records, apparently accomplishing “large-scale graph analysis on very large sets of communications metadata” of American citizens and foreign citizens alike.  This network analysis uses not only contact data but GPS tracking to understand not only how we relate but how we move in relationship to each other.

From the description in the article, the methods that the NSA uses seem to be very similar to those that political science is using, in Michael Ward, Katherine Stovel, and Audrey Sacks’ words, to locate the “holy grail” of  “effectively analyzing the interdependence and flows of influence among individuals, groups, and institutions,” a sea-change in the field.

I’m not arguing that we as political scientists have culpability in this (these methods did not originate in our field by any stretch of the imagination). But I am interested – if network analysis does the cool things it does for our work, what does it do for the work of those whose job is to watch and monitor us?

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Obama’s ‘Strategic Patience’ on North Korea is more Responsible than yet another Impossible ‘Vision’ to Solve NK

Newsweek Korea cover 2Newsweek Korea asked me to participate in a debate on Obama’s strategic patience. A friend of mine wrote against it; I wrote in defense. Here is the Korean language text at the NWK website. Below is my original English language version.

In brief I argue that North Korea is so hard to pin down, that big strategies never work with it, provoke it into lashing out, and raise impossible expectations on democratic decision-makers. So Obama is acting responsibly, IMO, by not promising more than he can deliver and by not giving a reason for NK to act out.

After 20+ years of negotiating on more or less the same topics, it should be pretty obvious that NK is insistent on not being placed in some box by outsiders. It will not be treated as some technocratic ‘problem’ to be ‘solved’ by a conference of experts, like global warming or something. And it will lash out if necessary to remind us of that. Hence, I argue for ‘muddling through,’ and that we should stop expecting our policy-makers to have some great NK strategy that will fix the issue. That’s not gonna happen. We all know that. We just have to wait for China to stop paying NK’s bills. Until then, all the sweeping declarations (‘agreed framework,’ ‘sunshine’,’ the ‘axis of evil,’ the current big idea du jour of ‘trust’) are rather pointless and raise impossible expectations among voters in SK, the US, and Japan. Let’s be a little more honest about what we can expect from North Korea.

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Agree with Heinlein’s ‘Citizens vs. Civilians’? then this US Military History is for you


I was asked by a participating member of the H-Diplo/ISSF network to review The American Culture of War. Here is the original link to my review, but it’s off in some far corner of the internet, so I thought I’d repost it here. In brief, I found the book a pretty disturbing rehearsal of right-wing tropes about the military in a democracy, especially from an academic, and there’s no way I’d ever use it with undergrads as Routledge suggests. The underlying moral driver is the ‘chicken hawk’ principle – that those without military experience are not morally qualified to lead DoD and should otherwise defer to uniformed military. At one point the author actually says that, because the US Army ‘distrusts’ Congress, the Army should ‘guide’ Congress. Yikes. Do Americans (and the author) really need to be told civilian authority runs the other way, and that that’s in the Constitution? I find that sort of military elitism democratically terrifying and reflective of the post-9/11 militarization of America that is now the single most important reason, IMO, to end the war on terror.

I would just add the following update to the review: Both the book and review were written before Petraeus’ resignation, but it should come as no surprise that the text lionizes Petraeus. His resignation is therefore a pleasing schadenfreude for the frightening post-9/11 military hero-worship of the US right. Here we go:

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Do US Alliances Re-Assure in Asia, or Create Moral Hazard?

Newsweek Korea cover

The conventional wisdom on the US presence in Asia is that we re-assure all players. Specifically, US allies don’t need to arms race local opponents, because the US has extended deterrence to cover them. Hence Japan and South Korea don’t need to go nuclear, for example. Among academics, this logic pops in the work of Christensen, Ikenberrry, and Nye; among policy analysts, here is the US military saying this, and here is the DC think-tank set.

But there’s flip-side to this logic that really needs to be investigated – whether the US presence also freezes conflicts in place, by reassuring Asian elites against their own reckless nationalist rhetoric, racially toxic historiographies, and Fox News-style inflammatory media (just read the Global Times op-ed page occasionally). I think the Liancourt Rocks fight is a particularly good example of this ‘moral hazard’ mechanic, as is the recent comment by no less than the South Korean foreign minister (!) that Abenomics’ threat to Korean export competitiveness is a greater danger to SK than North Korea’s nuclear program. That kind of preposterous, reckless myopia can only be explained by taking the US security umbrella for granted.

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Guest Post: Dave Kang – “Is America Listening to its East Asian Allies?”

REK: I am pleased to guest-post my friend Dave’s longer, fuller version of a book review he wrote for CSIS. My thanks to CSIS as well. If you aren’t reading Dave yet, I’d recommend it.

“Is America listening to its East Asian allies?: Hugh White’s The China Choice

David C. Kang

For all the recent attention on increasing tensions between the U.S., China, and East Asian countries, regional balance of power dynamics remain muted. The past few years have seen increased Chinese assertiveness, which has led many to expect that East Asian states will flock to the side of the U.S. This has not proven to be the case, however, and Hugh White’s thoughtful and bold new book, The China Choice: Why America Should Share Power, provides some clues as to why not. White argues that neither China nor America “can hope to win a competition for primacy outright, so both would be best served by playing for a compromise.” White concludes that the best policy would be an explicit “Concert of Asia” in which the U.S. and China agree to treat each other as equals and create two clear spheres of influence. White is probably right that a U.S. balancing strategy in East Asia is unlikely to succeed – yet a concert of Asia with two clearly defined spheres of influence would appear fairly similar in the eyes of East Asian states. East Asian countries are clearly hoping to find a pathway that avoids taking sides, and the best approach for the U.S. to take is a strategy that helps them achieve that goal.

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RNC: Don’t Speak in a Publicly-Built Facility when you Attack Government – D’oh!


I got bogged down with NK for awhile, so I missed a chance to comment on the RNC and the US election more generally. I have some thoughts after the break, but a Democrat friend of mine wrote the following, which is a pretty good first draft of the GOP’s problems I think, in this election cycle:

On the whole, I found the Republican convention disgusting and not simply because I disagree with their policies. They substantively are disconnected from the problems of the average person. They offered nothing which will help average people and, what they do offer, is bereft of details. They said nothing – NOTHING – about the two wars they started and the one that is still ongoing. (They do however feel we should have wars, or at least brinksmanship with several other countries.) They have no narrative connecting who they were just four years ago with who they think they are now.

The narrative they do present is a fantasy beyond what even Republicans of a prior generation would present. They stand in a publicly-built convention center preaching nothing but disdain for the role of government. They parade women, Latinos and an African-American secretary of state who talk about the ‘bootstrap’ mentality of their parents with no mention of the giants of civil rights and the role of government which reformed the bigoted society which their beloved founding fathers gave us. That reformation – more than their parents – allowed the likes of Condoleezza Rice to be where she is today.
They reach out to women with symbolism and yelps of ‘I love you women,’ but want to savage Medicare and Medicaid, both programs disproportionately benefiting women (remember, Medicaid is also a program for the elderly medical class who enter nursing homes). They are utter hypocrites on things like government stimulus – Romney first supported it and Ryan voted for Bush’s Tarp and took money from Obama’s stimulus. Even by politicians’ standards, their willingness to lie about Obama’s policies and statements is breathtaking.

But what bothers me the most is this ‘we built it’ mentality which they go on with. The US’ post-war middle class and social stability would not have existed without government. Support for college education, a redistributive tax structure, a modest social safety net, civil rights, Keynesian counter-cyclical spending, massive government infrastructure programs from highways, to the space program, to the defense establishment contributed mightily to every American’s success. This includes the success of their plutocrat leader Mitt Romney who made his money during the tech boom of the 1990s, a tech boom built on government research in computers and the internet. It includes the success of his running mate Paul Ryan whose family made much of their money building government-funded roads. 

I would add that I wonder how much ‘risk’ himself Romney has ever actually taken, given that dramatically pairing back the welfare state is emerging as the GOP meme for this election? If the Randian superman who ‘built it all himself’ is the economic ideology of the GOP, then it becomes central just how much Romney, Ryan, Cantor, Limbaugh, etc. exploit government services. Ayn Rand herself accepted Social Security and Medicare late in her life. That strikes me as fairly fraudulent, as does insisting that SS and Medicare be retained for today’s elderly but not tomorrow’s. I’m sure that the likelihood of older voters to vote GOP and younger voters to go for Obama has nothing to do with that.

For example, did Ryan try to steer government money into his district, as a congressman, as most congressmen do? If he did, isn’t that hard to justify given what he’s saying now? It seems increasingly obvious that Romney never did without in his life in a meaningful way, never went through a ‘back in grad school when I lived in a crappy apartment and ate ramen’ phase. He “refused to head up Bain Capital until Bain promised him he would get back his old salary and interest if he failed. He risked nothing.” He’s also done a fair job of using the government to make a mountain of money – whether that be fixing the Olympics, getting a sorta government bailout, using a battery of accountants to gin up such amazing tax shelters that he doesn’t want to release his returns, or working in government itself – governors get paid a lot more than most Americans. I don’t mean to begrudge Romney his success, but profiting handsomely from government while you promise to tear it down for those who come after you strikes me as fairly selfish.

More generally, I would ask how the GOP thought that a guy who’s practically a caricature of Gordon Gekko could get elected just 3 years after white shoe banking nearly wrecked the world? That just staggers me. And the scandals that continue to come out – LIBOR most recently – have made it obvious to just about everyone except Jamie Dimon that Wall Street needs a tighter regime, most obviously the Volcker Rule. Given just how much we’ve all learned about the financial industry since 2009 (in a bad way), I can’t imagine Romney – who’s so obviously steeped in the values of that class, right down to his perfect hair and willingness to say anything to please – winning. I can’t imagine Tea Partiers, who share the Occupy Movement’s disdain for too-big-to-fail banks and slick ‘masters of the universe,’ being enthusiastic for this guy either. Good lord, even Sandy Weill is now saying the banks need to be broken up. Yet in the first presidential election after the mostly-Wall-Street-caused Great Recession, we’re going to elect such an obvious product of the financial services industry? Wow. God help me for saying it, but where’s Santorum or Bachmann (at least they were honest) when you need them? It’s a measure of just how bad the economy is and just how weak a president and candidate Obama is that Romney is competitive at all.

Cross-posted at Asian Security Blog.


The Peculiar Stability of Instability

The caption for this photo is, no joke,
“All the experts posing for a group photo after the event.”
So, here’s all the experts.

Conventional wisdom from a foreign-policy expert:

It is one of the truisms of our time that because of the sensational development of communications and transportation, the globe has shrunk with distances between formerly far-away countries having been reduced to mere hours of flight time. We all pay continuous lip service to the axiom that the hallmark, today, of relations among States, even among continents, is interdependence rather than independence. But while every political writer and speaker belabors this point ad nauseum, we actually deal with the Mideast, Latin America, the Atlantic Region, Eastern Europe, NE Asia, and SE Asia as if we were still living in the WW-II era when it was realistic and feasible to speak of a European, an India-Burma-China, a Pacific “Strategic Theater” as essentially separate and autonomous. …

  • In the Middle East … moderate [pro-U.S.] Arab governments are under increasing pressure.
  • In Europe, NATO is in a state of malaise, accentuated by our shifting policies over the last 10 years. Europeans are increasingly concerned about isolationist currents within the U.S.
  • In Asia, as you saw on your trip, leaders are concerned about the future U.S. role there.

The lesson one can draw from it is not that we can fight this trend on every issue. But foreign policy depends on an accumulation of nuances, and no opponent of ours can have much reason to believe that we will stick to our position on the issues which divide us. When the Taliban compares our negotiating position on Afghanistan now with that of 18 months ago, it must conclude that it can achieve its goals simply by waiting. Beijing must reach the same conclusion. …

This then is the overall image of the US as a reluctant giant: seeking peace and reconciliation almost feverishly, withdrawing forces not in one but in many parts of the world, tired of using its physical power and firmly resolved to cut existing commitments and keep out, for a very long time to come, of any confrontation that might lead to any military involvement.

All right. Cheap trick: This is really a memorandum from “an acquaintance” of Henry Kissinger sent to President Nixon in 1969. I changed a few words — “Hanoi” to “Taliban,” “Afghanistan” to “Vietnam,” and “Moscow” to “Beijing”–but the overall sense of pessimism and gloom is the same as you find in certain quarters of the foreign policy community today.

Reading over the full memorandum, what is striking is not just the impressive racism of the piece (did you know the Latin temperament is fiery? It is!) but also the continuity of concerns. Arab/Israeli conflict? Check! Rising China causing problems with U.S. allies? Check! Worries about European burden sharing (and their worrying about U.S. policy)? Double check! Other governments using U.S. policies to justify their own actions (anti-terrorism now, anti-Communism then)? Triple check! And, behind it all, the idea of the United States as a shriveled, retreating power–an idea that definitely has currency today.

This is important for three reasons:

  • If you’re not familiar with Cold War history, the notion of U.S. relative decline during the Cold War may be unfamiliar to you. But we have been here before, and the debates about declinism are proceeding along familiar paths. (Robert Lieber’s new book about declinism is useful for its able recapping of previous generations’ declinism debates even if you’re skeptical about the book’s central hypothesis.)
  • Although the Cold War is almost uncritically presented in most intro IR courses as a period of bipolarity, the similarity of today’s declinism debates (during a period usually described as unipolar) to those that took place more than forty years ago should raise questions about whether we’ve misclassified one, or both, of those periods.
  • Viewed from our perspective, the central point of the memorandum is wrong: the United States has unequivocally retreated from the commitments it made during the height of the Cold War (just ask Nguyen Van Thieu and the Shah) but troop drawdowns, the suspension of the draft, retrenchments of commitments to allies, and so forth didn’t lead to a breakdown of global order; quite the opposite. Were we lucky? Was After Hegemony right? Do we have a particularly persuasive explanation to make to the author of this essay about why, forty years later, a relatively less wealthy United States (as a share of global GDP) nonetheless commands a relatively greater share of the world’s military potential?

Military Capabilities: A Revionist Metric

 Phil Arena has been playing around with alternative measures of military power. He begins with the straightforward observation that one current and popular measure of military power, the CINC scores in the Correlates of War project, list the United States as having fallen behind the People’s Republic of China in its military capability. As Phil writes, this is not a conclusion that most, if any, observers of world politics would endorse–and that even if it is true in the broadest sense (that in some total war between the United States and the PRC, the United States might not be able to conquer China) that it is not particularly useful.

Phil lays out the broader points of his critique–namely, that CINC overweights raw materials and does not adjust for quality of militaries–in his post. Using a new measure based on COW data, computed as he describes at his link, he proposes an alternate measure–one I think that the Duck’s readership should at least be aware of. This measure may get closer to the notion of who has the most usable military power at any given point in time. I’ve redone his graphics slightly but the data is all his.

In the first chart, we see the post-World War II relationship among Roosevelt’s “four policemen.” This chart, I think, accords pretty well with our understanding of the period: the United States begins and ends the period as the world’s most powerful military force, but during the Cold War its military potential (in conventional terms) was on par with the Soviets. (I know this point could be debated, and has been, ad nauseam, but it is not prima facie invalid.)

The value of the alternate measure becomes a little clearer when we consider the period 1816 to today.

 Here, we see the long peace of the 19th century reflected in the gradual build-down of European militaries (although note Germany’s relative rise over the late-nineteenth century). We also see, as we would expect, that actual forces-in-being peak in the two world wars (and that the United States, in both cases, emerges as the world’s leading military power–although it dismantles its military quickly after 1919). More important, we note that the leading powers of the 21st century — the United States, China, and Russia — are quite literally not on the map in the 19th (and if Japan were ever to begin behaving as realism says it should, it would join the new quartet). Moreover, eras of multipolarity, bipolarity, and unipolarity are fairly easily identifiable in this chart.

The question of how to measure international capabilities is a tough one, but I tend to think that decomposing military strength and military potential is a useful start. (In the short run, we care a lot about strength; in the long run, we care a lot more about potential.) Since all such measures–even GDP!–are ultimately somewhat arbitrary, it is at least useful to have a debate about what we should include in each. Duck readers, what would you include in your measures of international power?


Ranking US Allies: A Response to Stephen Walt, Andrew Sullivan & all those Canadians…

Last week, I tried to rank US allies, drawing response from both Walt and Sullivan (oh, and these guys, whose website name’ll creep you out). So here are a few responses:

1. I accept the arguments from many commenters that Turkey should be on the list. So here is a final list, a ‘top 12’ of US allies in order: Canada, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Taiwan, India, Indonesia, Israel, South Korea, Japan, EU/NATO, Egypt, and Turkey.

2. Walt’s expansion of my argument toward “zero-based alliance formation” formalizes my initial intuitions for US alignment-picks. He asks if the US had no allies right now, which ones would it choose, because many US allies are left-over from previous commitments that may no longer be valuable. It’s an interesting, semi-counterfactual exercise. Its logic may be a clearer way to think about US allies than my use of retrenchment to force a ranking on US allies. I think this is a pretty good paper topic actually…

Instead of my 3 proposed alliance criteria (direct security benefits to the US; how desperately a potential ally needs the US; and the values symbolism of an alignment), Walt lists 6 benchmarks: power, position, political stability, popularity, pliability, and potential impact. These are richer than mine but also make it much harder to build a ranked order. I wonder what Walt’s top 10 would be then? I think he would be harder than I am on small states. That follows insofar as realism would suggest that larger states are usually more consequential. By including values/symbolism as a criterion, I allow places like Taiwan and SK to hang on.

From my top 12, I think Walt would probably kick out Israel, Taiwan, maybe Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, and SK. Japan and NATO would probably be higher, and I think Brazil would be in there, and perhaps Australia. (I didn’t include those last because I think the US has few interests in Latin America and Australia benefits from the massive Indonesian glacis.)

What’s interesting though is that neither my nor Walt’s criteria would dramatically change the US alliance structure as far as I can tell. Walt would probably wind the US down in the ME more rapidly, while retaining NATO more, and I would do the opposite. We both probably agree that Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan should not make the cut. Finally, I think my benchmarks would ‘pivot’ the US toward Asia faster than Walt’s, although I am not sure. Anyone want to comment on what top 10 Walt’s benchmarks would create?

3. I was please to see that Sullivan flagged – not necessarily approved, but just noted – my argument for Indonesia as America’s most important bridge to the Muslim world. I realize this is kinda off-beat, given that the ME is what dominates our perceptions of Islam and where Islamist pathologies are worst. (Here is a critic, a neocon perhaps, calling me ‘delusional’ for ranking Indonesia this way.) So here is a quick defense, more or less along the lines of what Secretary Clinton said a few years ago.

Indonesia is a syncretic model of pluralist Islam and politics; I think this is pretty widely accepted. No, it’s not as modern and liberal as we might like, but by the standards of the region, other developing countries, and especially the OIC, it is a paragon. Let’s be honest about that. It could easily be far, far worse (think Pakistan), which is why I find it unfortunate that we don’t pay attention much. We should not let the perfect be the enemy of the good, and a friendship with Indonesia doesn’t mean avoiding tough issues, just like engaging China doesn’t mean we should ignore human rights and other similar issues.

So in its own imperfect, struggling way, Indonesia represents the future of political Islam (speaking very broadly to be sure), not the past, which is a lot of what the ME represents and what Arab Spring is trying to break. If the flat-earth religious elites of places like Iran, Pakistan, or Saudi Arabia are allowed to dominate the global conversation on Islam, more conflict is likely. By contrast, Indonesia offers a possible model for Islam to live with both democratic politics and religious pluralism. That we should vigorously support such an effort, through some kind of alignment, strikes me as so self-evident, that I am amazed that we never talk about this.

Indonesia is a multiparty democracy. Its military is “conditionally subordinate” to civilian control. Its human rights record has improved since the dictatorship. Its troubles with salafism and religious tolerance are there, yes, but again, by the standards of reasonably comparable states like Egypt or Pakistan, its record is good. There has no been no major jihadist terrorism since the 2003 Marriot bombing. Jemaah Islamiah is out there and nasty, but this stuff is far less threatening, with far less hold over popular imagination, than similar movements in so many other OIC states, especially given Indonesia’s huge size. Indeed, it’s Saudi oil money funding wahhabist preaching in Indonesia that is the big salafist threat, not homegrown Indonesian clerics.

So instead of lining up with badly governed Arab autocracies as we did in the ME – alignments that create islamist blowback – doesn’t it seem far more beneficial for US to align with a (reasonably) moderate, very large country (4th biggest in the world) that also worries about China, with improving democratic credentials? Like Turkey (also on the list now), Indonesia suggests that Islam can coexist reasonably well with modernity and liberalism. Similarly, Muslims have demonstrated that they can leave in reasonable peace with non-adherents in religiously diverse states like the US, India, and Indonesia. This is great news – somebody should tell the Tea Party and remind the Christian Right that it too should be a little more tolerant. And it shouldn’t surprise anyone that Islam in more monocultural places like the ME would be harsher and less tolerant. So we should be grooming South and SE Asian states where tolerance is more entrenched, if only out of the sheer necessity of preventing endless internal conflict. And Indonesia is easily the leader here. Hence I ranked it at number 7.

Even ‘long war’ neocons should see the value at this point in defusing the tiresome, now fairly stalemated debate of whether Islam can find a modus vivendi in the modern world or not. Regarding this debate, places like Indonesia and Turkey are not-perfect-but-good-enough-given-current-circumstances models for Islamic democratization and the cutting edge of Islamic politics. This is why we should be attached. We want US alliances to actually get us some real value-added, not just encourage free-riding from countries that already like us. This is why Indonesia is more important than Germany or Japan. We should have learned from the Arab Spring uprisings and Muslim Brotherhood victory in Egypt that supporting nasty dictators in the ME breeds a politicized Islamic backlash. Huntington notoriously argued that Islam had ‘bloody borders,’ but places Indonesia blunt that disturbing logic. That is very, very good – and far more valuable to the US than aging, tired alliances like NATO.

4. Canadians got pretty passionate over this. I didn’t know that was possible. Like most Americans, I tend to assume that Canadians are Americans who simply refuse to admit that fact (sorry – couldn’t resist that one), but commenters came out swinging against the idea that Mexico might be more important to the US or that Canada might ever be a ‘threat’ to the US (which I never meant to imply btw). One even argued that Canada is more politically stable than the US. Hah! … oh, wait, that’s probably true… Sad smile. Generally, I think Canada kinda gets screwed by being our neighbor – they get stuck with every bad idea we come up with and chain-ganged into it whether they like it or not. So, thanks, Canada, sticking with us even after we elected W. Yes, we’re kind of embarrassed about that now. Enjoy that vid above.

Cross-posted at Asian Security Blog.


More on Abusing America’s ‘Exorbitant Privilege’: Will the Bond Market Turn on the US at a 100% Debt-to-GDP ratio?


As part of a now lengthy chain (one, two, three, four) on US allies and the likelihood of US retrenchment, I argued that American hegemony, despite America’s huge debt and deficit, is more financially stable than almost anyone expected. Because foreigners’ appetite for dollars seems unquenchable and because we print the global reserve currency, borrow in it, and face no serious reserve challengers (the euro and RMB maybe, see below), US can exploit this ‘exorbitant privilege’ far worse than anyone ever thought.

For example, I think almost everyone expected the bond-market to turn against the US in the last decade given: exploding debt and deficits, huge welfare state expansions like Medicare part D and ObamaCare, the expensive and financially-unplanned GWoT, China’s relentless ascent, the Great Recession, and two rounds of quantitative easing. Wow – that’s a helluva list. Despite all that, interest rates and inflation are low, because we can exploit (and have) that exorbitant privilege. Stein’s Law says there must be a limit, but I think almost everyone is amazed at just how deep confidence in the dollar goes.

More simply put, foreigners so want dollars, that America can just print more and more dollars without consequent inflation, and borrow a lot from foreigners very cheaply (because they want those dollars so much). This means America can borrow and/or just print huge amounts of money at very low interest and inflation rates. That is ‘exorbitant,’ I presume, because no one else can do that without Greece-style financial trouble. We can borrow at low interest rates (the rate on the US ten-year bond is around 1.5% right now) and print lots of money (the recent quantitative easings, e.g.) without suffering like so many others who over-borrow and run the printing press. I find Barry Eichengreen’s book on this is helpful.

Vikash gave such good commentary on this tangle, that I have reposted our full debate on US borrowing and hegemony below. It gets fairly wonky, so please read the OP. Also, comments from anyone in IPE is much desired. Specifically, can someone tell me please when the US will finally hit the ‘soaring’ inflation and interest rates regularly predicted by deficit hawks at the WSJ or CNBC? This is what Romney means when he says we will become Greece, but I just don’t see any evidence of that. Does anyone have a good guess on the timeline for exploiting the exorbitant privilege? When does it finally give way? When do foreigners turn against us in the bond market? As I said in the OP, I think it (super cheap US borrowing) has gone on already far longer than anyone expected. But I also think that a 100% debt-to-GDP ratio might be the bond-market turning point. That is a pretty big psychological benchmark. And we’ll probably get there before the end of the decade.
So here is our debate on this:

Vikash Yadav: “While I generally agree with your argument about America’s exorbitant privilege (and I can just see DeGaulle and D’Estaing spinning in their graves) there may be some other ways to read the data on international reserves.

First, I believe the US dollar as a percent of international reserves kept by other countries has actually fallen from about 72% in 2000 to somewhere around 62% in 2011. It will tick back up a bit after this year, but certainly not back to what it was a decade ago. So there does seem to be a slow decline if we look at the composition of foreign exchange reserves. Of course, since there has been a dramatic increase in the amount of reserves being kept in the last decade, the US can borrow very easily.

Second, the dramatic growth in the amount of reserves being accumulated, particularly in Asian emerging markets since the Asian financial crisis, most likely represents a form of insurance against reliance on the IMF in crisis situations. As such, this somewhat weakens the ability of the IMF to advance a stark ideological agenda (through conditional lending in the context of a crisis) which has largely been shaped and spread by American trained economists (in what James Boughton rightly described as the Silent Revolution) and the US government since the 1982 debt crisis. If global hegemony consists of more than just the ability to project military power, then American hegemony is not rolling along all that smoothly. It is also worth noting that a very large chunk of the reserve holdings is probably attributable to two Asian countries, Japan and China. My hunch (and I haven’t checked the numbers) is that around three quarters of world reserves can be attributed to about seven or eight Asian countries (particularly if we include sovereign wealth funds in the mix). So I think it is inaccurate to imply that foreigners in general have an unquenchable desire to hold dollars.

Finally, to your point about China slowing down and thereby giving the US a breather or a chance to “recover in a way”… China is currently set to surpass US GDP in 2018 if it grows at 7.75% in real terms and the US grows at around 2.5%. Let’s say the Chinese growth rate slows to 5% because it fails to make serious reforms, the US won’t get more than three years of a breather b/c Chinese would still surpass the US in 2021 (for underlying assumptions see:
https://www.economist.com/blogs… ). It is in the realm of possibility that China could derail in the next decade, but China does not really need to make major reforms to surpass the US. And since the neo-liberal American state has squandered its borrowing on wars and consumption, it hardly has made the kind of infrastructural and human capital investments that could spark a resurgence in the next decade. Meanwhile, if China does reform at least its monetary policies and shore up its banking sector by injecting its banks with capital, Christine Lagarde has stated that the Yuan could become an international reserve currency in the future – a prospect not wholly threatening to the Chinese government.”

Robert Kelly (me): “Stein’s Law – if something cannot go on forever, it will stop – was conceived with exactly this current account imbalance problem in mind, but printing the reserve currency seems to let it go on and on, long past what everyone ever thought. My inclination is to agree with you, and originally I thought a lot about retrenchment because of this concern. But US borrowing costs are going down (1.44%), not up; foreign ownership of US assets is going up, not down: https://www.cfr.org/content/pub… and informal dollarization is widespread: https://www.imf.org/external/pu…. Not even the GWoT-Great Recession-QE three-step – cue the Ron Paul freak-out over the gold standard – lead the bond-market to turn against the US. Wow. I just can’t figure that out…

I used to believe folks like Niall Ferguson or Barry Eichengreen on this: https://online.wsj.com/article/…. But these inaccurate predictions have been made since Nixon closed the gold window unilaterally – 40 years ago!

This tells me that there is a lot of confidence in the dollar, or to be more specific, there is little confidence in other fiat currencies, which is all the dollar really needs. The euro-zone crisis particularly is a huge boost for the US. And I am pretty skeptical of the internationalization of the RMB. Exchange rate manipulation has been a pretty central element in the ‘Asian miracle’ formula since 50s. Japan has never really permitted proper internationalization of the yen even though people talked about that a lot in the 80s and 90s. And given how much poorer and poorly governed China is by comparison, I have large doubts that China will internationalize the RMB properly or soon. Maybe, but just consider the amount of corporate governance improvement (all the sunlight in dark corners of the banking system) required for China’s banks to really open up. That could get really ugly and even threaten CCP rule because of the sheer scale of corruption I am almost positive it would unveil.

Finally, there is a problem in just comparing raw GDP sizes. As Wohlforth and Brooks argued in World Out of Balance, simply adding more and more poor people will eventually give any state the world’s largest GDP. Instead, absolute GDP must be cross-referenced against GDP per capita. What exactly is the right ratio of GDP vs GDP-per-capita in making the calculation of whether a state is great power or not, is actually a really good question. I.e., China won’t displace the US superpower when its GDP is larger absolutely, but it is also so demographically big, that it probably doesn’t need to equal US GDP per capita to displace the US either. What would a reasonable GDP per capita threshold be – 50%?”

VY: “First, like you, I don’t think the current account situation will force retrenchment of alliance partners. What we are seeing instead is a continued hollowing out of the state over time but this may be unrelated to the dollar’s status as the premier international reserve currency (a status propped up not so much by faith in the US economy as rational attempts by emerging markets to shield their sovereignty from American economic imperialism) except to the extent that the dollar’s status facilitates easy credit to continue the trend. An economically neo-liberal state stakes its claim to sovereignty mainly on the provision of (domestic and cross-border) security and opportunities for unrestrained consumer consumption. The evidence of US decline will not be found in military sector or in the prison industry; decline is evident in the neglect of infrastructure, education, healthcare, etc. while inequality grows and democratic governance fades. The state will still be able to project power for decades to come but it will gradually erode the basis for internally regenerating that power and it will have to rely more and more upon poaching talent, financing, and resources from other countries.

Second, the establishment of the Yuan as a reserve currency would take at least a decade, probably two — as it did for the US near the start of the 20th century. But I would not be too concerned about transparency in the banking sector. The US financial sector is clearly non-transparent, over leveraged, excessively inter-dependent, and brittle as the last crisis showed. Some reform is necessary to be sure in both countries, but the banking sector is not the main barrier to the Yuan becoming a reserve currency.Third, I think GDP at market rate is the appropriate comparison for our purposes. Measuring GDP per capita (particularly at PPP) is more useful as a rough indicator of economic development (if it is coupled with data on income distribution and broader indicators of human development). Aggregate GDP comparisons are more useful for our purposes because this tells us something about what the state can tax and use to build or purchase military resources.

The new great powers will be different from those of the last century, they will be characterized by the persistence of mass poverty alongside the accumulation of massive revenue — as great powers were before the industrial revolution. What is important to note is that China is on track to surpass the US and once it does it will continue to generate ever greater GDP even if it only increases productivity by a little bit each year. It will take about four decades before China catches up in per capita terms, but the Chinese state will gain significant resources well before then. Of course, (and as you noted) China has long since realized the pitfalls of translating economic power into military power too quickly — so I don’t think it will aim to displace the US so much as to assume its rightful place a major power.”

RK (me): “Our comments are becoming more dense than the post itself. I guess we are fairly close. I would add a few final points.

1. I am not sure how neoliberalism or the economic sovereignty of LDCs plays into this.

2. When it comes to hollowing out, I don’t actually see that so much. Borrowing allows the US to put off choosing between guns and butter, and that ‘putting off’ has lasted far, far longer than anyone ever thought possible. That is what is remarkable and what motivated the post. The last decade expanded, not hollowed out, the welfare state with Medicare Part D and ObamaCare. The real welfare question at home, IMO, is not raw levels of funding declining under the weight of defense spending, but distributional issues; i.e., transfers are increasingly upward, from poorer healthier workers, to wealthier, unhealthier retirees.

3. Obviously spending of any kind is fungible, so defense spending obviously leaves less for everything else. In that general sense, one could argue for hollowing out. But I think a better question is, if we can no longer borrow to have both guns and butter, what will be choose? One read of the GOP’s effort to delegitimize ObamaCare, SS, and Medicare is to pre-set the ground for this debate. If the GOP convinces Americans that the welfare state is for lazy slacker wimps, that makes it easier to ring-fence defense and so keep hegemony rolling along.

4. But I don’t honestly think Americans will choose guns over butter. No matter what the GOP says, SS, Medicare, and Medicaid are part of the US social contract now. They’ve been around a long time, and people have come to expect them; they feel they are ‘rights,’ not ‘programs.’ Norquist may think ‘starving the beast’ will work, but so far it hasn’t, because the government borrows, not cuts, when taxes short-fall. The GOP is fundamentally out of step with American expectations of government assistance, but it has (very destructively) convinced the median voter that he shouldn’t have to pay for such assistance (hence we borrow). So when Perry and others call SS/M/M ‘ponzi schemes,’ people worry, just like W’s second-term effort to privatize SS failed miserably. In fact, I think if Americans were really forced to choose between more aircraft carriers and checks for grandma, they would choose the latter. This is one reason I find the DC foreign policy consensus for hegemony so toxic and support retrenchment. I don’t think most Americans want ‘empire;’ they want welfare and safety nets (in part because exceptionalist, ‘foreign-aid-is-for-third-world-socialists’ Americans generally couldn’t care less about foreigners. It’s DC elites who get teary-eyed comparing the US to Pericles Funeral Oration and say we must be the ‘weary titan’ who sacrifices at home for a ‘national greatness’ cause abroad.

5. On RMB internationalization, I am far more skeptical than you. Agreed, the US banking sector is a mess, but comparable to China, really? The difference is still vast to my mind – can foreigners even list on Chinese stock markets? I wonder how many people would really be prepared to hold serious savings and value in a currency from a still technically communist state whose banking and corporate governance ‘rules’ are shot through with famialism, corruption, and informal political manipulation. These problems still plague the won and the yen, and Japan and SK are decades ahead of China in terms of openness and development. Is China really ready for serious, long-term foreign ownership of major assets and to allow the market to set the RMB’s value without tinkering? I doubt it; no one else in Asia does that and never has. I still think currency manipulation and other gimmicky nationalist barriers are central to the Asian growth model. Here is a nice example of just how bad this can be, even in supposedly-open Korea.

6. And that brings me to my last point on Asian self-insurance. I agree that some of Asian stockpiling is to prevent IMF ‘imperialism,’ but Japanese, Korean, and Chinese stockpiles go far, far beyond what is needed for reasonable exchange rate defense. In fact, all three purposely and regularly intervene to make their currencies even softer, making me wonder what ‘defense’ is needed. IMO, these reserves really reflect, 1) Asian mercantilism, the very deep social belief in these states that they absolutely must run a trade surplus, and 2) the enormous political power of mega-exporters in these states. Asian consumers are punished with insane foreign reserve levels and exorbitant prices because the kereitsu, chaebol, and Chinese super-exporters are deeply tied at the highest levels to political elites in tight collusive circles of corruption. The bizarre side-effect of this East Asian crony corporatism is massive US dollars holdings which the US can then borrow at insanely low rates – hence the point of the OP.”

Cross-posted at Asian Security Blog.


America’s ‘Exorbitant Privilege’ means it can Borrow to Sustain Hegemony Longer than Anyone Ever Expected

Two of my posts this week (one, two) on hypothetical retrenchment under Ron Paul got a lot of traffic and comments. (H/t to Stephen Walt and Andrew Sullivan.) So here is some follow-up.

The OP was intended as an emergency exercise if the US were to face a truly significant crisis that forced retrenchment. The purpose was to ask who are the most important US allies and commitments if we were forced to choose. Right now, the US is not choosing. We are all over the place; if anything, we are taking on more commitments (Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, the Asian pivot). As I tried to say in the second post, I don’t think we are about to pull out of Japan or Egypt, but if we get to the point where we really can’t afford globe-spanning hegemony anymore, it would be help to try to prioritize what is genuinely strategically necessary, from what are ‘extras.’ One doesn’t hear this much, except for Ron Paul, whose debate performances motivated the post.

On this point, I should say that the bifurcation of the OP into two parts was not to indicate that those in part 2 should get the axe; it was just a matter of convenience. The point of the OP was to try to force a ranking – who is more important to the US than who? This is why I tried to limit the listees to a conventional ‘top 10.’ To go beyond that tight focus, would get us back into the global alliance sprawl the US is in now.

The above point raises the next, obvious question about whether we are therefore getting to a point of forced US retrenchment. There is a whole declinist literature that emphasizes long-term US problems, like atrocious public finances, too many wars, bad public schools, political gridlock, rising anti-Americanism in the world, etc. Zakaria’s ‘post-American world’ captures are lot of this, and apparently the Chinese believe the US is in decline too. A good quick version is Gideon Rachman’s take at FP.

I go back and forth on this myself. The economist in me finds it hard to imagine how the US can borrow $1-1.5T a year and stay on top. We’re borrowing around 9% (!) of GDP per annum, and the IMF calculates America’s debt-to-GDP ratio is 100% already (if you include state debts; it’s 75% now at just the federal level.) I wonder how we can fight so many wars without national exhaustion and diversion of investment from domestic priorities like infrastructure or health care. Signal markers in the decline and fall of empires are heavy borrowing and lots of wars, which sounds a lot like us, no?

That said, I am constantly amazed (and intellectually perplexed) that foreigners seem to have an unquenchable thirst for dollars. This is the big reason why all those claims that the US would collapse under its debt burden have never materialized. Longstanding lefty critics of US foreign policy, like Noam Chomsky, Johann Galtung, or Walter LaFeber, have been saying this stuff since Vietnam, and it doesn’t happen. (Continental Europeans particularly seem to relish predicting US decline.) I am genuinely amazed the catastrophic one-two punch of the Great Recession and the flown-badly-off-the-rails GWoT in less than a decade did not dramatically set-back US power. Remember when S&P downgraded the US last summer, and yet the very next day, US interest rates went down as everyone fled to the greenback safe-haven? America’sexorbitant privilege’ of printing the reserve currency is even more exorbitant than anyone ever expected.

I remember last decade, when people said the Bush administration’s $400B annual borrowing was unsustainable. Yet for the last 5 years, we borrowed triple that, with another decade projected at that level – but with the lowest interest rates in US history. If your head feels like it is about to explode for sheer perplexity, yes – me too.

America’s ability to borrow, and thereby forestall retrenchment, is simply astonishing. The rate on the US 10-year T-bill is at an all-time low of 1.44%. If you factor in inflation across the ten-year maturity life-span, the borrower actually loses money! So If you want to know one big reason why the US fights so many wars, here you go: because we can, because foreigners make it so easy by practically begging us to take their money. It’s surreal how cheap we can borrow.

Krugman makes this really good point in his latest op-ed: “none of the disasters Republicans predicted have come to pass. Remember all those assertions that budget deficits would lead to soaring interest rates? Well, U.S. borrowing costs have just hit a record low. And remember those dire warnings about inflation and the “debasement” of the dollar? Well, inflation remains low, and the dollar has been stronger than it was in the Bush years.” My own deficit-hawk instincts say conservatives are right about the debt build-up, but in fact, Krugman has been borne out. So why not fight more wars (at least by economic criteria) when they are so cheap? Foreigners seem endlessly willing to fund our wars, which I find so bizarre and inexplicable that I wouldn’t believe it unless it were the reality around us right now.

Worse, for the declinist, retrenchment-will-be-forced-on-the-US position is that, the euro-crisis continues to make the US dollar a preferred safe-haven (so lowering US borrowing costs), that China must continue to lend to the US in order to hold-up the value of its current $3T+ reserves (yet again pushing down US borrowing costs, no matter how many commitments we take on), and finally that a growing body of evidence suggests that China cannot continue its astonishing growth levels without serious reform. Wen Jiabao himself said that China risks turmoil on the scale of the Cultural Revolution (!) without major changes. I tried to argue this also in the second half of the OP. If China slows, that automatically buys US hegemony a breather, because position in international politics is relative: if China slows, then the US recovers in a way. And it is increasingly obvious that there are lots of ways China could derail in the next 2 decades: whether through tightening environmental and demographic caps on growth, from political or democratic transition turmoil, by scaring its neighbors so much that they line-up to contain it.

In short, US hegemony and alliance sprawl is turning out to be a lot more durable during this period when the US is seemingly on the ropes, than I thought. In fact, I think a lot of people are amazed at the staggering ability of the US to borrow and keep our global hegemony rolling along. The US is exploiting its ‘exorbitant privilege’ worse than at any other time in its history – and the inflation-adjusted cost to us is zero! I just can’t figure that out, or what that means…

Cross-posted at Asian Security Blog.

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