from The Internationalist and International Institutions and Global Governance Program

“Still Ours to Lead:” Bruce Jones Explains Why the World Still Looks to the United States

April 30, 2014

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Manifestoes about U.S. “decline,” have become a publishing juggernaut. But this literature is demolished in a beautifully written, persuasive new book from Bruce Jones, the Brookings Institution senior fellow. In Still Ours to Lead: America, Rising Powers, and the Tension between Rivalry and Restraint, Jones explains that the declinists have it all wrong. First, on nearly every measure of material power, the United States is the world’s dominant player—and will remain so for some time. Second, there is no plausible alternative to U.S. leadership, given weaknesses within and divisions among major emerging powers. Third, the United States remains the undeniable and indispensable pivot of world politics; it is the only player capable of forging effective global partnerships to confront pressing transnational threats. Lastly, most rising powers in today’s world have at least as many incentives to exercise strategic restraint as they do to engage in rivalry with the United States. In short, the United States is an “enduring” rather than declining power. And the world is still its to lead.

  • Still Number One:  Predictions of U.S. decline have a long pedigree, from Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers  to Charlie Kupchan’s The End of the American Era  and Fareed Zakaria’s The Post-American World and the Rise of the Rest. These doomsaying tomes have one thing in common: their prematurity. Challenging the conventional wisdom, Jones methodically documents the persistent geographical, economic, military, diplomatic, educational, technological, intelligence, and raw material foundations of U.S. might. Not only has the U.S. economy emerged stronger from the global financial crisis, not only does it have an enormous qualitative and quantitative military edge over any conceivable adversary, but it is also beginning to reap a massive bonanza from new means of extracting domestic oil and gas. During the 1978 NBA championship series, Washington Bullets coach Dick Motta famously declared: “the opera ain’t over til the fat lady sings.” For the United States, the opera is far from over.
  • BRICS? Don’t Believe the Hype: Jones really takes the emerging powers down a peg. Hype about the BRICS, he notes, has been based on straight-line projections of past meteoric growth—patterns that are ultimately unsustainable. Indeed, growth has already slowed in all the BRICS countries, as well as other members of the Trillionnaires Club (those with GDP of more than $1 trillion) like Mexico. All of these emerging nations face  tremendous challenges of internal economic and political development—and a real risk of falling into a “middle income trap.” Nor do emerging countries present anything resembling a united geopolitical front, given their strategic rivalries, divergent economic preferences, and incompatible political values. To be sure, Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa will continue to hold annual summits. But (as I have written elsewhere), there’s  not “enough ‘mortar’ binding these BRICS” together.
  • The Real U.S. “Pivot” is Global: While other pundits and strategists fret over the U.S. rebalancing to Asia,  Jones shows that the United States has neither the luxury nor the need to narrows its focus to a single region. Indeed, U.S. leadership stems from its unrivaled ability and freedom of action to “play” in all the world’s regions, as well as in global institutions, at once. And one of the main reasons it can do so is that it retains an unmatched set of allies and partners. Indeed, the “Global Electoral College”—as Jones cleverly labels it—is stacked so heavily in America’s favor that it’s a wonder anybody imagines that another country could take its place. The United States has more than forty formal treaty allies—including most members of the world’s largest economic bloc (the EU) and its third largest economy (Japan). Moreover, it boasts friendly relations with a comparable number of other countries—including major emerging players like Brazil,  India, and Indonesia. China’s dependable allies can be counted on one finger: North Korea.
  • Restraint Beats Rivalry: One of the hallmarks of our era is the simultaneous rise of multiple nations, creating enormous turbulence in the geopolitical pecking order. For strategists of a historical bent, this can be alarming, given the frequent collision between past rising and declining nations. Jones encourages us all to take a deep breath and recognize that today’s emerging players—including China—possess at least as many incentives to exercise restraint and pursue cooperation as they do to engage in strategic rivalry and embrace conflict. What is unique about today’s order is that major players—both advanced and advancing—increasingly cooperate not only in formal institutions but fluid, issue-specific coalitions. The frequent result, as in the anti-piracy coalition in the Indian Ocean, is a coalition of strange bedfellows that coalesces behind common interests. To be sure, big power rivalry will persist, particularly at the regional level. But it will tend to pit rising and declining powers in the second tier against each other rather than spur conflict with the United States. The China-Japan rivalry in the East China Sea stands as the archetypal example of this.

If there is a gap in this book, it is the incomplete treatment of how power translates into leadership. Jones shows that the United States dominates on  multiple measures of material power. The trick, of course, is to convert this potential into actual influence over actors and outcomes. Leadership, after all, implies “followers.” Jones offers little policy guidance on how the United States might better deploy its resources to shape the incentives of countries that are on the fence about following its lead. Nor does he fully explore the implications of what Susan Strange called U.S. “structural power”—that is,  the ability of the United States to get its way not merely by deploying incentives in one-on-one bargaining situations but indeed by determining the very context in which other countries must operate. Still, this is a concept he seems to appreciate intuitively, given his insights on the dollar’s role as the world’s main reserve currency, or of the geopolitical implications of U.S. control of the sea lanes. His analysis is weaker when it comes to “soft power”—that elusive, fragile influence the United States supposedly gains from its attractive political values, domestic institutions, and popular culture. The question the book never answers is whether—given its controversial national security policies,  corrosive domestic politics, and role in the global financial crisis—the bloom is now off the rose.

But the biggest lacuna in Still Ours to Lead is its inattention to the domestic preconditions of U.S. global leadership—specifically, the capacity of the U.S. political system to marshall the political will and domestic resources required to retain its historic role as the custodian of world order. And here there is grave room for doubt, given intense partisanship and legislative gridlock in Congress, as well as broad popular sentiments for retrenchment (if not true isolationism). To be fair, Jones explicitly concedes that he will not address this topic, leaving it to others to argue that foreign policy begins at home. And it may be too much to demand that one book do it all. In the end, Jones’ message is  a simple one: the world is still ready for U.S. leadership, if we grasp the nettle.

One of the delights of this book is its conversational tone. Manuscripts on weighty policy matters are often just that: heavy, self-important tomes laden with dense prose and groaning with jargon. Jones’ style is lighter and informal. He weaves data together with illustrative anecdotes and bits of humor to make his point. In short, it’s a lively conversation with an engaging and intelligent friend over drinks. (Full disclosure: Being one of Bruce’s lucky friends, I’ve had this pleasure to enjoy over many years).