🔒 Can America renew its superpower status amid political divides?: Kluth

Is America on the path of decline, or can it maintain its superpower status? This question arises as Marine One, carrying ageing leaders, highlights a deeper issue of needed updates. The Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment suggests learning from historical powers like Victorian Britain, which overcame decline through reforms. However, America’s current political divisiveness makes such renewal challenging. The country’s future hinges on finding common ground for necessary reforms.

Sign up for your early morning brew of the BizNews Insider to keep you up to speed with the content that matters. The newsletter will land in your inbox at 5:30am weekdays. Register here.

By Andreas Kluth

It’s a question that has kept wonks and pols busy for years: Can America remain the world’s mightiest power, the better to defend its own interests as well as international order? Or is the US in the early stages of secular decline? The sight of Marine One soaring over my head toward the White House the other day was a useful reminder that it all depends on your point of view. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

Marine One is the iconic green-white helicopter that transports American presidents. Few images project “superpower” better than POTUS alighting from his chopper on the South Lawn to the salute of a strapping blue-clad Marine. Less photogenically, though, the passengers of late — both Joe Biden and his predecessor and possible successor, Donald Trump — make this superpower look like a gerontocracy. Even those helicopters are past their prime, having been in use since 1975. Their maker, Lockheed Martin Corp., has been trying to replace them with modern craft but keeps hitting snags; a new model recently scorched the South Lawn so badly, it was demoted again for duty on asphalt landings, to be used by support staff only.

Superpowers, I thought to myself, are like helicopters in that operators have to admit when they’re getting long in the tooth and then do the necessary upgrades. That, apparently, is also the conclusion of the Office of Net Assessment, a sort of in-house think tank for the Pentagon. To get a sense of America’s future flight path, it sponsored a series of reports by Rand, a research outfit in California. The authors — Michael Mazarr, Tim Sweijs and Daniel Tapia — looked into just about all relevant historical precedents of national decline, as well as theories about causes and solutions. 

The case studies range across the centuries: from ancient Rome and Song China to the city-states of Renaissance Italy, from the Netherlands and Sweden in the 17th century to Imperial Spain and France, from the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires to the Soviet Union. All were mighty, all fell. 

The causes for their decline were diverse, but a few themes recur. One common pattern in aging powers is bureaucratic ossification and metastasizing internal complexity. These trends strain institutions, which elites then tend to exploit as they compete against rival factions of the same elite, while ignoring their society’s common good. You could call this pathology a toxic mix of complexity and polarization.

That diagnosis certainly rhymes with the state of today’s America. The next question then becomes what a great power, realizing that it’s at risk of decline, can do about it. Could the US identify its problems, find rational solutions and turn the trajectory around, in a quest to achieve renewed preeminence? Rand’s depressing answer is that such reversals — from great to middle or minor power and back again to greatness — are “difficult to detect in the historical record.” 

Several powers tried but failed, including the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Others, such as postwar Japan and West Germany, didn’t so much renew themselves as they were resurrected by their conquerors (the US, notably), which makes them unsuitable as models. The precedent that’s most comparable to the US today, and also most encouraging, is Victorian Britain.

Despite losing the American colonies, the Brits had a good run throughout the first industrial revolution and the Napoleonic wars. By the mid-1800s, though, the UK faced a broad range of problems. Power was still concentrated in a small and male landowning elite, while the new working classes crowded into dingy cities, hungry and ravaged by recurring cholera outbreaks. Children labored in textile factories and mines, and women had few rights to speak of. This Dickensian nation, even with its large empire, seemed unlikely to hold its own in the budding second industrial revolution, and against new and up-and-coming rivals such as Germany and the US.

In response, though, Britain enacted several rounds of reform, not as parts of a coherent plan, but as a series of pragmatic solutions that added up to a new social contract. As my colleague Adrian Wooldridge has observed, abolition of the Corn Laws in 1846 reduced the price of food for the poor and liberalized trade. Suffrage was extended to more men, and eventually to women. Working conditions were improved, and child labor phased out. Medical care and education became better. 

The difference between Victorian Britain and other declining powers seems to be that the elites, though competitive, still found enough common ground to agree on reforms. Part of their motivation may have been to avoid more radical upheavals such as the French Revolution, still fresh in their memory. Rand calls this collective Victorian achievement “anticipatory renewal.” It enabled the reformed Britain to stay cohesive and dynamic enough to remain a major power well into the 20th century. Decline wasn’t averted, but notably delayed. 

The US today, provided its political class rallies as the Victorians did, could pull off a similar feat. Demographically, it faces fewer problems than obvious rivals such as China and Russia do, with relatively more births and net migration. America’s companies, innovators and investors remain among the world’s best. If the race during the second industrial revolution hinged on the telegraph, electrification and railroads, today’s may be decided in artificial intelligence and quantum computing, where the US has a decent shot of leading. 

The problem is that precondition about the political elites finding common ground to reform. I don’t see much chance of that, and not only because we’re in an election year that’s making the vitriol even worse. America’s decision-makers are so divided against one another that, as Rand puts it, “the United States does not yet have a shared recognition of the problem: Although some challenges are generating widespread frustration, there is no emerging consensus on the barriers to renewal that demand urgent action.”

There you have it: We can’t even agree on what to fix, much less how. The only good news, if you view geopolitical power as relative and zero-sum, is that America’s rivals have problems that appear at least as intractable — that’s true for adversaries such as China, Russia, Iran and North Korea, as well as up-and-coming middle powers such India, Turkey, Brazil or Indonesia. 

The combination of internal complexity and disagreement at the top has doomed many a corporate reorg, systems reboot and national renewal. All the more reason for Washington to work it out, both for America’s sake and the world’s. Getting new choppers that don’t singe the White House lawn would be a start.

Read also:

© 2024 Bloomberg L.P.