In his latest Bloomberg column, “American Decline a Mirage in a World That’s Rising,” Ezra Klein points out something we’ve been stressing at Via Meadia for some time:
If American preeminence relies on the continued immiseration of Brazil, China and India, then, even in the most selfish terms, I’m not sure that it’s worth having. . . .
If hundreds of millions of Chinese and Indians continue to be stuck on unproductive farms or in unskilled jobs rather than being freed to develop their human capital, the rest of the world will be denied access to the endless innovations they otherwise might have developed. . . .
The problems associated with expansive global economic growth are real, but they’re problems in the context of an improving world. Conversely, if the BRICs can’t rise out of poverty, and Europe and Japan can’t right their economies, that’s a world we don’t want, with problems we may well not be able to solve. Those who yearn for a form of American preeminence that can only exist due to economic stagnation elsewhere really do not know what they’re talking about.
Klein gestures toward a crucial but often unappreciated insight: The goal of American power isn’t to create a world in which we are rich and everyone else is poor, or in which we are strong and everyone else is weak. Rather, the goal of American power is a stable, fruitful global system that other countries like (or at least tolerate) because it works well for them.
Now, for this to happen, countries like China and India need to grow rich, which means growing faster than the United States. But this is a cause for celebration, not pronouncements about declinism. When Germany and Japan grew rich after World War II, their success did not make America weaker, even though its share of global wealth and GDP fell. Instead, as those countries grew and became more integrated into the world system, their success actually undergirded the development of the liberal democratic order that the United States wants.
In other words, American power is committed to the concept that international relations is not a zero-sum game; it is about hunting for global win-win solutions. Many observers try to assess American power as if we were playing a zero-sum game in which every ounce of Indian, Chinese or Brazilian wealth or power somehow detracts from the United States.
The failure to recognize this basic truth about American power is why so many analysts—basically going back to the 1940s—have so persistently prophesied American decline, even as the U.S.-backed international system has gone from strength to strength.