What the next American century will look like is hard to guess. The upcoming November elections – which, frankly, could go either way – point in two very different directions, and given the nature of the American political system and the wide range of views within the American public about how even to define, much less how best to preserve, "American values" and the "American way of life," there is no reason to believe that America will stick very long with whatever course is selected in November.


What is virtually certain, however, is that the next century will, in fact, be an American century.

Or if one wants to be gloo­my and to con­temp­la­te the unt­hin­kab­le as well as the thin­kab­le – that is if one is wil­ling to ack­now­led­ge un­for­tu­na­te­ly real pos­si­bi­li­ties like nuc­le­ar win­ter, ca­tast­rop­hic cli­ma­te chan­ge, or spe­cies-en­ding pla­gu­es -- we can say that what is vir­tu­al­ly cer­tain is that the next cen­tu­ry will be an Ame­ri­can cen­tu­ry if it do­esn't turn out to be ab­so­lu­te­ly no one's cen­tu­ry.  

That the Uni­ted Sta­tes will do­mi­na­te the glo­bal po­li­ti­cal and eco­no­mic sys­tem (again, as­su­ming one con­ti­nu­es to exist) is a pu­re­ly fac­tu­al ob­ser­va­ti­on. It is not a claim that this is a good thing – alt­hough, per­so­nal­ly, gi­ven the na­tu­re of the cur­rent Rus­si­an and Chi­ne­se po­li­ti­cal re­gi­mes and their at­ti­tu­des to­ward their own pe­op­le and those of ot­her na­ti­ons, I am strong­ly inc­li­ned to be­lie­ve that anot­her Ame­ri­can cen­tu­ry would be more ple­a­sant for most of the world's po­pu­la­ti­on than a Rus­si­an or Chi­ne­se one.  At home, anot­her cen­tu­ry of glo­bal pre­do­mi­nan­ce will al­most cer­tain­ly exa­cer­ba­te many of Ame­ri­ca's very real do­mes­tic prob­lems, cre­a­ting new obs­tac­les in the way of ac­hie­ving the kind of so­cie­ty ba­sed on ma­xi­mal in­di­vi­du­al li­ber­ty that Ame­ri­ca's foun­ders dre­a­med of. Ab­ro­ad, Ame­ri­ca's friends and li­be­ral fel­low tra­ve­lers will ne­ar­ly cer­tain­ly find that co­ping with Ame­ri­ca's in­con­sis­tent po­li­cies and pe­cu­li­ar fi­xa­ti­ons will, even on the best of days, be inc­re­dib­ly frust­ra­ting. And, for those parts of the world that do not fall in­to the ca­te­go­ries of "friend" or "li­be­ral fel­low tra­ve­ler," anot­her Ame­ri­can cen­tu­ry will be an of­ten unp­le­a­sant ex­pe­rien­ce.  


Frankly, were it a realistic possibility, most of us would probably prefer a Finnish century.

Re­gard­less of how one feels about it, ho­we­ver, con­ti­nu­ed – in­deed, inc­re­a­sed – Ame­ri­can glo­bal eco­no­mic, po­li­ti­cal, and cul­tu­ral do­mi­nan­ce is in the cards. Pe­ri­od. This ob­ser­va­ti­on is not some sort of Ame­ri­can wish­ful thin­king, nor is it roo­ted in any sort of mys­ti­cal be­lief in Ame­ri­can "triump­ha­lism" or a Fu­ku­ya­ma-style "end of his­to­ry" in­vol­ving an ine­vi­tab­le vic­to­ry of li­be­ra­lism over ot­her "isms."  

Cri­ti­cal ob­ser­vers of Ame­ri­ca are ab­so­lu­te­ly right to note the po­li­ti­cal di­vi­des and ten­si­ons in Ame­ri­can so­cie­ty, as well as the ot­her chal­len­ges as­so­ci­a­ted with the shift from an in­dust­ri­al eco­no­my to a post-in­dust­ri­al one. Dec­li­nes in life ex­pec­tan­cy, high le­vels of drug use, drop­ping birth ra­tes, and con­ti­nu­ed struc­tu­ral ine­qu­a­li­ties in ac­cess to re­sour­ces are simp­ly the vi­sib­le tip of the ice­berg when it co­mes to Ame­ri­ca's so­ci­al prob­lems. Any ho­nest re­port card on Ame­ri­ca would inc­lu­de some truly dam­ning gra­des.


However, correct this critique, though, any analysis that then jumps to the conclusion that America is in decline as a world power misses two critical points.

The first is that, ho­we­ver, scre­wed up Ame­ri­ca may be, the rest of the world – with the pos­sib­le ex­cep­ti­on of Eu­ro­pe – is scre­wed up even wor­se. This is not a cau­se for any ju­bi­la­ti­on. Far from it. It is po­wer­ful evi­den­ce of just how dif­fi­cult it is to cre­a­te just, pros­pe­rous, he­alt­hy so­cie­ties, and of how far hu­ma­ni­ty, at le­ast vie­wed on a glo­bal scale, has yet to tra­vel.  For all the very real, very sig­ni­fi­cant prob­lems fa­cing Ame­ri­can so­cie­ty, Ame­ri­can so­cie­ty is vast­ly bet­ter po­si­ti­o­ned than Rus­si­an or Chi­ne­se so­cie­ty, or va­ri­ous Is­la­mic so­cie­ties – and mar­gi­nal­ly bet­ter po­si­ti­o­ned than Eu­ro­pe­an so­cie­ties – to grow in size, we­alth, and po­wer.

Per­haps the simp­lest mo­ment-in-time, "snaps­hot" me­a­su­re of the re­la­ti­ve he­alth of a so­cie­ty is whet­her pe­op­le wish to be mem­bers of it. Are the li­nes at the bor­ders com­po­sed of pe­op­le trying to get in, or of pe­op­le trying to get out? In terms of for­ward-loo­king me­a­su­res, one can ask where yo­ung pe­op­le wish to go for edu­ca­ti­on, and which cul­tu­res they turn to for at­t­rac­ti­ve ide­as and role mo­dels. Do the "best and brigh­test" of the next ge­ne­ra­ti­on, or those with the ful­lest ran­ge of op­ti­ons, want to study here or el­sew­he­re, and when they think about the life they wish to have, do they mo­del it on the life they see here or the life they see so­mew­he­re el­se?  The pe­op­le of the world seem to think these are ea­sy qu­es­ti­ons: Ame­ri­ca and Eu­ro­pe are pre­fer­red, even at he­a­vy per­so­nal costs.

Of cour­se, if one is skep­ti­cal about the wis­dom of or­di­na­ry pe­op­le, one can ask more ri­go­rous­ly aca­de­mic qu­es­ti­ons.  Do po­pu­la­ti­ons con­ti­nue to grow at a sus­tai­nab­le pace? Does the de­mog­rap­hic py­ra­mid have an ap­p­rop­ri­a­te shape (that is, that it looks rough­ly like a py­ra­mid and not like a child's dra­wing of a lol­li­pop-sha­ped de­ci­duo­us tree, and that it is not con­tor­ted by so­cie­tal in­ter­ven­ti­ons like a bad­ly tor­tu­red bon­sai, mis­sing girls and yo­ung wo­men in the yo­un­ger ye­ars due to se­lec­ti­ve birth cont­rol and, ske­wing back the ot­her di­rec­ti­on, mis­sing mid­d­le-aged and ol­der men who have died "de­aths of des­pair")? Yes, the pic­tu­re in Ame­ri­ca and Eu­ro­pe is less than ide­al, but at le­ast in Ame­ri­ca’s case, the prob­lem can ea­si­ly be fi­xed through im­mig­ra­ti­on. Or if tech­no­lo­gy and know­led­ge, rat­her than de­mog­rap­hy, is ta­ken to be the cri­ti­cal me­a­su­re of so­cie­tal he­alth, one can ask about the rate at which new ide­as – prac­ti­cal ones, like new tech­no­lo­gies and bre­akth­roughs in scien­ti­fic know­led­ge, or less prac­ti­cal but equ­al­ly me­a­ning­ful ones, like new de­ve­lop­ments in phi­lo­sop­hy, li­te­ra­tu­re, and the arts – are emer­ging. 

Here the pro­duc­ti­vi­ty data tracks with the cri­mi­nal data: China and Rus­sia are ste­a­ling Ame­ri­can and Eu­ro­pe­an pa­tents and pla­gi­a­ri­zing Ame­ri­can and Eu­ro­pe­an co­py­righ­ted ma­te­ri­al; ca­ses of the West ste­a­ling new Chi­ne­se or Rus­si­an dis­co­ve­ries are re­mar­kab­ly (or per­haps more ac­cu­ra­te­ly, un­re­mar­kab­ly) rare. For a bro­a­der eco­lo­gi­cal me­a­su­re of so­cie­tal well-being, one can ask whet­her the phy­si­cal en­vi­ron­ment is sus­tai­nab­le (or even on an imp­ro­ving path!) or, con­ver­se­ly, whet­her cri­ti­cal re­sour­ces such as po­tab­le wa­ter, bre­at­hab­le air, unf­loo­ded land, and li­vab­le tem­pe­ra­tu­res are in inc­re­a­sing­ly short sup­p­ly.  Was­hing­ton and Hel­sin­ki may fall short of he­a­ven­ly per­fec­ti­on, but has any­o­ne he­ard of any­o­ne mo­ving to Bei­jing or Mos­cow – or, say, Teh­ran, Riy­adh, Del­hi, or Ja­kar­ta -- for their he­alth?

 "Re­a­lists," of cour­se, would in­ter­rupt at this point to ob­ser­ve that the fact that Ame­ri­can so­cie­ty is far he­alt­hier, on vir­tu­al­ly eve­ry me­a­su­re, than Chi­ne­se or Rus­si­an so­cie­ty is ir­re­le­vant.  "Vic­to­ry" -- de­fi­ned in this case glo­bal po­li­ti­cal and eco­no­mic pre­do­mi­nan­ce – does not ne­ces­sa­ri­ly go to the he­alt­hiest or most at­t­rac­ti­ve so­cie­ty, but rat­her to the mi­li­ta­ri­ly most po­wer­ful one. This line of thin­king no­tes that whet­her Vi­si­goth, Hun, and Mon­gol so­cie­ties were he­alt­hier or more at­t­rac­ti­ve than the so­cie­ties they con­qu­e­red is be­si­de the point: gi­ven the ab­sen­ce of in­ter­na­ti­o­nal ins­ti­tu­ti­ons to const­rain them, Vi­si­goths, Huns and Mon­gols won out not by being more ap­pe­a­ling or bet­ter pre­pa­red for the fu­tu­re, but by kil­ling or thre­a­te­ning to kill those who op­po­sed them or re­fu­sed to sub­mit. 

One can, of cour­se, cheer­ful­ly dive in­to the the­o­re­ti­cal de­ba­tes that keep to­day's po­li­ti­cal scien­tists hap­pi­ly emp­lo­yed and ar­gue about whet­her the pre­sent and fu­tu­re are so­me­how dif­fe­rent from the past – whet­her in­ter­na­ti­o­nal ins­ti­tu­ti­ons and do­mes­tic and glo­bal norms now sig­ni­fi­cant­ly const­rain the use of vi­o­len­ce. Is eco­no­mic and “soft,” cul­tu­ral po­wer more de­ter­mi­na­ti­ve to­day than it was in the past? Or is mi­li­ta­ry po­wer still, at the end of the day (even though now it might truly be “the end of the day” as far as hu­ma­ni­ty is con­cer­ned), the on­ly met­ric of po­wer that re­al­ly mat­ters?

Either way, however, America still ends up on top. 

Whet­her do­mi­nan­ce goes to the most eco­no­mi­cal­ly and so­ci­al­ly vi­go­rous so­cie­ty or goes to the mi­li­ta­ri­ly most po­wer­ful, Ame­ri­ca still ranks first – though per­haps if dest­ruc­ti­ve po­wer is what mat­ters, a po­li­ti­cal­ly di­vi­ded Eu­ro­pe may not fi­nish such a close se­cond.

It is dif­fi­cult to make a plau­sib­le case that any po­ten­ti­al ad­ver­sa­ry or com­bi­na­ti­on of ad­ver­sa­ries will, in the fo­re­see­ab­le fu­tu­re, have the mi­li­ta­ry po­ten­ti­al to con­qu­er the Uni­ted Sta­tes or de­mand sig­ni­fi­cant li­mi­ta­ti­ons on Ame­ri­can do­mes­tic so­ve­reign­ty. No se­ri­ous per­son ima­gi­nes Rus­si­an or Chi­ne­se vi­ce­ro­ys sit­ting in Was­hing­ton, dic­ta­ting to the Ame­ri­can pe­op­le. Yes, it is cer­tain­ly true that a no-holds-bar­red mi­li­ta­ry conf­lict would lay Ame­ri­ca to was­te. What isn't plau­sib­le, ho­we­ver, is that any ot­her so­cie­ty would "win" such a war in a me­a­ning­ful way. Such a war would not re­sult in Chi­ne­se or Rus­si­an sys­te­mic do­mi­na­ti­on. It would re­sult in a sys­te­mic bre­ak­down. (There are ot­her, more grap­hic ways of desc­ri­bing the con­se­qu­en­ces of such a war, but "sys­te­mic bre­ak­down" will suf­fi­ce.)

By de­fi­ni­ti­on, eve­ry­o­ne dies in an om­ni­ci­dal war. For se­ri­ous po­li­cy­ma­kers, eva­lu­a­ti­ons of the fu­tu­re glo­bal mi­li­ta­ry ba­lan­ces are not about who would emer­ge less dead in an all-out war. In se­ri­ous po­li­cy dis­cus­si­ons, the mi­li­ta­ry ba­lan­ce qu­es­ti­on co­mes down to trying to es­ti­ma­te, on the one hand, how much of their im­me­di­a­te neigh­bor­hoods Rus­sia and China will mi­li­ta­ri­ly do­mi­na­te – will Rus­sia be ab­le to con­ti­nue to dic­ta­te to Azer­bai­jan? will China be ab­le to exert su­ze­rain­ty over the South China Sea? – and, on the ot­her hand, how cons­tant a glo­bal mi­li­ta­ry pre­sen­ce the Uni­ted Sta­tes will main­tain – will the Uni­ted Sta­tes be ab­le to af­ford to keep a fleet in the In­di­an Oce­an? will there still be U.S. Ma­ri­nes in South Ko­rea two ge­ne­ra­ti­ons from now? Neit­her China nor Rus­sia will, in the fo­re­see­ab­le fu­tu­re, be­co­me a glo­bal mi­li­ta­ry po­wer. For the fo­re­see­ab­le fu­tu­re, the Uni­ted Sta­tes will re­main one, even if does so with less ent­hu­si­asm, less ea­ger­ness, and with less for­ward pre­sen­ce than to­day.

 Ana­lysts who conc­lu­de from Ame­ri­ca’s so­ci­al and po­li­ti­cal ten­si­ons that the Uni­ted Sta­tes is in re­la­ti­ve dec­li­ne are not simp­ly over­loo­king the fact that eve­ry­o­ne el­se has wor­se prob­lems, ho­we­ver.  They al­so miss a se­cond key point: Ame­ri­ca has vast un­tap­ped or un­de­ru­ti­li­zed eco­no­mic and so­ci­al re­sour­ces that could, if it were chal­len­ged, be con­ver­ted in­to hard or soft po­li­ti­cal po­wer. There is ext­ra­or­di­na­ry slack in the Ame­ri­can sys­tem. The Uni­ted Sta­tes is ge­ne­ra­ting now­he­re near the sort of in­ter­na­ti­o­nal po­wer or in­ter­na­ti­o­nal le­ve­ra­ge that it ea­si­ly could. And, un­der pre­sent con­di­ti­ons why should it? A se­ri­ous, in­ten­si­ve ef­fort by the Ame­ri­can go­vern­ment to ex­pand Ame­ri­can mi­li­ta­ry po­wer or to ad­d­ress the na­ti­on’s eco­no­mic and so­ci­al chal­len­ges would be po­li­ti­cal­ly pain­ful at home. Short of some se­ri­ous threat to Ame­ri­can pre­do­mi­nan­ce, there is no re­a­son for the Ame­ri­can po­li­ti­cal sys­tem to pay the do­mes­tic po­li­ti­cal price that would be as­so­ci­a­ted with inc­re­a­sing ta­xes, in­ter­ve­ning to for­ce the pri­va­te sec­tor to fo­cus its at­ten­ti­on in one di­rec­ti­on or anot­her, or in­sis­ting that so­cie­ty give up its cen­tu­ries-old bad ha­bits. But the ca­pa­ci­ty is there. 


Equally to the point, America does not need to rely on its own resources to maintain or broaden its dominance on the world stage. 

If it choo­ses, it can draw on the fi­nan­ci­al ca­pi­tal, the hu­man ca­pi­tal, and the bey­ond-the-cut­ting-ed­ge tech­no­lo­gi­cal know­led­ge that exists around the world. Alt­hough this point is so­me­ti­mes for­got­ten by chest-thum­ping Ame­ri­can hy­per-na­ti­o­na­lists, Ame­ri­can pre­do­mi­nan­ce in the 20th cen­tu­ry was to no small deg­ree made pos­sib­le by Ame­ri­ca’s abi­li­ty to at­t­ract fi­nan­ci­al ca­pi­tal from Eu­ro­pe and im­mig­rants and their know­led­ge from around the globe. There is no sign that this abi­li­ty to tap in­to ot­her so­cie­ties' ac­cu­mu­la­ted we­alth and cre­a­ti­vi­ty has chan­ged. 

Yes, Ame­ri­ca has se­ri­ous struc­tu­ral im­per­fec­ti­ons in its so­ci­al and eco­no­mic sys­tems. But the in­ter­nal and ex­ter­nal re­sour­ces avai­lab­le to it, should it feel it is ne­ces­sa­ry to ad­d­ress these im­per­fec­ti­ons, are mind-bog­g­ling. He­si­ta­ti­ons, fal­se steps, and bone-he­a­ded po­li­cies that would be let­hal – and, un­for­tu­na­te­ly, will be let­hal – for many so­cie­ties around the world can be shrug­ged off by the Uni­ted Sta­tes. On­ly Ame­ri­ca – and its friends and fel­low li­be­ral tra­ve­lers – have this cus­hi­on.

The next cen­tu­ry will not be pret­ty in many re­gards. To pa­raph­ra­se the no­ve­list Char­les Dic­kens, and to shift his ob­ser­va­ti­on from the past ten­se to the fu­tu­re ten­se, it will be the best of ti­mes and it will be the worst of ti­mes. Cli­ma­te chan­ge; the unin­ten­ded con­se­qu­en­ces of scien­ce, tech­no­lo­gy, and glo­ba­li­za­ti­on run amuck; gross ine­qu­a­li­ties and even gros­ser stu­pi­di­ty; and the more unp­le­a­sant as­pects of hu­man na­tu­re ful­ly re­ve­a­led will com­bi­ne to cre­a­te some truly night­ma­rish prob­lems. On the ot­her hand, ac­cu­mu­la­ti­ons of hu­man know­led­ge, so­ci­al ca­pi­tal, and ge­ne­ra­ti­o­nal we­alth are al­re­a­dy com­bi­ning to make ext­ra­or­di­na­ry life pos­sib­le. 

Is anot­her Ame­ri­can cen­tu­ry the best of all pos­sib­le ima­gi­nab­le fra­me­works for de­a­ling with this best of ti­mes and these worst of ti­mes? Per­haps not.  But – un­less we all tumb­le in­to a di­sas­ter of one sort or anot­her, a di­sas­ter of the sort which would defy all ima­gi­na­ti­on – it is what is ahe­ad of us. Se­ri­ous, re­a­lis­tic le­a­ders – in Was­hing­ton, Hel­sin­ki, Mos­cow, Bei­jing, and el­sew­he­re – need to re­cog­ni­ze this, and think se­ri­ous­ly and re­a­lis­ti­cal­ly about what this me­ans. 


Ed­ward Rho­des is a pro­fes­sor of Go­vern­ment and In­ter­na­ti­o­nal Af­fairs at Ge­or­ge Ma­son Uni­ver­si­ty. Rho­des is best known for his re­se­arch in­to the phi­lo­sop­hi­cal and cul­tu­ral roots of Ame­ri­can fo­reign and na­ti­o­nal se­cu­ri­ty po­li­cy. Rho­des ser­ved for six ye­ars on the U.S. State De­part­ment’s Ad­vi­so­ry Com­mit­tee on His­to­ri­cal Dip­lo­ma­tic Do­cu­men­ta­ti­on, the Cong­res­si­o­nal­ly man­da­ted, non­par­ti­san body that re­views and cer­ti­fies the of­fi­ci­al, pub­lis­hed ac­count of Ame­ri­can fo­reign po­li­cy for comp­le­te­ness and ac­cu­ra­cy.