Memo to the Next President: How the U.S.'s Rivals Will Try to Undercut You

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Get ready for the emerging strategic environment.

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Mr. President-Elect, whomever you should be, when you take office on January 20, 2013, you will confront a pervasive perception of a United States in decline -- a perception that strikes Americans more acutely than, say, the Chinese, who see themselves as citizens of the world's next superpower.

This perception can be frustrating. "U.S. decline" is, after all, an imprecise proposition: It does not characterize the decline in question (absolute or relative); identify which metrics are being used to measure it (share of gross world product, share of gross world defense spending, or the ability to achieve one's vital interests, for example); or specify the baseline from which decline is being measured (the end of World War II, the end of the Cold War, September 11, or the onset of the global financial crisis, for example). Declinism has also been an unusually persistent idea. The United States was widely held to be in decline with the ascent of German and Japanese militarism in the interwar years, later with the rise of the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and again with the apparent emergence of a Japanese manufacturing juggernaut in the 1980s.

Those predictions turned out to be wrong, and there is no doubt that you will want to prove today's declinists wrong, as well. What steps, then, should the United States take (or not take) to sustain its centrality in international affairs?

In this memo, I imagine what strategies certain actors might pursue if they were attempting to challenge America's global leadership. I'll begin with emerging powers, such as India or Brazil, that seeks to develop greater policy autonomy; while its positions may align with the United States' at times, it does not feel fundamentally beholden to, or bound by, U.S. foreign policy. Second, let's consider China, with which the United States has a concurrently competitive and cooperative relationship; although it continues to be classified as an emerging power in many quarters, China merits separate attention in light of the widespread judgment that the U.S.-China relationship may shape the 21st century more than any other. Third, we'll examine the United States' longtime antagonist, al Qaeda. I'll conclude with a section on the United States itself, for reasons that Graham Allison articulated when he assessed the U.S.'s strategic position early last year:

"The number-one problem for the United States is the United States. The major challenges to the future of American power are internal rather than external [...] American recovery and renewal are not inherent birthrights [...] For the foreseeable future, as the old Pogo cartoon put it: we've met the enemy, and he is us" [Allison's emphasis].

* * *

The Emerging Powers

The United States occupies an unusual position: Although a burgeoning debt -- over $16 trillion (only public, not gross) and counting -- and military overextension strain its ability to underpin the international system, there is no country or coalition that can readily replace it in that capacity. The progress of emerging powers like Brazil and India has been, in recent decades, in considerable measure, a function of the global commons -- particularly in the air and on water -- that the United States has helped to keep open and stable, and emerging powers do not want to jeopardize it.

The more fearful citizens grow of decline, the more likely policymakers are to note America's exceptionalism, as though with hope that invoking that abstraction will prevent the country's challenges from growing more urgent.

While the emerging powers envision a world whose rules and arrangements are more reflective of its present strategic balance, they do not, for now, have a coherent alternative to offer to today's liberal international order. Their goal should be to grow as much as possible within that system until it becomes untenable, whether by way of U.S. abdication or exhaustion. They will hope to be strong enough by then to exercise a basically independent foreign policy -- independent not in the sense of being immune to globalization, but in the sense of being able to secure our vital interests without depending disproportionately on any country. They won't want to see the gradual erosion of a principally U.S.-shaped order only to see the emergence of, say, a principally Chinese-shaped one.

China

While China remains, in many respects, an emerging power -- hundreds of millions of Chinese live in poverty, the country's leadership has yet to converge on a sustainable economic model, and it has been unable to reconcile the imperative of maintaining the Communist Party's mandate with the challenges of governing over a sixth of the world's population in an era of pervasive social media -- it is difficult to portray China as "emerging" when most of the world, with some justification, views it as having the greatest potential of any country to become a peer competitor of the United States. That the strategic gap between China and the U.S. has narrowed should not lead us to exaggerate China's influence. As Shen Dingli argued recently, "China's rise makes the [U.S.-China] relationship less dependent on the United States than it used to be, but it is not yet the time when this relationship is more dependent on Beijing's actions than it is on Washington's."

True, China's economy will likely be the world's largest within a decade, and it is plausible that its defense spending will be the world's largest before the middle of the century. Absolute gross domestic product, however, is only one component of economic power, just as defense spending is only one component of military power. If we consider comprehensive economic power -- which weighs factors such as the role of a country's currency in global markets, the innovativeness of its citizens, the strength of its higher-education system, and the favorability of its demographic outlook -- and comprehensive military power -- which weighs factors such as the composition of the country's defense spending and the reach of one's capabilities -- then China will be unlikely to equal the United States in comprehensive national power for several decades, if not more.

That being said, China is in no rush to displace the United States. Beijing's impending leadership transition, while affording China an occasion to celebrate how far it has risen during Hu Jintao's time in office, also provides an opportunity to consider how much work China has to do to stabilize its domestic situation. In the interim, then, China should allocate as much of its efforts as possible to that imperative -- conducting foreign policy in such a way as to secure the raw materials, natural resources, and energy reserves that it needs to sustain its growth -- avoid challenging the United States directly whenever possible, and consider the viability of various asymmetric strategies to facilitate its relative decline. How can Beijing goad the U.S. into containing China -- not to the point of jeopardizing their mutual economic relationship, but conspicuously enough so that China's neighbors begin to believe that the United States, not China, poses the greater long-term challenge to their national aspirations? Given the United States' inexperience in anchoring an international system with another country or coalition, and the anxiety the anxiety with which the U.S. foreign-policy establishment tends to contemplate such a configuration, how can Beijing induce the United States to react to China's ongoing rise with defensiveness, even paranoia?

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Ali Wyne is a researcher at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and a contributing analyst at the consultancy Wikistrat. He writes regularly at Big Think.

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