A Subversive on a Hill

A Subversive on a Hill

Mini Teaser: With America mired in two wars and our economy in shambles, the chorus of declinists has returned. But the United States will endure because it is an elastic power.

by Author(s): Lawrence Freedman

DESPITE REGULAR reports of terminal decline, the United States continues to hold on to its preeminent international position. It has been able to do this because of two features which distinguish it from the dominant great powers of the past: American power is based on alliances rather than colonies and is associated with an ideology that is flexible, potentially universal and inherently subversive of alternative ideological forms. Together they provide a core of relationships and values to which America can return even after it has overextended itself in a particular area or decided that intervention in a particular conflict was imprudent and that withdrawal is necessary.

What sort of power, then, is the United States? It entered the Second World War as a great power and finished it as a superpower. In the 1990s it was spoken of as a "hyperpower," in a class of its own. More recently there have been concerns that it was too much of a hard power, overreliant on military strength, and not enough of a soft power, one that would win friends and gain influence through the appeal of its culture and the sensitivity of its diplomacy. Now there seems to be a compromise view that the United States can combine hard and soft elements of power as appropriate, and strive above all to be a smart power. And who can object to that?

Behind all this talk of the categories and methods of power has been a question of how long the United States can sustain its position at the top of the international hierarchy. The question assumes a natural life cycle for great powers. They are not immortal, they rise and they fall, and some day the United States is bound to go the way of the empires that preceded it-Roman, Spanish, Ottoman and British. When it does, this might even be an occasion for some relief. The American people can expect a less demanding existence. In this diminished state, however, they will be obliged to fit in with the demands of the new hegemon and left to look back with nostalgia upon their own "unipolar moment." Pundits in Washington have fretted over this prospect for years, and with the deepening crisis that threatens the economic underpinnings of American power they have been fretting even more. The horizon has been scanned regularly for the coming "peer competitor," the new great power that will displace the United States, perhaps through a clash of arms but as likely through the superior weight of economic and financial strength. A number of candidates for this role have come and gone, even over the past few decades. At one point the future spoke in Russian, then in Japanese and now the bets are on Mandarin.

On this basis the turning point came last September as the American financial system almost collapsed under the impact of the credit crunch. The economic crisis has shaken the confidence of the United States and its closest allies in the liberal capitalism they assumed to be their greatest asset, the source of their political stability and cultural dynamism, their wealth and innovative capacities, and ultimately the foundation for their military strength. Unfavorable comparisons of the United States' position are being made with that of China-possessed with a massive population, preparing to dominate global trade, backed by a rapacious approach to the acquisition of raw materials, unencumbered by a sense of wider international obligations, and with a determination to succeed reinforced by memories of past humiliations and misfortunes.

I aim not to forecast the course, casualties and consequences of this economic crisis. It is always unwise to anticipate the cumulative impact of events yet to come and decisions yet to be made. I will argue, however, that there is no definite reason why the United States should be displaced from its top spot in the international hierarchy. While nothing should be taken for granted about the American role, it may prove to be more durable than commonly assumed. My case does not depend on projecting forward the comparative economic and military strength of the United States and China, or other candidate superpowers, but on a particular quality of American power: its elasticity.


IN PHYSICS, elasticity describes the relationship between stress and strain. The greater the elasticity, the more likely it is that a material which has been deformed under stress will return to its original shape once the stress has been removed. The obvious examples are a rubber band or a spring. In economics, elasticity describes the responsiveness of one variable to a change in another-the extent to which reducing price will increase sales explains the concept well enough. In politics, elasticity is sometimes used to refer to politicians who are constantly reshaping themselves to fit the prevailing trends in public opinion or to distance themselves from past policies that have come to seem unwise. In this respect elasticity has a negative connotation, conveying a lack of firm principle and a readiness to bend with the political winds. But following physics and economics, elasticity can also be a positive political attribute, conveying an ability to bounce back from adversity, and to adjust to changes in the external environment rather than get caught out by an insensitive rigidity. It has always been one of the claims of liberal democracy that it can respond to internal and external stress far more effectively than more authoritarian systems, which are often more brittle because they are unmoved by the demands for change. Authoritarian systems give the appearance of permanence by suppressing the voices of dissent, but as they lose legitimacy and loyalty, a sudden crisis can cause them to snap suddenly, as with the Shah in Iran, Ceausescu in Romania or Suharto in Indonesia.

In this regard, the American-Soviet experience is a prime example of the varying degrees of elasticity between two great powers. Consider how the future of American power was viewed in the 1970s. The Soviet Union was seen to be on the ascent in terms of military power, and enjoying sufficient conventional superiority in Europe to be able to contemplate a "standing start" attack and catch NATO before it had time to mobilize. Germany and Japan were acquiring political weight through their economic prowess. In 1973-74 came the oil shock, when Arab oil producers first imposed an embargo to protest American support for Israel. When, as a result, the oil price quadrupled, they took advantage of the flow of petrodollars to the Middle East to build up their armed forces (with the United States their preferred arms supplier). Meanwhile, the U.S. military was demoralized after Vietnam, the American people wary of a greater international role and repelled by the abuses revealed by the Watergate scandal. On top of this, the economy suffered in a decade of stagflation. During the 1980s, however, America started to recover some self-respect, and could watch as the Soviet Union began to flounder as the oil price collapsed. Still, unfavorable comparisons were drawn between the flabby nature of the American economy and the dynamism of its Asian competitors. In the event, the most gloomy prognostications of Japanese economic dominance were offered just as that country's fantastic growth rates were about to grind to a halt-Japan entered its "lost decade." The particular American vulnerability of this time was said-notably by historian Paul Kennedy in his 1987 book on the rise and fall of great powers-to be imperial overstretch: the economic burden of external military responsibilities. Overstretch is, as the metaphor suggests, a lack of elasticity, a stress that imposes an unbearable strain, a point beyond which it is impossible to ease back to a more sustainable shape and the inevitable result is to snap. Yet soon the United States was celebrating the implosion of its Soviet adversary, and was able to reduce its military establishment and enter a period of renewed economic growth. The Soviet system had turned out to be extraordinarily brittle-unable to cope with its mounting dysfunctions, it broke apart.

The elasticity of American power has meant that it has been able to survive setbacks and reassert its position. It has been able to do this because it is not like the dominant great powers of previous eras in international affairs. Above all, the United States is not an empire.


THERE ARE those who talk of a continuity in the international system, as if structurally barely anything has changed over the past couple of centuries, thus making it possible to analyze current conflicts with the categories and expectations of the past two hundred years. Those who take this position miss more than anything else the impact of decolonization. The process created numerous new states-many quite feeble in their economic, social and political structures-and ended direct European control over large chunks of the world. The United States is of course regularly accused of imperialism. But this is a straightforward category mistake; or else involves such a redefinition of imperialism as to miss the difference between being in control of another state and merely exercising considerable influence over its affairs. Allowing imperialism to refer to assertions of hegemony and domination without true transfers of sovereignty misses the vital difference between the current relations of strong and weak states on the one hand and the territorial grabs that marked the age of imperial rivalry on the other. Then, there was assumed to be a direct relationship between the number of colonies and the claims of greatness. It was also a time, and this was not unrelated, when mercantilist assumptions ruled about the economic benefits that were bound to flow from monopolizing resources, markets and trade routes, and denying them to potential competitors. That era has gone forever. Mercantilism is now both discredited and impractical except with regard to some raw materials. Even privileged access to mineral deposits and oil reserves, now considered a specialist Chinese tactic, is most likely to result in inefficiencies and simply encourage others to seek out energy alternatives. OPEC's aggressive price rises of the 1970s created the conditions for the dramatic fall in the oil price of the 1980s.

Essay Types: First Draft of History