The appeal of the post–Cold War American hegemony strategy had rested on the widespread belief that Washington enjoyed overwhelming advantages in military power and economic strength. The U.S. military was so advanced and powerful, the thinking went, that the United States could police the world and intervene in local conflict after local conflict in which it had little or no stake at minimal cost in American lives and dollars. And America was so rich, or so it was often assumed, that it could easily shed “old” industries like manufacturing for new “sunrise” industries like software, even as it easily absorbed huge numbers of poor, low-skilled immigrants.
By the second decade of the twenty-first century, the post–Cold War fantasy of limitless American power collided with reality, in the form of the Iraq and Afghan wars, the Great Recession and—most important of all—the rise of China. Of all the trends forcing a reconsideration of the fashionable postnationalist consensus, none may be of greater significance than the rise of China as both an economic and military power. In the 1990s, optimists predicted that China’s entry into the world economy would lead the world’s most populous nation to adopt free-market capitalism and multiparty democracy. Not so. On both the economic and strategic fronts, China has grown more aggressive in recent years—taking a harsher line with foreign corporations and alarming Japan and other neighbors by means of a military buildup and attempts at unilateral redefinition of its regional security prerogatives.
Today’s China is often compared to Imperial Germany a century ago. But China presents a challenge unlike any that Americans have faced in their national history, including those posed by Germany and the Soviet Union.
As a giant nation-state, the United States has enjoyed significant advantages over medium-sized nation-states whose hopes for enduring great-power status depended on possessing foreign empires, like Britain, France, Germany, Japan and Russia. Likewise, the United States is not threatened by the feeble, multiheaded hydra of the European Union, even if on paper the EU rivals America in population and GDP. And with the exception of China, the other countries that will have the greatest populations in the generations ahead, such as India, Nigeria and Pakistan, are multinational agglomerations, some or all of which in the future might split into more homogeneous successor nation-states. Only China rivals America in combining a majority population whose members share a strong sense of common national identity with a huge domestic market and a high level of industrialization. The fact that China has surpassed the United States already as the world’s leading manufacturing power—and will soon surpass it in total GDP—makes the triumphalist American vision of a unipolar world in which other great powers like China forever accept the subordinate status of American Cold War satellites like Japan and the former West Germany appear even more delusional.
When confronted with any challenge to their newly minted orthodoxy, postnationalists often try to foreclose debate by claiming that the only alternative to their grand strategy of American hegemony is retreat into the bad old days of isolationism, protectionism and nativism. But one can reject the project of a hugely expensive American global hegemony without favoring a return to pre–World War II isolation. Likewise, one can reject the policy of allowing other industrial nations to export their way to riches and military power by exploiting one-way access to the American consumer market and U.S. technological innovations without favoring a revival of nineteenth-century infant industry tariffs. And one can reject the combination of lax immigration enforcement with multiculturalism without embracing xenophobia or rejecting immigration tout court.
A new strategy of enlightened nationalism would revive the Nixon-era themes of shifting more of the burden of defense to America’s allies and clients and treating the country’s remaining manufacturing industries as national-security assets to be defended against foreign mercantilist assault, not as bribes to be given away to American allies and protectorates.
INSTEAD OF SEEKING GLOBAL HEGEMONY, the United States should seek what Samuel P. Huntington called primacy, as the primus inter pares in a world of multiple great powers. The hegemony strategy is based on the idea that the best way for the country to prevent hostile hegemons from dominating Europe, Asia and the Middle East is for the United States itself to be the hegemon of Europe, the hegemon of Asia and the hegemon of the Middle East. The hegemony strategy not only permits but also encourages free riding by America’s European and Asian allies, which, relieved of much of the burden of defense spending, can devote greater resources to investment in economy-growing infrastructure, civilian industry and generous social-welfare spending.
As part of a strategy of primacy rather than hegemony, America should replace its policy of unilateral protection of other great powers with a less expensive strategy of offshore balancing—or what I call a concert-balance strategy. Unilateral American protection would be replaced by regional concerts in Europe and Northeast Asia, to which the local nations would be expected to contribute more while the United States contributed less. Hostile regional great powers would be met, not by unilateral protection for which American taxpayers and soldiers pay most of the costs, but by traditional balance-of-power coalitions in which Washington takes part, like the coalitions of World Wars I and II.
A concert-balance strategy would allow the country to spend less on the military, without compromising its security. The United States could remove most of its troops from Europe and Asia, as allies in those regions assumed more responsibility for their own defense. The army could be downsized to a modest expeditionary force, stationed most of the time in the United States and expected to fight alongside American allies in regional concerts or balance-of-power coalitions—not to fight for them while they watch from the sidelines. The navy, air force and Marines would grow in relative importance.
Nor is this all. Unlike the Cold War, in which the Soviet Union was a first-rate military power but a third-rate economic power, rivalries in the future are likely to take place chiefly in the realm of geoeconomics. In a world in which geopolitics is becoming indistinguishable from geoeconomics, the three most important states in the world for the United States are the next three biggest economies: China, Japan and Germany (the European Union is a single economy only in theory). All to some degree are nonliberal mercantilist economies, using various methods to maintain permanent merchandise trade surpluses. These trade surpluses come directly or indirectly at the expense of the United States, which has run chronic trade deficits since the 1970s. In China, Japan and Germany, chronic export surpluses have been obtained in part with the help of mercantilist policies of wage suppression, which in turn suppress consumption, to the detriment of the world economy in general.
It is not only absurd but also dangerous for American strategists to focus on the Iranian threat to the Strait of Hormuz or the Chinese naval threat to this or that island, while complacently accepting the decline of the domestic American industrial base on which U.S. military power depends. America’s strategy toward China is particularly perverse, combining military encirclement with economic appeasement. A sensible strategy would do the reverse, combining limited military appeasement of China in its own neighborhood with robust defense of American industry against Chinese mercantilism. Encircling China with bases in Japan, Korea, Australia and elsewhere will only aggravate Chinese nationalism, without any impact on the major sources of Chinese power—its domestic population and its domestic industry.
Much contemporary American strategic thinking appears to be shaped by the archaic geopolitical theories of Alfred Thayer Mahan and Brooks Adams, who thought that the control of sea-lanes was the basis of world power, and of Halford Mackinder, who grandiosely argued that the “Heartland”—Russia and Eastern Europe—was the “pivot of history.” A sounder approach was set forth by Leo Amery: “The successful powers will be those who have the greatest industrial basis. It will not matter whether they are in the centre of a continent or on an island; those people who have the industrial power and the power of invention and science will be able to defeat all others.”
As Amery recognized, in the modern world a deindustrialized country can never be a great power, no matter how rich its financiers, realtors and insurance executives or how efficient its retail distribution networks. It would be dangerous in the extreme for a country to allow its manufacturing industries to vanish, and its skilled industrial workforce to atrophy, on the hopeful theory that it can always reconstitute them at a moment’s notice, in a time of danger.
According to Global Firepower, the world’s leading military powers are currently the United States, Russia, China, India, Britain, France, Germany, Turkey, South Korea and Japan. And according to the World Bank, in 2012 the leading nations by GDP were the United States, China, Japan, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Brazil, Russia, Italy and India. The close correlation between GDP and military power is striking. (Because of World War II memories, Japan and Germany continue to spend proportionally less on their militaries than the victors.)