The United States is undoubtedly the leading superpower in world, economically and militarily. One should be aware, however, that America’s worldwide influence is not limited to economic and military power. People in other countries are fascinated by and wish to emulate the high standard of living, culture, and way of life that Americans enjoy. However, the question is, will the qualities that are unique to this country and that have paved the way for its domination in the 20th century still safeguard its supremacy in 21st century?
The economic preeminence of the U.S. has often been questioned by some pessimists who believe this preeminence may not continue through the 21st century. They contend that China will eventually dethrone the United States as the world’s superpower. This view has especially been reinforced after more than decades of steady high growth rate of Chinese Growth Domestic Products, GDP, and China’s ascendance to the position of the largest exporter of goods and services to the global market. These facts appear to verify that economic and thus the political and cultural influences of China are on the rise.
In reality, one can argue that China’s economic destiny is beholden to policy and the priorities established by its ruling elites who are resistant to change and wish to preserve the status quo and hence their grip on power. The Chinese economy is mainly stimulated by export-promotion policies that are often enacted at a high cost. Unlike in the U.S., the majority of China’s population is poor, at least by America standards, and disenfranchised, especially in rural areas where the poverty rate is more than 17% and, without government assistance, this rate may double. Government-sponsored economic growth seems to have burdened the poor in China. In order to catch up with the West, Chinese party officials decided to inject limited market forces into their socialistic system. That has seems to have worked well so far and has helped them to achieve high growth for almost two decades.
Economic growth in the U.S., on the contrary, is mainly fueled by private initiatives and world-class entrepreneurs who have turbocharged the engine of the economy for decades. The technological breakthroughs launched in America have so far remained unmatched by other countries. According to some observers, had it not been for the grave damage done to the U.S. economy and its global moral standing following the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as human rights abuses under the George W. Bush administration, the U.S. would still would be the undisputed superpower in the world, economically and otherwise. This demoralizing era was also a catalyst for the financial crisis of 2007 that triggered the great recession of 2008 and the surge of pessimism concerning the American economic system. Misguided priorities and needless aggression during the Bush administration paved the way for U.S. vulnerability and the threat of constant terrorist attacks, resulting in the astronomical cost of fighting terrorism and providing homeland security. This misguided approach to world affairs also provided further ammunition for those who believed that Washington was corrupt and untrustworthy to lead the world, thus creating a ripe environment for China and a few other nations to emerge as formidable rivals for the U.S. on the global scene. Some even argue that the U.S. is the victim of its own obliviousness and compliancy caused by pride in its inventiveness and past success. The steady economic boom under the Clinton administration, for example, created a sense of self-assurance and lethargic attitudes in American investors as well as business firms that took prosperity for granted.
Despite such gloomy predictions, however, the U.S. will remain the superpower of the world, and as always, it will be able to successfully emerge from any crisis as it has in the past. This will be possible due to the country’s proven process for success and unparalleled internal resources, especially its rich endowment of human capital as well as other American qualities. In addition, the prudent approach by the Obama administration to foreign policy, especially the focus of his administration on the use of diplomacy as evidenced by the nuclear agreement with Iran and the restoration of diplomatic relations with Cuba, will certainly help to restore the reputation of the U.S. as a beacon for inclusivity and respect for other nations.
I believe the anxiety concerning the position of the U.S. in the world is not because the U.S. has actually lost its prominence or that China has already overtaken it. It is more about ensuring that U.S. domination will endure into the future. The chances of China or even Europe unseating America from supremacy anytime soon are indeed infinitesimal. Even the naysayers know that only the U.S. has the resources, not only material but also intellectual, that equip it to deal with the challenges of 21st century. The information revolution with its hyper-connectivity has created an age where intense changes occur so quickly and often disturbingly that only well-endowed countries like the United States have the means and the potential to deal with them effectively. In particular, with regard to human resources, the U.S. has one of the most productive labor forces, world-class entrepreneurs, and other movers and shakers who are fully capable of invigorating its economy.
The expectation of some analysts that China will catch up to the U.S. within a decade is based on the assumption that China will continue to grow at a rate of at least 8% while the U.S. growth rate will remain around 3%. This, I believe, is wishful thinking given the recent negative news coming out of China and the continuous economic rebounding of the U.S. economy. Based on some recent research and the realities on the ground, China’s growth rate is expected to fall to 3–4% in the coming years. Even if we assume a 3% growth rate for the U.S., it would take numerous decades for China to close the GDP gap. . Additionally, the total GDP of a country is only a measure of the size of its economy not the level of consumers’ well-being, which is the per capita GDP. Currently, the per capita GDP for the U.S. is more than $53,000 and $6,800 in China, revealing a great deal about the comparative welfare and standard of living in both countries.
Ignoring the measurement problems, often raw numbers give us an inaccurate basis for comparison. The projected values of China’s GDP or its high level of exports are not sufficient conditions for global domination; other qualities also play a role. The U.S., I think, is the country that has additional rich non-material qualities, including global cultural and political influence, which put it in the controlling seat. These rich internal and external resources will help the U.S. rise to any occasion no matter how seemingly insurmountable.
Advocates of declining American supremacy have been proven to be wrong time and again, particularly now in light of current adversarial revelations related to China, such as massive inequality, poverty, political strife, and government control, general dissatisfaction harboring the potential for uprisings, cronyism, and continuous currency manipulation. Economic supremacy cannot be built on government-determined priorities, wide-spread subsidies, or continuous government intervention. It has to be based on economic and financial resources and more importantly, modern institutional settings that are conducive to economic growth, including democratic values, human capital, entrepreneurship, advanced infrastructures, elite universities, and most notably, free market foundations. Externally and internally, the U.S. is best equipped to deal with the intense changes of modern time that are both disruptive as well as opportunistic. For example, if we consider the field of energy, we see the U.S. used to be heavily dependent upon foreign sources, and now it is soon destined to become the world’s number one producer, thanks to the ingenuity of its entrepreneurs who responded to market realities by developing innovative fracking technology. The tremendous boom in the shale oil industry in recent years proves once more that America is resilient, has what it takes to succeed, and has a fine-tuned mechanism to correct any past oversights when warranted.
China may be poised to economically reign supreme, but not any time soon. A country cannot permanently fuel economic growth using government apparatus. Given the level of cronyism in countries like China, the ruling party elites still benefit from preserving the status quo and are resistant to change; they cannot tolerate intense changes and their disruptive impact on the existing state of affairs, a tendency that impedes economic growth. Forces in China intent on preserving the status quo are the biggest hindrance to the notion of “creative destruction” that is essential to supercharge the economy. Changes create risk and instability such as the propagation of speculative investments in real estate or shoddy financial products. The resulting income and wealth inequality creates public indignation and a sense of resentment.
Only America has the means and the capacity to tolerate and survive destructive changes that boost knowledge, and innovations, and it has the visionary entrepreneurs who can capture opportunities and transform ideas into useful products by utilizing technology and other resources. Leading the world requires complementary resources such as knowledge, technology, entrepreneurship, and favorable institutional settings that can only be found in America.
What will play a pivotal role in economic success in the 21st century are the intangible properties of information and communication technology, knowledge-based products, skills, training, world-class universities, democracy, belief in hard work, patriotism, tolerance for martial success, and respect for diversity. China has a long way to go to muster such qualities. America has specific traits that make it a distinct nation. The ideal of American exceptionalism is still alive and pertinent as is its devotion to equality, human rights, egalitarianism, individualism, laissez faire policies, multiculturalism, hard work, constitutionalism, spirit of citizenship, civility, and a well-advanced financial system. These are all unique American values that complement the country’s rich natural and man-made resources.
Although some people may be discouraged by our dwindling political influence and weakening economic system, rest assured that there is light at the end of the tunnel, but reaching that end may not be smooth sailing. As we navigate this course, I believe it is important to remember that the United States has experienced economic turbulence before, and it has been able to prevail and emerge triumphantly. Historically, the U.S. has recuperated even from the worst downturns and I hold the conviction that it will do so again.