The era of great power competition is back, and Washington is worried.
Lingering in the new decade are some of the old anxieties. As the United States struggled in Afghanistan and Iraq, endured the Great Recession, and arrived at one of its most polarized political eras, China, Russia, and Iran all seemed to be on the rise. China's economic growth rate looked miraculous. Russia was apparently rebuilding the Soviet Union by occupying Georgia, annexing Crimea, crowning a modern day Stalin, and messing with NATO at every opportunity. Iran was growing into the "Mideast's new superpower" with a stranglehold on Iraq, unparalleled regional influence, and a disruptive military able to fuel strife throughout the region. The rise of these revisionists in the face of a sputtering and impotent America made many commentators assert throughout the 2010s that the unipolar moment was over, and that the time had come for the United States to retire as the world's policeman. Decline, in other words, is destiny.
But the pessimists are missing an important point: In today's Great Game, whose hand would you rather play with if not the United States'?
Yes, the U.S. has a rough nuclear parity with Russia and a smaller population than China. But on all other fronts, the United States is superior. In many ways, the gaps between it and its competitors have narrowed over the past few decades, but it isn't outrageous to believe they will widen again in the future.
First and foremost, China, Iran, and Russia all suffer from a lack of legitimacy, as is always the case with totalitarian regimes.
China's communist party managed to overcome this obstacle through rapid economic growth, but scaling back political liberties isn't a sign the regime believes its footing is sound. Last year marked China's lowest growth in 27 years, according to official numbers. Worse, economists estimate that those official numbers are greatly exaggerated. According to Derek Scissors, an economist at the American Enterprise Institute, China's economic growth is somewhere between an annual rate of 1 to 3 percent. A paper, published by the Brookings Institution, claims that Beijing has exaggerated its growth rate by 2 percent a year over the course of a decade. According to the two papers, the size of China’s economy is about 12 to 30 percent smaller than official reports state. Hysteria in the U.S. over the Chinese economy isn't all that different from how the United States once believed the USSR's economy was booming until Soviet defectors corrected the record. If the Western estimates are correct, China's GDP is less than half of the United States' and is growing as fast as the United States', at best.
In Russia, Putin's adventurism is bearing bad fruit. Western sanctions leveled after the annexation of Crimea, as well as rampant corruption, have prevented the Russian economy from living up to its full potential. Meanwhile Russia has been spending a lot of money in Syria and Ukraine, which has led to revenue problems it cannot solve through debt, due to poor credit and hence high interest payments. Putin's solution to raise the pension age to just a year below Russian life expectancy created a public backlash and permanently damaged his image at home. For a long time, Putin and his nationalism were the sources of legitimacy for the Russian government, but, now, Putin's approval ratings have fallen under 50 percent, and protests are becoming a recurring theme (as is violently cracking down on them).
Iran, a country that perhaps faces the deepest economic and legitimacy crises out of the three, has been going through a period of violent protests. The economic and political problems have not only damaged the image of the regime but also led to military budget cuts.
All three countries also face demographic problems. Aging and declining populations are resulting in fewer workers and more senior citizens who impose financial burdens on their governments.
In the United States, things are much better than they feel. Economic growth has been slow post-recession, but it has been sustainable, helped along by a financial system based in law that invites outside investment more than any other country on Earth. The United States might face the same demographic challenges as its rivals, but it offsets this problem by being by far the world's most popular destination for immigrants (a fact the current American president hasn't been able to change, and probably won't).
The United States' alliance system is also exceptional. For probably the first time in history, a military has kept bases in many foreign countries for decades at the request of the hosts. As things stand, it is the U.S. that has positions in its adversaries' neighborhoods, not the other way around. And while the current administration has been kicking America's allies, their response so far hasn't been to depart the alliance but to try to sustain it.
There is more good news, the best of the bunch: The United States government enjoys greater legitimacy than its rivals. It's true that American institutions get poor marks from the citizenry, but U.S. officials don't fear popular, violent uprisings like their counterparts in China, Russia, and Iran do.
All that being said, it's possible to lose with a better hand, and victory is never inevitable. Our adversaries have been much more successful in exploiting the weaknesses in our system through disinformation campaigns or investments in our entertainment media and academia than we have been in exploiting their weaknesses. Failing to turn people against their corrupt governments is both a moral failure and a policy failure.
The success of our adversaries over the past many years has been less about America's powerlessness and more about our lack of resolve. As the recent killing of the Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani and the strike against Russian military mercenaries show, America's calculated projection of power can still punish bad behavior without provoking a war.
But the pessimism of the defeatists is still out there, and that pessimism can very well become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Nothing is inevitable.
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