Let me posit a radical idea: The most critical threat facing the US now and for the foreseeable future is not a rising China, a reckless North Korea, a nuclear Iran, modern terrorism or climate change. Although all of these constitute potential or actual threats, the biggest challenges facing the US are its burgeoning debt, crumbling infrastructure, second-rate primary and secondary schools, outdated immigration system and slow economic growth — in short, the domestic foundations of US power.
Readers in other countries may be tempted to react to this judgment with a dose of schadenfreude, finding more than a little satisfaction in the US’ difficulties. Such a response should not be surprising. The US and those representing it have been guilty of hubris (the US may often be the indispensable nation, but it would be better if others pointed this out), and examples of inconsistency between the US’ practices and its principles understandably provoke charges of hypocrisy. When the US does not adhere to the principles that it preaches to others, it breeds resentment.
However, like most temptations, the urge to gloat at the US’ imperfections and struggles ought to be resisted. People around the globe should be careful what they wish for. The US’ failure to deal with its internal challenges would come at a steep price. Indeed, the rest of the world’s stake in US success is nearly as large as that of the US itself.
Part of the reason is economic. The US economy still accounts for about one-quarter of global output. If US growth accelerates, the US’ capacity to consume other countries’ goods and services will increase, thereby boosting growth around the world. At a time when Europe is drifting and Asia is slowing, only the US (or, more broadly, North America) has the potential to drive global economic recovery.
The US remains a unique source of innovation. Most of the world’s citizens communicate with mobile devices based on technology developed in Silicon Valley; likewise, the Internet was made in the US. More recently, new technologies developed in the US greatly increase the ability to extract oil and natural gas from underground formations. This technology is now making its way around the globe, allowing other societies to increase their energy production and decrease both their reliance on costly imports and their carbon emissions.
The US is also an invaluable source of ideas. Its world-class universities educate a significant percentage of future world leaders. More fundamentally, the US has long been a leading example of what market economies and democratic politics can accomplish. People and governments around the world are far more likely to become more open if the US model is perceived to be succeeding.
Finally, the world faces many serious challenges, ranging from the need to halt the spread of weapons of mass destruction, fight climate change and maintain a functioning world economic order that promotes trade and investment to regulating practices in cyberspace, improving global health and preventing armed conflicts. These problems will not simply go away or sort themselves out.
While Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” may ensure the success of free markets, it is powerless in the world of geopolitics. Order requires the visible hand of leadership to formulate and realize global responses to global challenges.