Political scientist Michael Beckley offers a data-supported argument for why the United States will remain the sole global superpower.
Michael Beckley, a Tufts University associate professor of political science and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, details how the United States will remain the peak global power in wealth and military capability. Many suggest that China may overtake the United States, but in his enlightening study, Beckley dissects this claim and convincingly argues against it, while sending a stark warning that “America-first” policies endanger the United States’ prime position and the liberal world order.
Beckley doesn’t always take the positions you might expect. He’s hawkish on defense while bemoaning America’s high incarceration rate and the damage caused by America-first policies. Events may have overtaken some of his conclusions and predictions, but Beckley’s fluid intelligence and expertise will keep you engaged.
Gross and Net Resources
Gross domestic product – the value of all goods and services – determines a nation’s wealth. But, Beckley cautions, GDP does not account for welfare, production or security costs, which reduce resources. The World Bank and the United Nations also measure productivity, human capital and natural resources to gauge a country’s “net resources.”
In terms of wealth and military capabilities – the pillars of global power – the United States is in a league of its own.Michael Beckley
To measure overall power, Beckley prefers GDP per capita – the output per person. He recognizes that China’s GDP is larger than America’s, as is its growth rate. But the United States is much wealthier, a gap that widens by several trillion dollars annually. Any wealth China creates, Beckley points out, goes straight into caring for its vast population.
The United States has several times more human capital – people’s skills, knowledge and labor – than China, because American workers produce more than Chinese workers. However, the author laments that the United States also has the highest incarceration rate in the world: Some 3% of working-age Americans are in jail.
The United States leads the world in incarceration and has more people under criminal justice control than the Soviet Union imprisoned under Stalin. Michael Beckley
Few of China’s expensive infrastructure projects will earn enough to match their costs, let alone turn a profit. China’s debt is now $30 trillion.
The unsurprising result of China’s wasted investment has been a dramatic rise in debt.Michael Beckley
China must boost innovation to increase its productivity and efficiency. The country leads in e-commerce, internet software and alternative energy, and it thrives in supercomputers, quantum communication and artificial intelligence. But Beckley asserts that to catch up militarily, China must massively outspend the United States for years to come. China has outspent the United States since Beckley’s book appeared in 2018, and so the gap seems smaller than Beckley predicted.
Left unchecked, some analysts fear, China will eventually become the hegemon of East Asia and start projecting military power into other regions.Michael Beckley
China has the world’s largest military, but, as Beckley explains, it lacks combat experience, and corruption is rife.
Balance of Power
The balance of power theory, Becker details, maintains that a great power falls when smaller, weaker states unite against it. For power balancing to succeed today, weaker states must either increase their military capabilities through “internal balancing”; form alliances against the United States by “external balancing”; or undermine America via diplomacy, cyber warfare or economic tools – “soft balancing.”
Balance-of-power dynamics are muted, because weaker states lack the wealth and military capabilities necessary to mount a sustained challenge to US primacy. Michael Beckley
Currently, Beckley insists, no nation could raise its military capacity to threaten America’s hegemony. External balancing is unlikely, since the United States enjoys alliances or partnerships with one-quarter of the world. And in terms of soft balancing, few countries would impose economic sanctions on the United States.
Geography, Demography and Institutions
The United States enjoys thousands of miles of navigable rivers, a safe water route along its east coast and deep-water ports allowing for cheap transport. America stands smack dab in the middle of the European and Asian trading zones, and its neighbors, Mexico and Canada, are devoted allies and economic partners. Easily accessible shale oil and natural gas make America energy-independent.
But the United States, Beckley warns, lags in education. American students score lower on international tests than do students of other nations, and teacher recruitment and training are much less rigorous than in, for example, Japan, Finland and Singapore. The author has grave concerns regarding America retaining its dominance unless it improves education for all.
The United States enjoys relatively low tax revenue and government spending, and it provides fewer services, which encourage entrepreneurship and private investment, Beckley avers.
Beckley argues that, to ensure a centrist majority, Congress must control decisions about the use of force and limit presidents from launching a preventive or unprovoked nuclear strike.
The practice of putting wars on the credit card is not just fiscally irresponsible, it is dangerous, because people are much more likely to support a stupid war if they do not have to pay higher taxes to finance it. Michael Beckley
Beckley recommends nonpartisan primaries for all elections and prefers ranked-choice voting. He advises prohibiting state majority parties from redrawing districts, and he wants candidates to disclose the sources of all donations. Given today’s hyper-partisan acrimony, these yearnings seem like a dream.
Unexpectedly for a research fellow at a right-leaning think tank, Beckley argues against isolationism and protectionism. He honors the United States’ role in promoting human rights, free trade and investment, a role that makes the world richer and more peaceful.
Unrivaled military power counts for little if it is not buttressed by aid and diplomacy.Michael Beckley
Beckley believes America should admit immigrants based on their skills, and it should increase its investments in diplomacy, foreign aid and peacekeeping, all of which maintain stability at a fraction of the cost of military intervention.
Searching for the Best
Beckley is more professor than inspiring prose stylist, and sadly, the power dynamics within the United States and between America and its most devout enemies have dramatically changed for the worse since the publication of Beckley’s book. These changes make many of his ideas seem like wishful thinking or willful denial. And yet you can learn much and admire more from Beckley’s refusal to pigeonhole himself ideologically. He’s searching for the best ideas for America, and he finds many of them.
Other works on America’s position in the world include Not One Inch by M. E. Sarotte, A World Safe for Democracy by G. John Ikenberry and The Long Game by Rush Doshi.