Saturday, October 23, 2010

American Success in Perspective

This is back to what I considered the original plan for these posts, start big and start narrowing down to particular issues.

While it is less frequently mentioned today than it was a decade ago, America remains far and away the most powerful country on Earth.  Superpower, or even hyperpower, are still used to refer to our relative power position.  This isn't inaccurate but, as I do sometimes see implied, this isn't a reason to believe that America's policies have been remarkably better than other countries, or even that it is our policies or institutions that have led us to this power position.

Let's put some perspective on America's rise.  The former European powers were all very small.  Some of them had large imperial territories but the form of imperialism used to control these far flung territories required substantial resource investments from the home territories to maintain.  While this investment often paid off, they were far more intrinsically brittle than societies that could rely on extensive home territories for their power.  What they had to rely on was a historically unique confluence of several factors, the modern state, the industrial revolution, nationalism, great demographics, democracy in some cases, and a few other factors I'm probably forgetting.  These factors weren't shared by other societies they were competing against, though in situations such as Japan's where some of these factors did arise a competitor was quick to arise, and they were able to exploit the superiority of these developments to gain a historically unique position.

During this phase, the US competed remarkably well.  We made mistakes, so did everyone else, but it is hard to say that our 18th and 19th century history isn't remarkable for the balance in favor of achievements over mistakes.  During this period, we also successfully expanded to have a land area and population that distinguished us from all the other western powers, though distance prevented this from being decisive in this period.  While getting into specifics would take far more time and space then I am prepared to give the subject, in this period I am perfectly willing to endorse the idea that relatively good policies and decisions gave the US a decisive lead over other societies.  This extends up till WWII.  It is important to remember of course that this success wasn't against some absolute sense of what makes societies successful, it was success against a set of particular competitors that simply made worse decisions than we did.

After WWII is where I think that some perspective on our achievements relative to our power is essential.  The European powers had been decisively humbled, the Soviet Union was our only competitor.  Let's be honest about this competition though. Only the US and the Soviet Union had the geographic expanse, population, economic development, and diplomatic position (in the form of the Soviet allied Eastern Bloc and US NATO, the presence of both of these organizations is owed to the first three factors however) to be in a competitive position.  No other state has been in truly competitive position in the second half of the 20th century.  Japan came close, but its limited geographic base is a severe restriction in long term power competition.  Other states don't even come close.

What we have to admit to ourselves though, is that we were competing with a state that was operating under a fundamentally flawed political and economic ideology.  It had the components it needed to compete but it wasn't using these components in a sensible fashion.  Winning the Cold War had two essential victory conditions for the US, not implode and not cause a nuclear war.  Only the second of these involved any difficulty, we don't deserve any awards for achieving the first.  The Soviet Union was doomed from its inception because it was a society based on a theory, rather than on reality.  These always fail given time.

Given this perspective, winning the Cold War has to be seen as not being in any way an endorsement of the American system, it's simply a condemnation of the Soviet one.  Our own achievements are harder to assess, we simply don't have any societies worth comparing ourselves to for the past 50 years.  I think we have some very good reasons to doubt that we've been making good decisions for the last 40 years or so, not that we didn't make some real doozies before that too, the WWII era decision to put so much of our health insurance benefits in the hands of employers was a bad call with very far reaching effects. 

I'll be getting into specific issues, both achievements and flaws in later posts.  But when assessing our modern record, it is important to keep in mind the basic disparity we have in natural resources relative to other states.  The only state comparable in its resource endowments was held back by an insane ideology, those that were on an equal playing field ideologically and institutionally had far less in the way of natural resources.  To say our successes are remarkable because of actions that we took as a state we have to think in terms of relative resource endowments.  For instance, the next closest developed nation to ourselves in terms of population is Japan, with about 125 million inhabitants to our close to 300 million.  Saying that we have more of the top Nobel prize winners than they do, or top medical specialists, or top universities, or biggest companies isn't at all impressive.  With more than twice the population I certainly hope we do.  Saying that we have more than 2 1/2 times the number of each of these things, well, that is something to be proud of.  But remember, in this large and wealthy of a country saying that we have more of anything isn't something to be proud of, it's to be expected simply by virtue of our size.  To say we've been a top performer in our position it takes more than just being the best at something, we have to be the best by quite a large margin.  Anything less not only fails the test of American exceptionalism, it fails to recognize the basic facts of our place in the world.

Of course, we also have to recognize this phase of our existence is coming to a close.  In a few short decades we won't be competing with countries that we out-compete by default simply by virtue of our size or their insanity.  We will be competing against several states that are comparable in size and in the basic components that make up modernity.  If we want to be a proud, successful country we need to stop patting ourselves on the back for defeating the feeble and realize we're going to have to work hard and make sacrifices to be competitive.   I believe we've been rather self-indulgent over the last 40 years.  We've taken the natural results of the size of our population, the richness of our natural resources, the security of our position, and the favorable diplomatic and political environment and mistaken this for a confirmation of the success of our actions and policies.  This pleasant environment is ending.  Our policies and decisions no longer are being made in a world where we win simply by being who we are, now we're going to have to prove to the world that what we do actually works and we'll have real competitors against which we can be compared.  The time where we can simply experiment with policies with little thought to long term consequences is ending, we're going to have to honestly face the results of our policy decisions and make course corrections when things don't play out right.  Results must trump ideology or the American superpower will rapidly become a footnote in history.  A world where we're competing against real powers in Europe, China, India, and regional power blocs that are likely to form in South America centered on Brazil and possibly in South-East Asia isn't one that we can ignore reality and survive in.  We have to pay our debts, do what works, and pay careful attention to adapting ourselves to paying careful attention to the world outside our borders.  There's a lot of potential in this world, and I believe it will be a better world, but it's a much more competitive one that won't allow us to be self-indulgent.


  1. I agree with your last sentence, but I'm not sure I'd endorse the essay before it. When political systems (or lions) compete, one proves more successful than the other. I'm not sure you can say that in the cold war, one ideological regime was inferior while the other wasn't superior. I also can't really endorse the idea that it was bigness alone that made us because we had to get big and to be able to administrate bigness.

    I also read this more statistician-like than historianishly. I think there is room in the American triumph for a lot of explanatory variables including size, material superiority to our neighbors as well as policy and ideology.

    I think what you're really saying is that exceptionalism is complacency and complacency is unsustainable. I agree with that, just not the history lesson.

  2. Doug,

    I agree with some of you points, there's certainly more to our success than being big. Due to the post's already absurd length I had to cut a section I had on US innovations that let us get big. A lot of our 19th century history is extremely impressive, we pioneered a lot of administrative reforms due to our unprecedented size, invented new military organization for the civil war, invented new corporate structures for tasks such as the transcontinental railroad, etc. Being able to get this big was an achievement itself.

    The hard part is always getting big and then holding things together, doing this was a remarkable achievement. But after this, there is a certain inevitability to success. My point about the Soviet Union is that their ideology was so severely flawed that they couldn't have held themselves together for a long period of time. Internal pressures would have led to their collapse with or without us. So I'd agree that our system is superior to theirs but it doesn't necessarily mean we're getting anything right and should keep doing what we're doing, just that we're not so completely wrong that we can pass the minimum bar of holding together. It doesn't mean that our system is better than others in the world today or that we can compete by doing more of the same, or by returning to past policies.

    Overall, this post wasn't to condemn all of our history, just the latter half of the 20th century. I think our size, and other endowments, gave a certain inevitability to our success. This isn't to say that we carried over a lot of successful policies from earlier eras but I am highly sceptical that we've made a lot of good choices on how to adapt to changing circumstances. If I felt I had space I'd put some qualifiers on this. I'm impressed by a lot of our immediate post war policies. The interstate highway system was a good investment, Bretton Woods was a remarkable achievement, negotiating the GATT, and I'd add NAFTA, though I'm disappointed we haven't done more here. We also didn't handle the overall transition to the modern economy badly, we put the policies we needed into place to manage things initially. It's how we adjusted when changes were needed that I think we missed too many opportunities for me to consider our record successful. I plan to get into some of these things a bit later but I think a lot of reform periods left in place some institutional structures that had proven rotten and could have been reformed.

    We may have to just agree to disagree though. On the whole, I think we've been coasting for the last 40 years, with a record of achievements to be sure but one I think is too thin for a country in our enviable position, and have mistaken victories that were inevitable by the simple logic of our power position for victories that were instead achieved by brilliant policies. I see a lot of this playing out in our politics today. Current American success is used to argue for the status quo but it isn't considered if current American success is due to the size of our market, the dominance of our military, our position as a reserve currency, etc. All of this was achieved over 60 years ago, it's hardly an endorsement of the policies of the last few decades. I tend to believe that given our advantages, if we had instead been making more of the right choices (I realize hindsight is 20/20, I'm arguing that we should have reasonably been expected to make more right calls than we did, not that we should have done everything right) we would be in a much more enviable position than we are today. I think the last 40 years or so is a record of us making more bad than good calls that have eroded our past achievements and that the first step to doing something about this is to realize just how huge of an advantage the material factors of power are for us so we can guage the expectations we have from policy accordingly.

  3. After some reflection, a more succint way of putting both my blog post and comment.

    The main point I'm trying to get across is that the situation was so favorable to us post WWII that we could have made the wrong decisions every time and still come out as the only surviving superpower. Further, I think that since the 60s this isn't too far from what actually happened. We made some good calls on small matters but mostly flubbed the big ones. The major exceptions being a few multi-lateral things that most people don't pay attention to, the START treaties, and NAFTA. I could probably think of a few more given time but on balance I think we made a lot more bad calls than good ones, which is different from most of our past history (including the 20 years after WWII) where I'd argue the US was remarkable for its foresight and for on balance making a lot more good than bad calls. Not to say that we haven't had some streaks in our past history where a lot of bad calls were made. I think the important thing is to realize we've been making mistakes and that our superpower status doesn't show that these were good calls instead of mistakes, which is something that I believe I see people doing often.

  4. Actually, I think we can agree to agree. As I mentioned at the end of my previous comment, I'm with you on your conclusion and I now see where you were headed with the historical account.

  5. I'll have to put it down to being unclear in my first post then. Thanks for pointing it out.