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Power and Its Limits in Today's World

Retired British Army general Michael Rose recently wrote an op-ed piece for The New York Times comparing the effect on Britain of its loss in the War of Independence to the possible effects on the US of either withdrawing from or hunkering down in Iraq. You know where he's going from the title, "How a Revolution Saved an Empire":

Britain was near bankruptcy when peace with America was officially signed. [William] Pitt [the Younger], however, realized that because of industrialization his nation was about to experience unprecedented economic growth. He rose to prime minister in 1783 and set about creating the necessary economic conditions for Britain to become the workshop of the world.

Pitt also passed the India Bill in 1784 -- thus ensuring that the sort of poor administration that had soured relations with the American colonies would not be repeated in Britain’s other territories...

Most important, Pitt set about rebuilding the British Navy and Army, for he could see that war with France was looming once again. He would often visit the yards to ensure that ships were being constructed on time. Under the energetic direction of the Duke of York, the king’s second son, the army was reorganized and retrained. New commanders were appointed for both services -- men like Nelson and Wellington -- who were determined not to make the same mistakes as their predecessors. It is hardly an overstatement to say that had Britain not ended the American War of Independence when it did, it could never have been in a position to defeat Napoleon.

Rose then goes on to draw an explicit parallel with the United States in 2007:

Today, of course, the United States finds itself in much the same position as Britain in 1781. Distracted and diminished by an irrelevant, costly and probably unwinnable war in Iraq, America could ultimately find itself challenged by countries like China and India. Unless it can find a leader with the moral courage of Pitt, there is a strong probability that it will be forced to relinquish its position as the global superpower -- possibly to a regime that does not have the same commitment to justice and liberty that the United States and Britain have worked so hard to extend across the world over the past two centuries.
There are a variety of forms of power that states wield to advance their goals: not just military, but economic, intellectual, and even moral. After 9/11, the Bush Administration made the conscious decision to fight terrorism primarily with military power. We even have a "War on Terror", which Jerry Brown insightfully called a "war on a strategy".

Rose is absolutely right to point out that the United States has challengers coming on strong. Could we take any country in the world in a stand-up fight? Of course, but then we should expect nothing less given that we spend more on defense than the rest of the world combined (or we did the last time I checked). But that's today.

We've lost the moral power we had prior to and even immediately after 9/11 -- after invading Iraq on false pretenses, and then showing disregard for our own standards of civil liberties, who takes our President seriously? If I don't believe him when he talks, how can I expect someone in Europe to do so -- much less someone in, say, the Middle East? Without that moral power, we may find that we don't have quite so many friends ready to help us when we need it -- and note that we are working with much of NATO just to deal with the insurgency in Afghanistan.

Economic power? Yes, we're still the greatest economic power in the world. But the massive deficits we're running are creating a hole out of which our children and grandchildren will have to dig themselves, just as China is becoming directly competitive with them on virtually every front.

Intellectual power? The US is in many fields still the preeminent source of innovation in the world today. Thank goodness for our university system and our venture capital community, as well as our inherent risk-taking, fault-tolerating, entrepreneurship-celebrating national psychology. But in certain fields, we could find ourselves lagging, if we're not doing so already. Restrictions on stem cell research mean that some of the best work is being done overseas. Failure to enact useful environmental legislation is causing us to fall behind in green technologies.

So if our moral power is nearly gone, our economic power on a long, slow, deficit-induced decline, and our intellectual power inconsistent across industries, what does this mean for us? The days of relying on military power alone to maintain one's position in the world are long gone, for a variety of reasons. One is that the world economy is so interconnected that for one major state to attack another would rightly be seen by all sides as self-destructive, and so highly unlikely. Another is the law of accelerating returns (per Ray Kurzweil): with the rate of progress itself progressing, very slight advantages become dramatic. Technology in the year 1007 AD looked nearly identical to technology in the year 987 AD. But look at how profoundly technology has altered our world in the last two decades. If we fall behind our competitors even by a few years, we could find ourselves at a serious disadvantage.

Rose doesn't offer any prescriptions beyond an implied recommendation that we extricate ourselves from Iraq. That's a good start, one that I believe would make the US and its allies safer almost immediately. But there needs to be much more than that. We need to reiterate -- through actions, not words -- our commitment to human rights and the rule of law. We need a government that brings its fiscal house in order and returns to the budget surpluses of the 1990s. We need to ensure that in every critical industry, we're doing everything we can to be the most competitive nation in the world.

For the sake of the US -- and the rest of our interconnected world -- I hope our next president and the congress he or she inherits are up to these tasks.


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