The Self-Doubting Superpower

America Shouldn’t Give Up on the World It Made

Most Americans think their country is in decline. In 2018, when the Pew Research Center asked Americans how they felt their country would perform in 2050, 54 percent of respondents agreed that the U.S. economy would be weaker. An even larger number, 60 percent, agreed that the United States would be less important in the world. This should not be surprising; the political atmosphere has been pervaded for some time by a sense that the country is headed in the wrong direction. According to a long-running Gallup poll, the share of Americans who are “satisfied” with the way things are going has not crossed 50 percent in 20 years. It currently stands at 20 percent.

Over the decades, one way of thinking about who would win the presidency was to ask: Who is the more optimistic candidate? From John F. Kennedy to Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama, the sunnier outlook seemed to be the winning ticket. But in 2016, the United States elected a politician whose campaign was premised on doom and gloom. Donald Trump emphasized that the U.S. economy was in a “dismal state,” that the United States had been “disrespected, mocked, and ripped off” abroad, and that the world was “a total mess.” In his inaugural address, he spoke of “American carnage.” His current campaign has reprised these core themes. Three months before declaring his candidacy, he released a video titled “A Nation in Decline.”

Joe Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign was far more traditional. He frequently extolled the United States’ virtues and often recited that familiar line, “Our best days still lie ahead.” And yet, much of his governing strategy has been predicated on the notion that the country has been following the wrong course, even under Democratic presidents, even during the Obama-Biden administration. In an April 2023 speech, Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, criticized “much of the international economic policy of the last few decades,” blaming globalization and liberalization for hollowing out the country’s industrial base, exporting American jobs, and weakening some core industries. Writing later in these pages, he worried that “although the United States remained the world’s preeminent power, some of its most vital muscles atrophied.” This is a familiar critique of the neoliberal era, one in which a few prospered but many were left behind.

It goes beyond mere critique. Many of the Biden administration’s policies seek to rectify the apparent hollowing out of the United States, promoting the logic that its industries and people need to be protected and assisted by tariffs, subsidies, and other kinds of support. In part, this approach may be a political response to the reality that some Americans have in fact been left behind and happen to live in crucial swing states, making it important to court them and their votes. But the remedies are much more than political red meat; they are far-reaching and consequential. The United States currently has the highest tariffs on imports since the Smoot-Hawley Act of 1930. Washington’s economic policies are increasingly defensive, designed to protect a country that has supposedly lost out in the last few decades.

A U.S. grand strategy that is premised on mistaken assumptions will lead the country and the world astray. On measure after measure, the United States remains in a commanding position compared with its major competitors and rivals. Yet it does confront a very different international landscape. Many powers across the globe have risen in strength and confidence. They will not meekly assent to American directives. Some of them actively seek to challenge the United States’ dominant position and the order that has been built around it. In these new circumstances, Washington needs a new strategy, one that understands that it remains a formidable power but operates in a far less quiescent world. The challenge for Washington is to run fast but not run scared. Today, however, it remains gripped by panic and self-doubt.

STILL NUMBER ONE
Despite all the talk of American dysfunction and decay, the reality is quite different, especially when compared with other rich countries. In 1990, the United States’ per capita income (measured in terms of purchasing power) was 17 percent higher than Japan’s and 24 percent higher than Western Europe’s. Today, it is 54 percent and 32 percent higher, respectively. In 2008, at current prices, the American and eurozone economies were roughly the same size. The U.S. economy is now nearly twice as large as the eurozone. Those who blame decades of American stagnation on Washington’s policies might be asked a question: With which advanced economy would the United States want to have swapped places over the last 30 years?

In terms of hard power, the country is also in an extraordinary position. The economic historian Angus Maddison argued that the world’s greatest power is often the one that has the strongest lead in the most important technologies of the time—the Netherlands in the seventeenth century, the United Kingdom in the nineteenth century, and the United States in the twentieth century. America in the twenty-first century might be even stronger than it was in the twentieth. Compare its position in, say, the 1970s and 1980s with its position today. Back then, the leading technology companies of the time—manufacturers of consumer electronics, cars, computers—could be found in the United States but also in Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, and South Korea. In fact, of the ten most valuable companies in the world in 1989, only four were American, and the other six were Japanese. Today, nine of the top ten are American.

What is more, the top ten most valuable U.S. technology companies have a total market capitalization greater than the combined value of the stock markets of Canada, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. And if the United States utterly dominates the technologies of the present—centered on digitization and the Internet—it also seems poised to succeed in the industries of the future, such as artificial intelligence and bioengineering. In 2023, as of this writing, the United States has attracted $26 billion in venture capital for artificial intelligence startups, about six times as much as China, the next highest recipient. In biotech, North America captures 38 percent of global revenues while all of Asia accounts for 24 percent.

Of the ten most valuable companies in the world, nine are American.
In addition, the United States leads in what has historically been a key attribute of a nation’s strength: energy. Today, it is the world’s largest producer of oil and gas—larger even than Russia or Saudi Arabia. The United States is also massively expanding production of green energy, thanks in part to the incentives in the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022. As for finance, look at the list of banks designated “globally systemically important” by the Financial Stability Board, a Switzerland-based oversight body; the United States has twice as many such banks as the next country, China. The dollar remains the currency used in almost 90 percent of international transactions. Even though central banks’ dollar reserves have dropped in the last 20 years, no other competitor currency even comes close.

Finally, if demography is destiny, the United States has a bright future. Alone among the world’s advanced economies, its demographic profile is reasonably healthy, even if it has worsened in recent years. The U.S. fertility rate now stands around 1.7 children per woman, below the replacement level of 2.1. But that compares favorably with 1.5 for Germany, 1.1 for China, and 0.8 for South Korea. Crucially, the United States makes up for its low fertility through immigration and successful assimilation. The country takes in around one million legal immigrants every year, a number that fell during the Trump and COVID-19 years but has since rebounded. One in five of all people on earth who live outside their country of birth live in the United States, and its immigrant population is nearly four times that of Germany, the next-largest immigration hub. For that reason, whereas China, Japan, and Europe are projected to experience population declines in the coming decades, the United States should keep growing.

Of course, the United States has many problems. What country doesn’t? But it has the resources to solve these problems far more easily than most other countries. China’s plunging fertility rate, for example, the legacy of the one-child policy, is proving impossible to reverse despite government inducements of all kinds. And since the government wants to maintain a monolithic culture, the country is not going to take in immigrants to compensate. The United States’ vulnerabilities, by contrast, often have ready solutions. The country has a high debt load and rising deficits. But its total tax burden is low compared with those of other rich countries. The U.S. government could raise enough revenues to stabilize its finances and maintain relatively low tax rates. One easy step would be to adopt a value-added tax. A version of the VAT exists in every other major economy across the globe, often with rates around 20 percent. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that a five percent VAT would raise $3 trillion over a decade, and a higher rate would obviously raise even more. This is not a picture of irremediable structural dysfunction that will lead inexorably to collapse.

BETWEEN WORLDS
Despite its strength, the United States does not preside over a unipolar world. The 1990s was a world without geopolitical competitors. The Soviet Union was collapsing (and soon its successor, Russia, would be reeling), and China was still an infant on the international stage, generating less than two percent of global GDP. Consider what Washington was able to do in that era. To liberate Kuwait, it fought a war against Iraq with widespread international backing, including diplomatic approval from Moscow. It ended the Yugoslav wars. It got the Palestine Liberation Organization to renounce terrorism and recognize Israel, and it convinced Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to make peace and shake hands on the White House lawn with the PLO’s leader, Yasser Arafat. In 1994, even North Korea seemed willing to sign on to an American framework and end its nuclear weapons program (a momentary lapse into amicable cooperation from which it quickly recovered). When financial crises hit Mexico in 1994 and East Asian countries in 1997, the United States saved the day by organizing massive bailouts. All roads led to Washington.

Today, the United States faces a world with real competitors and many more countries vigorously asserting their interests, often in defiance of Washington. To understand the new dynamic, consider not Russia or China but Turkey. Thirty years ago, Turkey was an obedient U.S. ally, dependent on Washington for its security and prosperity. Whenever Turkey went through one of its periodic economic crises, the United States helped bail it out. Today, Turkey is a much richer and more politically mature country, led by a strong, popular, and populist leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. It routinely defies the United States, even when requests are made at the highest levels.

Washington was unprepared for this shift. In 2003, the United States planned a two-front invasion of Iraq—from Kuwait in the south and from Turkey in the north—but failed to secure Turkey’s support preemptively, assuming it would be able to get that country’s assent as it always had. In fact, when the Pentagon asked, the Turkish parliament declined, and the invasion had to proceed in a hasty and ill-planned manner that might have had something to do with how things later unraveled. In 2017, Turkey inked a deal to buy a missile system from Russia—a brazen move for a NATO member. Two years later, Turkey again thumbed its nose at the United States by attacking Kurdish forces in Syria, American allies who had just helped defeat the Islamic State there.

Scholars are debating whether the world is currently unipolar, bipolar, or multipolar, and there are metrics one can use to make each case. The United States remains the single strongest country when adding up all hard-power metrics. For example, it has 11 aircraft carriers in operation, compared with China’s two. Watching countries such as India, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey flex their muscles, one can easily imagine that the world is multipolar. Yet China is clearly the second-biggest power, and the gap between the top two and the rest of the world is significant: China’s economy and its military spending exceed those of the next three countries combined. The gap between the top two and all others was the principle that led the scholar Hans Morgenthau to popularize the term “bipolarity” after World War II. With the collapse of British economic and military power, he argued, the United States and the Soviet Union were leagues ahead of every other country. Extending that logic to today, one might conclude that the world is again bipolar.

But China’s power also has limits, derived from factors that go beyond demographics. It has just one treaty ally, North Korea, and a handful of informal allies, such as Russia and Pakistan. The United States has dozens of allies. In the Middle East, China is not particularly active despite one recent success in presiding over the restoration of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia. In Asia, it is economically ubiquitous but also draws constant pushback from countries such as Australia, India, Japan, and South Korea. And in recent years, Western countries have become wary of China’s growing strength in technology and economics and have moved to limit its access.

China’s example helps clarify that there is a difference between power and influence. Power is made up of hard resources—economic, technological, and military. Influence is less tangible. It is the ability to make another country do something that it otherwise would not have done. To put it crudely, it means bending another country’s policies in the direction you prefer. That is ultimately the point of power: to be able to translate it into influence. And by that yardstick, both the United States and China face a world of constraints.

Other countries have risen in terms of resources, fueling their confidence, pride, and nationalism. In turn, they are likely to assert themselves more forcefully on the world stage. That is true of the smaller countries surrounding China but also of the many countries that have long been subservient to the United States. And there is a new class of medium powers, such as Brazil, India, and Indonesia, that are searching for their own distinctive strategies. Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India has pursued a policy of “multi-alignment,” choosing when and where to make common cause with Russia or the United States. In the BRICS grouping, it has even aligned itself with China, a country with which it has engaged in deadly border skirmishes as recently as 2020.

In a 1999 article in these pages, “The Lonely Superpower,” the political scientist Samuel Huntington tried to look beyond unipolarity and describe the emerging world order. The term he came up with was “uni-multipolar,” an extremely awkward turn of phrase yet one that captured something real. In 2008, when I was trying to describe the emerging reality, I called it a “post-American world” because it struck me that the most salient characteristic was that everyone was trying to navigate the world as U.S. unipolarity began to wane. It still seems to be the best way to describe the international system.

THE NEW DISORDER
Consider the two great international crises of the moment, the invasion of Ukraine and the Israel-Hamas war. In Russian President Vladimir Putin’s mind, his country was humiliated during the age of unipolarity. Since then, mainly as a result of rising energy prices, Russia has been able to return to the world stage as a great power. Putin has rebuilt the power of the Russian state, which can extract revenues from its many natural resources. And now he wants to undo the concessions Moscow made during the unipolar era, when it was weak. It has been seeking to reclaim those parts of the Russian Empire that are central to Putin’s vision of a great Russia—Ukraine above all else, but also Georgia, which it invaded in 2008. Moldova, where Russia already has a foothold in the breakaway Transnistria republic, could be next.

Putin’s aggression in Ukraine was premised on the notion that the United States was losing interest in its European allies and that they were weak, divided, and dependent on Russian energy. He gobbled up Crimea and the borderlands of eastern Ukraine in 2014, and then, just after the completion of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline bringing Russian gas to Germany, decided to frontally attack Ukraine. He hoped to conquer the country, thus reversing the greatest setback Russia had endured in the unipolar age. Putin miscalculated, but it was not a crazy move. After all, his previous incursions had been met with little resistance.

In the Middle East, the geopolitical climate has been shaped by Washington’s steady desire to withdraw from the region militarily over the last 15 years. That policy began under President George W. Bush, who was chastened by the fiasco of the war he had started in Iraq. It continued under President Barack Obama, who articulated the need to reduce the United States’ profile in the region so that Washington could take on the more pressing issue of China’s rise. This strategy was advertised as a pivot to Asia but also a pivot away from the Middle East, where the administration felt the United States was overinvested militarily. That shift was underscored by Washington’s sudden and complete withdrawal from Afghanistan in the summer of 2021.

The result has not been the happy formation of a new balance of power but rather a vacuum that regional players have aggressively sought to fill. Iran has expanded its influence, thanks to the Iraq war, which upset the balance of power between the region’s Sunnis and Shiites. With Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-dominated regime toppled, Iraq was governed by its Shiite majority, many of whose leaders had close ties to Iran. This expansion of Iranian influence continued into Syria, where Tehran backed the government of Bashar al-Assad, allowing it to survive a brutal insurgency. Iran supported the Houthis in Yemen, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Hamas in Israel’s occupied territories.

There is a difference between power and influence.
Rattled by all this, the Arab states of the Persian Gulf and some other moderate Sunni states began a process of tacit cooperation with Iran’s other great enemy, Israel. That burgeoning alliance, with the 2020 Abraham Accords as an important milestone, seemed destined to culminate in the normalization of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia. The obstacle to such an alliance had always been the Palestinian issue, but the retreat of Washington and the advances of Tehran made the Arabs willing to ignore that once central issue. Watching closely, Hamas, an ally of Iran, chose to burn down the house, returning the group and its cause to the spotlight.

The most portentous challenge to the current international order comes in Asia, with the rise of Chinese power. This could produce another crisis—far bigger than the other two—if China were to test the resolve of the United States and its allies by trying to forcibly reunify Taiwan with the mainland. So far, the Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s hesitation about using military force serves as a reminder that his country, unlike Russia, Iran, and Hamas, gains much from being tightly integrated into the world and its economy. But whether this restraint will hold is an open question. And the increased odds of an invasion of Taiwan today compared with, say, 20 years ago are one more signal of the weakening of unipolarity and the rise of a post-American world.

Yet another indication of the United States’ reduced leverage in this emerging order is that informal security guarantees might give way to more formal ones. For decades, Saudi Arabia has lived under an American security umbrella, but it was a sort of gentleman’s agreement. Washington made no commitments or guarantees to Riyadh. Were the Saudi monarchy to be threatened, it had to hope that the U.S. president at the time would come to its rescue. In fact, in 1990, when Iraq menaced Saudi Arabia after invading Kuwait, President George H. W. Bush did come to the rescue with military force—but he was not required to do so by any treaty or agreement. Today, Saudi Arabia is feeling much stronger and is being courted actively by the other world power, China, which is its largest customer by far. Under its assertive crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom has become more demanding, asking Washington for a formal security guarantee like the one extended to NATO allies and the technology to build a nuclear industry. It remains unclear whether the United States will grant those requests—the question is tied in with a normalization of relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel—but the very fact that the Saudi demands are being taken seriously is a sign of a changing power dynamic.

STAYING POWER
The international order that the United States built and sustained is being challenged on many fronts. But it remains the most powerful player in that order. Its share of global GDP remains roughly what it was in 1980 or 1990. Perhaps more significant, it has racked up even more allies. By the end of the 1950s, the “free world” coalition that fought and would win the Cold War was made up of the members of NATO—the United States, Canada, 11 Western European countries, Greece, and Turkey—plus Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and South Korea. Today, the coalition supporting Ukraine’s military or enforcing sanctions against Russia has expanded to include almost every country in Europe, as well as a smattering of other states. Overall, the “West Plus” encompasses about 60 percent of the world’s GDP and 65 percent of global military spending.

The challenge of combating Russian expansionism is real and formidable. Before the war, the Russian economy was about ten times the size of Ukraine’s. Its population is almost four times larger. Its military-industrial complex is vast. But its aggression cannot be allowed to succeed. One of the core features of the liberal international order put in place after World War II has been that borders changed by brute military force are not recognized by the international community. Since 1945, there have been very few successful acts of aggression of this sort, in marked contrast to before then, when borders around the world changed hands routinely because of war and conquest. Russia’s success in its naked conquest would shatter a hard-won precedent.

The China challenge is a different one. No matter its exact economic trajectory in the years ahead, China is a superpower. Its economy already accounts for close to 20 percent of global GDP. It is second only to the United States in military spending. Although it does not have nearly as much clout as the United States on the global stage, its ability to influence countries around the world has increased, thanks in no small measure to the vast array of loans, grants, and assistance it has offered. But China is not a spoiler state like Russia. It has grown rich and powerful within the international system and because of it; it is far more uneasy about overturning that system.

More broadly, China is searching for a way to expand its power. If it believes that it can find no way to do so other than to act as a spoiler, then it will. The United States should accommodate legitimate Chinese efforts to enhance its influence in keeping with its rising economic clout while deterring illegitimate ones. Over the past few years, Beijing has seen how its overly aggressive foreign policy has backfired. It has now pulled back on its assertive “Wolf Warrior diplomacy,” and some of the arrogance of Xi’s earlier pronouncements about a “new era” of Chinese dominance has given way to a recognition of America’s strengths and China’s problems. At least for tactical reasons, Xi seems to be searching for a modus vivendi with America. In September 2023, he told a visiting group of U.S. senators, “We have 1,000 reasons to improve China-U.S. relations, but not one reason to ruin them.”

Regardless of China’s intentions, the United States has significant structural advantages. It enjoys a unique geographic and geopolitical leg up. It is surrounded by two vast oceans and two friendly neighbors. China, on the other hand, is rising in a crowded and hostile continent. Every time it flexes its muscles, it alienates one of its powerful neighbors, from India to Japan to Vietnam. Several countries in the region—Australia, Japan, the Philippines, South Korea—are actual treaty allies with the United States and host U.S. troops. These dynamics hem China in.

Washington’s alliances in Asia and elsewhere act as a bulwark against its adversaries. For that reality to hold, the United States must make shoring up its alliances the centerpiece of its foreign policy. Indeed, that has been at the heart of Biden’s approach to foreign policy. He has repaired the ties that frayed under the Trump administration and strengthened those that didn’t. He has put in place checks on Chinese power and bolstered alliances in Asia yet reached out to build a working relationship with Beijing. He reacted to the Ukraine crisis with a speed and skill that must have surprised Putin, who now faces a West that has weaned itself from Russian energy and instituted the most punishing sanctions against a great power in history. None of these steps obviate the need for Ukraine to win on the battlefield, but they create a context in which the West Plus has substantial leverage and Russia faces a bleak long-term future.

THE DANGER OF DECLINISM
The greatest flaw in Trump’s and Biden’s approaches to foreign policy—and here the two do converge—derives from their similarly pessimistic outlooks. Both assume that the United States has been the great victim of the international economic system that it created. Both assume that the country cannot compete in a world of open markets and free trade. It is reasonable to put in place some restrictions on China’s access to the United States’ highest-tech exports, but Washington has gone much further, levying tariffs on its closest allies on commodities and goods from lumber to steel to washing machines. It has imposed requirements that U.S. government funds be used to “buy American.” Those provisions are even more restrictive than tariffs. Tariffs raise the cost of imported goods; “buy American” prevents foreign goods from being bought at any price. Even smart policies such as the push toward green energy are undermined by pervasive protectionism that alienates the United States’ friends and allies.

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the director-general of the World Trade Organization, has argued that rich countries are now engaging in acts of supreme hypocrisy. Having spent decades urging the developing world to liberalize and participate in the open world economy and castigating countries for protectionism, subsidies, and industrial policies, the Western world has stopped practicing what it has long preached. Having grown to wealth and power under such a system, rich countries have decided to pull up the ladder. In her words, they “now no longer want to compete on a level playing field and would prefer instead to shift to a power-based rather than a rules-based system.”

U.S. officials spend much time and energy talking about the need to sustain the rules-based international system. At its heart is the open trading framework put in place by the Bretton Woods Agreement of 1944 and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade of 1947. The statesmen who came out of World War II saw where competitive nationalism and protectionism had led and were determined to prevent the world from going back down that path. And they succeeded, creating a world of peace and prosperity that expanded to the four corners of the earth. The system of free trade they designed allowed poor countries to grow rich and powerful, making it less attractive for everyone to wage war and try to conquer territory.

China is not a spoiler state like Russia.
There is more to the rules-based order than trade. It also involves international treaties, procedures, and norms—a vision of a world that is not characterized by the laws of the jungle but rather by a degree of order and justice. Here as well, the United States has been better at preaching than practicing. The Iraq war was a gross violation of the United Nations’ principles against unprovoked aggression. Washington routinely picks and chooses which international conventions it observes and which it ignores. It criticizes China for violating the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea when Beijing claims sovereignty over waters in East Asia—never mind that Washington itself has never ratified that treaty. When Trump pulled out of a nuclear deal with Iran signed by all the other great powers, despite confirmation that Tehran was adhering to its terms, he wrecked the hope of global cooperation on a key security challenge. He then maintained secondary sanctions to force those other great powers not to trade with Iran, abusing the power of the dollar in a move that accelerated efforts in Beijing, Moscow, and even European capitals to find alternatives to the dollar payment system. American unilateralism was tolerated in a unipolar world. Today, it is creating the search—even among the United States’ closest allies—for ways to escape, counter, and challenge it.

Much of the appeal of the United States has been that the country was never an imperial power on the scale of the United Kingdom or France. It was itself a colony. It sits far from the main arenas of global power politics, and it entered the twentieth century’s two world wars late and reluctantly. It has rarely sought territory when it has ventured abroad. But perhaps above all, after 1945, it articulated a vision of the world that considered the interests of others. The world order it proposed, created, and underwrote was good for the United States but also good for the rest of the world. It sought to help other nations rise to greater wealth, confidence, and dignity. That remains the United States’ greatest strength. People around the world may want the loans and aid they can get from China, but they have a sense that China’s worldview is essentially to make China great. Beijing often talks about “win-win cooperation.” Washington has a track record of actually doing it.

KEEP THE FAITH
If the United States reneges on this broad, open, generous vision of the world out of fear and pessimism, it will have lost a great deal of its natural advantages. For too long, it has rationalized individual actions that are contrary to its avowed principles as the exceptions it must make to shore up its own situation and thereby bolster the order as a whole. It breaks a norm to get a quick result. But you cannot destroy the rules-based system in order to save it. The rest of the world watches and learns. Already, countries are in a competitive race, enacting subsidies, preferences, and barriers to protect their own economies. Already, countries violate international rules and point to Washington’s hypocrisy as justification. This pattern unfortunately includes the previous president’s lack of respect for democratic norms. Poland’s ruling party spun Trump-like conspiracy theories after it lost a recent election, and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s claims of election fraud drove his supporters to mount a January 6–style attack on his country’s capital.

The most worrying challenge to the rules-based international order does not come from China, Russia, or Iran. It comes from the United States. If America, consumed by exaggerated fears of its own decline, retreats from its leading role in world affairs, it will open up power vacuums across the globe and encourage a variety of powers and players to try to step into the disarray. We have seen what a post-American Middle East looks like. Imagine something similar in Europe and Asia, but this time with great powers, not regional ones, doing the disrupting, and with seismic global consequences. It is disturbing to watch as parts of the Republican Party return to the isolationism that characterized the party in the 1930s, when it resolutely opposed U.S. intervention even as Europe and Asia burned.

Since 1945, America has debated the nature of its engagement with the world, but not whether it should be engaged to begin with. Were the country to truly turn inward, it would mark a retreat for the forces of order and progress. Washington can still set the agenda, build alliances, help solve global problems, and deter aggression while using limited resources—well below the levels that it spent during the Cold War. It would have to pay a far higher price if order collapsed, rogue powers rose, and the open world economy fractured or closed.

The United States has been central to establishing a new kind of international relations since 1945, one that has grown in strength and depth over the decades. That system serves the interests of most countries in the world, as well as those of the United States. It faces new stresses and challenges, but many powerful countries also benefit from peace, prosperity, and a world of rules and norms. Those challenging the current system have no alternative vision that would rally the world; they merely seek a narrow advantage for themselves. And for all its internal difficulties, the United States above all others remains uniquely capable and positioned to play the central role in sustaining this international system. As long as America does not lose faith in its own project, the current international order can thrive for decades to come.

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