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Foreign Policy

A Waste of Power

Jul 21, 2020
  • Wu Zurong

    Research Fellow, China Foundation for Int'l Studies

It is generally agreed that the United States has been a superpower for about a hundred years and the sole superpower since the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991. However, debates often take place about the growth or decline of the U.S. in recent decades. There is no doubt that the growth or decline of the U.S. is determined by the U.S. itself, and outside changes are not the decisive factors.

In my opinion, the following three ill-advised U.S. strategies, which have wasted vast stores of American resources and human energy, might be facilitating the decline of the U.S., rather than helping it maintain its sole superpower status.

• First, it continues to try to fulfill its self-image that says it must lead the world for another hundred years by relying on dominant military force in a world where peace and development are the main theme.

Since the end of World War II, the U.S. military has fought many regional wars including one on the Korean Peninsula, another in Vietnam and still others in Iraq and Afghanistan. But it is believed that in the next 75 years the U.S. military does not intend to fight on a large scale against any one, two or three major powers directly on a battlefield.

The foreseeable consequences of a U.S. war with any major world power (or combination) effectively stops such a war from occurring. Hence, it’s likely that a big share of U.S. military resources will continue to be wasted in the future. Increased military expenditures, which currently stand at about $738 billion annually, unwisely consume resources that could be directed to the development of the other sectors of society, and this waste only speeds the decline of aggregate national power.

It cannot be denied that the over-expansion of U.S. military forces in recent years has not only become a burden on the federal budget but also presents huge risks for American citizens and other countries. While the U.S. is beginning to update and modernize its nuclear weapons to cope with vague future challenges, thousands of old nuclear warheads that are not functional are in storage, waiting in queue to be dismantled. According to various tentative proposals on the development of military equipment, trillions of dollars could be spent over the next three to seven decades. As a result, even more waste is inevitable.

The giant manufacturers of military equipment, as well as related research institutions, which have already spread to more than 40 states, would be strengthened, not reduced, in the next 75 years. Their survival largely depends on government purchases and support, as well as on sales of arms to other parts of the world — which is one of the major U.S. global strategies in “leading” the world via dominant military force.

Such a conventional and outdated development strategy would not fit into the new situation in the world, where peace and development command the main channel. The U.S. strategy, if reinforced rather than being slimmed down, would inevitably contribute to the decline of aggregate national strength.

Wasteful consumption of U.S. national power would continue, as the U.S. is not going to reduce its troops deployed in virtually all strategic places of the world, even though it has sometimes felt the heavy burden of its troops on foreign soil and called for allies to share more of the expense burden. The unrealistic development of an independent space force, which is extremely costly, will certainly race to seize more resources from the federal government and the regular military.

• Second, it wears down U.S. national power to define China as its strategic rival and attempt to counter China’s rise through inflammatory rhetoric and futile action.

Such an erroneous strategy cannot succeed. Rather, it will only damage the U.S. Continued hammering on an anti-China strategy will never get the anticipated returns. China’s historical rise is inevitable, determined by its own internal developments, not by outside factors. Moreover, hostile words and provocative actions toward China are counterproductive to U.S. interests, limiting possible U.S. bilateral or multilateral cooperation with China and restricting U.S. market share in the largest potential market in the world — or worse still, leading to accidental conflicts.

Misguided U.S. strategy means the loss of friends in the world, as many countries don’t like to see the American confrontation with China harm their national interests or force them to take sides. The U.S. goal to lead the world can never be realized, as its strategy is divisive. Indeed, the U.S. would also suffer heavy losses if China were forced to take countermeasures to resist anti-China actions. More wasteful plans and proposals to confront China will come up as an overreaction to China’s progress in economic and social development. An example is the newly proposed Pacific Deterrence Initiative, or PDI, which is aimed at containing China. It is currently under review in the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee. It carries a $7 billion price tag for two years, with and billions more added in the years to come.

• Third, U.S. rejection of cooperation with the international community in a number of fields shows the power of a superpower, but it also erodes U.S. national power.

It is known to all that when the U.S. exercises its coercive style of leadership over the world, the rest of the world should be willing to be led. Because many countries in the world engage in little cooperation with the U.S. and appear unwilling to be led, the so-called leadership role of the U.S. in the would loses its luster. In addition, when the U.S. applies selfish economic nationalism to global issues such as climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic and so on, where all countries have high stakes, America loses stature as a leader and undercuts the willingness of other countries to provide help and support. Instead, when the U.S. fails to fulfill its essential international duties and obligations in matters of global security, economic development and trade, as well as cultural areas, its credibility erodes and its image is tarnished. Finally, when the U.S. tries to harm global trade, public health, cultural mechanisms of cooperation under the United Nations, its goal to establish new ones with its own supreme “leadership” based on U.S. domestic laws and interests becomes costly and unpopular. And it cannot succeed.

In a word, to maintain its position as the world’s sole superpower, the U.S. must give up its outdated Cold War mentality and strategies and work hard to expand cooperation and exchanges with all other countries on all global issues and on an equal footing. Otherwise, its sole superpower status will gradually crumble, along with its national power. 

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