And not so flat as a certain Thomas Friedman Jr had us believe not so long ago. Nevertheless, Friedman has a point: American leadership may look rather different in the future:
In recent years, I have often said to European friends: So, you didn’t like a world of too much American power? See how you like a world of too little American power — because it is coming to a geopolitical theater near you. Yes, America has gone from being the supreme victor of World War II, with guns and butter for all, to one of two superpowers during the cold war, to the indispensable nation after winning the cold war, to “The Frugal Superpower” of today. Get used to it. That’s our new nickname. American pacifists need not worry any more about “wars of choice.” We’re not doing that again. We can’t afford to invade Grenada today.
Ever since the onset of the Great Recession of 2008, it has been clear that the nature of being a leader — political or corporate — was changing in America. During most of the post-World War II era, being a leader meant, on balance, giving things away to people. Today, and for the next decade at least, being a leader in America will mean, on balance, taking things away from people.
And there is simply no way that America’s leaders, as they have to take more things away from their own voters, are not going to look to save money on foreign policy and foreign wars. Foreign and defense policy is a lagging indicator. A lot of other things get cut first. But the cuts are coming — you can already hear the warnings from Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. And a frugal American superpower is sure to have ripple effects around the globe.
“The Frugal Superpower: America’s Global Leadership in a Cash-Strapped Era” is actually the title of a very timely new book by my tutor and friend Michael Mandelbaum, the Johns Hopkins University foreign policy expert. “In 2008,” Mandelbaum notes, “all forms of government-supplied pensions and health care (including Medicaid) constituted about 4 percent of total American output.” At present rates, and with the baby boomers soon starting to draw on Social Security and Medicare, by 2050 “they will account for a full 18 percent of everything the United States produces.”
The United States won't be supplanted in the short-term and it's not as though the US is going to retreat to isolationism anytime soon (not with 50,000 troops in Iraq for a war that is "over") so Friedman's piece is mildly exagerrated. And of course it's (just) possible that entitlements will be reformed to lessen the impact of current trends but even if the rate of spending decreases it will still squeeze other budgets. But that in turn means that european defence planning needs to consider the possible impact of even modest American retrenchment. And that's not a comfortable thought at a time when europe has its own entitlement problem. (It also means that increased european defence co-operation is more, not less, likely.)
In other words, the world has hills as well as plains and a superpower where recently there was an unchallenged hyperpower.
*And launched without even a courtesy call to the Head of State, HMQ!