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The US and the international power structure: Reviewing 'Still Ours to Lead'

The US and the international power structure: Reviewing 'Still Ours to Lead'

The rapidly escalating situation in Iraq is a major test for US foreign policy. President Obama, who outlined in his West Point address a policy of selective US engagement and sharply circumscribed US military power, now faces unpalatable decisions about reengaging in Iraq.

But there is a disconnect between current US foreign policy and the fundamentals of US power. And while Iraq, Syria, Ukraine, and the East and South China Seas make for a dramatic narrative of US decline, this narrative has got ahead of some robust fundamentals.  

In Still Ours to Lead: America, Rising Powers, and the Tension Between Rivalry and Restraint, Brookings Senior Fellow and my Center on International Cooperation colleague Bruce Jones sets out a compelling analysis of the present global power structure. He argues in this nuanced, evidence-rich book that while the era of US 'überdominance' is clearly over as other powers rise, the US remains the most influential power, and the world is more complicated than some declinists suggest.

Jones first unpacks the fundamentals of US power, the preeminent one being military might: the US has a capability and technological superiority acquired over decades, which will take decades more to match. US security guarantees to allies help to stabilise regions and the US Navy maintains crucial global sea-lines. 

Significant power also stems from the now recovering and eminently innovative US economy, as well as the continued US leadership of the global financial system. Regardless of China overtaking the US in economic scale, Jones contends that the US economy will still have more market influence. What's more, the US oil and shale gas revolution is providing enormous ballast to the US global energy position while removing a prior constraint from, and adding a new tool to, US foreign policy.

America's ability to marshal its allies and friends is characterised by Jones as 'coalitional power'. For the world's major power to have so many allies — nearly three-quarters of the top 40 economies are US allies — is without parallel in modern times, and is a major force multiplier. The US plays a vital role in assembling coalitions based on shared interest to combat transnational issues such as nuclear proliferation, terrorism, and climate change. 

Jones then turns to the rising powers, particularly China, India and Brazil, and observes the 'psychology of rise' motivating their desire for autonomy and impulse to rivalry with the US. [fold]

But their rise is a result of their integration into the global economy, and Jones argues that their dependence on global stability for continued economic growth acts as a restraint. This is especially so in China's case, where domestic stability is intimately tied to ongoing growth, and its vast energy needs make it dependent on the US Navy for secure transmission routes. So while China and the other rising powers naturally seek to carve out more space within the international order, Jones says it is not in their interests to disrupt it entirely.

Nor do the emerging powers form an impermeable bloc. Their interests often diverge, and they work with the US when they have common interests. Jones offers numerous examples of the emerging powers seeking to shape, rather than alter, the existing international order, such as actions by Brazil and China to support the US-led response to the global financial crisis.

The most critical dynamic in the international system, Jones argues, is balancing rising powers' impulse to rivalry with incentives for restraint and cooperation. Jones is optimistic that for the time being, the balance will be in favour of restraint rather than rivalry. But he is clear-eyed that shaping this balance requires well-calibrated US policy using all the tools of statecraft and leverage as a global power. This could potentially include working with China on its energy vulnerability with incentives for cooperation, while standing firm against assertive behaviour in the East and South China Seas.

Jones warns that there is nothing automatic about continued US leadership, or continued international stability. The initial title of his book, he writes, was Still Ours to Lose; the US will need to make tough policy choices to maintain its leadership role. Most importantly, stresses Jones, the US needs to display a clear willingness to use its military might to restrain the impulse to rivalry. He is persuasive on the need for a strong US military deterrent to continue to undergird the international order.

Jones acknowledges, albeit briefly, that US international credibility depends on tackling some deep-seated domestic problems, including infrastructure and the education system, but argues convincingly that these should be addressed at the same time as the US continues to be engaged globally. 

Australian readers will find Jones' observations on 'torn allies' (countries having a security relationship with one power and economic links with another) of particular interest. He says torn allies can be a stabilising force, urging both parties towards restraint — this is a role Australia can play in the years to come in the tense theatre of great power diplomacy. 

Still Ours to Lead not only makes the case for how the US can continue to exercise leadership, but also for how the existing international order can accommodate rising powers, including China — if only the US stepped up, not back. 

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