Lawrence Mead: America will prevail

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Lawrence Mead is a professor of politics at New York University. This is an extract from the Centre for Independent Studies' John Bonython lecture he delivered in Sydney last night.]

TO read the newspapers, one would believe US power was in steep decline. There are prophets of error, the many critics who believe US foreign policy has gone seriously wrong, especially in Iraq. And there are prophets of weakness, such as Yale historian Paul Kennedy, who wrote even before the end of the Cold War that the US had succumbed to "imperial overstretch". How much more are we overstretched today when we face crises in three or four places across the globe?
I am sceptical about these arguments. The great fact is that the US has become a dominant nation. Even if the US fails in Iraq, there still is no other country that can replace the US in dealing with the world's problems.

Among Western countries, it's not just the US but all the Anglo nations that stand supreme. By Anglo nations I mean Britain and all the countries that were settled chiefly by Britain: the US, but also Australia, Canada and New Zealand.

Not only are these, as a group, the richest of all countries, they are also more or less running the world.

They are doing so directly through their own military and aid policies, and they are the mainstays of international institutions dedicated to peace and development such as the UN and World Bank. While the US is the dominant power, the other Anglo countries are among its closest allies.

More than most others, they have sent forces to hot spots such as Iraq and Afghanistan, and to peacekeeping operations across the globe. We will not always agree about when and where to fight, but the potential to fight is always there, and that is my main focus here. The Anglos have a capacity to project power overseas that no other countries can match.

We have in fact returned to a world order similar to the late Victorian period, at the end of the 19th century. Then, as now, the world economy was globalising and English was its lingua franca. Britain was the strongest single country and the US was just becoming a world power.

Today, the US is first and Britain is second, but remarkably little else has changed. It is as if the 20th century, with its calamitous wars and ideological conflict, has faded away. The countries that challenged the Anglos - first Germany, then Russia, then Japan - have all fallen back. The US's challengers, such as China and India, are likely to fall back as well....

In the late 19th century, Otto von Bismarck, the redoubtable leader who unified Germany, remarked that the most important fact about world affairs was that the North Americans spoke English. That was true then and it is still true today.

All of the US's potential rivals are weak. Either they lack a native propensity for capitalism, or they lack an individualist society, or they lack good government. Only the US and the other Anglo countries have all these assets. So today they are still running the world and I see no end to that any time soon.

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