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Indispensable

9:21 AM, Sep 3, 2009 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
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Josef Joffe has an excellent long essay on the durability of American primacy in the September / October issue of Foreign Affairs. Unfortunately, the piece is subscription-only.

Not to worry, however. Turns out Joffe published a shorter version of his essay in the New York Times last month. The takeaway:

The breathtaking rise of China is at the center of contemporary worries. This argument is not about the absolute decline of the United States now but about its relative loss vis-à-vis China later - the United States is supposedly doomed because China's economy has been growing at three times the rate of America's and therefore will surpass the United States in terms of output sometime in the next several decades.

Life, however, is not linear. China's uninterrupted double-digit growth rates are of a recent vintage, essentially since 2003. Estimates that China's economy will grow by 6 percent in 2009 are a cautionary tale. China's growth has dropped by half from a historical high of almost 12 percent in 2007, which serves as a warning that its miraculous growth is foreign made - China is a place where the rest of the world essentially rents workers and workspace at deflated prices. The Chinese economy is extremely dependent on exports - they amount to around two-fifths of G.D.P. - and hence vulnerable to global downturns. In fact, China's exports have plunged by 26 percent this year.

America will be younger, richer, and more innovative than China as the twenty-first century unfolds, Joffe concludes. True, Chinese infrastructure (where it exists) is brand-spanking new, compared with America's pot-holed highways and airport monstrosities like O'Hare and JFK. But, according to Joffe, America retains (1) "the world's most sophisticated military panoply," (2) "an unmatched research and higher-education establishment," and (3) a "warrior culture." All of which China lacks.

Declinists talk a lot about the dispersal of global power and the relative decline of American influence vis-a-vis the BRIC powers (Brazil, Russia, India, and China). They have a point. But ask yourself: Do any of these rising powers exercise leadership at the global level? Have any of them taken the initiative in providing global public goods?

Joffe:

The United States is the default power because there is nobody else with the requisite power and purpose. The default power does what others cannot or will not do. It underwrites Europe's security against a resurgent Russia. It chastises whoever reaches for mastery over the Middle East. Only the default power has the power to harness a coalition against Iran. It guarantees the survival of Israel, but at the same time, the Palestinians and the Saudis look to the United States for leverage against Jerusalem. Is it possible to imagine China, Europe or Russia as a more persuasive mediator? No, because only the United States can insure both the Arabs and the Israelis against the consequences of misplaced credulity.

Critics like to deny or demonize American primacy, but the United States as "default power" is a fact of global life in the twenty-first century. This status has given us a richer, more peaceable world, and has allowed new powers to flourish without challenging (yet!) the international system. Follow-up questions to Joffe's piece: How do we maintain the current arrangement? How best to institutionalize and extend it?

For folks interested in this subject, Joffe's Uberpower is here.

Kagan's Return of History and the End of Dreams is here.

Schmitt's Rise of China is here.