Who will manage the global commons?

Twitter offers the pleasure of knowing what casual acquaintances are doing, and to occasionally catch useful or fun events you wouldn’t otherwise know were happening.

Last week, I was giving a talk at the Washington, DC, VA. I had some unexpected time to kill, and I happened to see that @ezraklein and @edwardGLuce were participating in a very good, albeit sobering Brookings panel discussion concerning Luce’s new book, Time to start thinking: America in the age of descent.

Luce provided an excellent bill of particulars about our education system, our dysfunctional political structures, and the unprecedented economic competition we face from China, Brazil, and elsewhere. It seems to me that the obvious decline of American power, in many forms, is the elephant in the room in many matters of global import. George W. Bush accelerated this decline through tragically misguided policies at home and abroad. Yet the trends go deeper than any one administration, even one as disastous as Bush 43.

Ezra Klein followed Luce’s presentation by asking some basic and challenging questions. Have we really been harmed by our nation’s relative decline in (say) global GDP? Other than the blow to our national ego, it’s not clear we are harmed in any way by the decline of our relative economic preeminence on the world stage. Klein published his core argument in a nice Bloomberg column, here.

He’s obviously right that Americans are much better off (say) dealing with a China that is prosperous, creative, and successful than we would be if China were an impoverished, economically stagnant, or failed state. Wealthy and creative trade partners provide valuable markets for American goods. Their scientists can help invent renewable fuels and treatments for deadly cancers. Successful states have a strong stake in a safe and stable world order. I’m much more frightened of Pakistan than I am of India, even though the latter poses a much more serious competitive threat to specific American firms.

Klein notes one more ostensible cause for comfort, too:

[Y]es, the U.S. has its problems. But I wouldn’t trade our problems for anyone else’s. Europe, China and Japan face immense demographic challenges. All three are aging rapidly and, for cultural and political reasons, immigration is unlikely to swell their workforces. Japan, with a median age of 44.6, is one of the oldest countries in the world. In China, the birth rate has fallen from 2.6 births per woman 30 years ago to 1.56 today.

Political challenges loom equally large. The euro area looks irredeemably flawed — perhaps even unsalvageable. It’s unclear how China’s political system will evolve as the country grows richer, or how it will survive if the rapid growth of the past few decades slows dramatically. As for India, its political system makes the euro area look like a model of farsighted governance.

Then there are the economic challenges. Brazil, China and India are becoming middle-income countries. Historically, that is a harbinger of slower growth….

As far as it goes, this argument is again unassailable. China, India, Japan, Europe, and Brazil all face more profound economic, political, and geostrategic problems than we do. We continue to be blessed, despite our declining share of world GDP.

Only I’m not too comforted here. As we become forced to live by our wits in a more multi-polar world,  we are precisely trading our problems for everyone else’s on this list. We need each of these nations to keep its house in order, and to help us tackle very difficult common challenges. I’m not sure that they–or we–are really up to this task. As Luce responded: Who will manage the global commons when America can no longer impose our will to solve collective problems?

That’s a serious question. American hegemony has not always served us or the world very well (see, e.g. Vietnam). Yet for decades, our predominant military and economic power has often proved quite useful. Pax Americana has helped many others—not least China, India, Japan, Europe, and Brazil—to develop and prosper rather well within a relatively stable global system. There’s no obvious nation, or set of nations, that is safely prepared to play this role.

America proved sadly myopic, during our period of momentary global dominance, in our failure to plan for our inevitable geopolitical decline relative to other powers. We failed to nurture strong global institutions to address many environmental, economic, legal, security, and public health concerns. At times, we thumbed our nose at these institutions, and not only in egregious cases such as the run-up to the Iraq war. As China emerges as a genuine peer competitor, with its own interests, its own troubles, and its own ambitions, we have many reasons to regret this missed opportunity.

To put things in Luce’s terms, it’s time to start thinking: not only in selfish terms regarding our ability to remain militarily secure and economically competitive, but also in more global terms, finding new ways to help ourselves and everyone else survive and prosper in a more complex world.