Can the U.S. Thrive as Other Powers Rise?

Author Nina Hachigian shows that some of the biggest threats to our security don’t come from rival nations. They come from us.

June 18, 2008  |  Looking beyond U.S. borders, this is a rare moment. Not one of the world’s powers is an enemy. The threats to our security do not come from rival nation states. With some threats like climate change — as Walt Kelly put it via Pogo — the enemy is us. Even the greatest external violent threats have roots not in powerful nations, but in instability, in states at risk of failure. Our ability to solve all major global problems is compromised or blocked by tribal conflicts, the failure of national institutions, and the resulting breakdown of authority and accountability.

A new book, The Next American Century: How the U.S. Can Thrive as Other Powers Rise by Nina Hachigian and Mona Sutphen, argues that it’s good for us that other pivotal nations grow wealthier and stronger. We need them on our side so that together we can solve global problems of peace, climate, health, and justice.

Nina Hachigian is a Senior Vice President at the Center for American Progress and a Visiting Scholar of the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University. Earlier, she was the Director of the Center for Asia-Pacific Policy and a Senior Political Scientist at RAND. From 1998 to 1999, she was on the staff of the National Security Council.

Terrence McNally: You open the book with the line “Our political coming of age was marked by the fall of the Berlin Wall not by the Vietnam War.” Could you talk a little about what the world looked like as you were growing up … some memories of our role in the world?

Nina Hachigian: Well my parents are both immigrants. My mother is first generation. She was born in Germany, and my father’s parents were born in Armenia. We traveled frequently to Europe to see relatives. So from a young age, I had an awareness of a big world out there.

Growing up, I remember The Day After, the TV show, so I had an awareness of nuclear Armageddon.

But by the time I was in my 20s, that was all very suddenly behind us. Then the challenge became: we have a very new landscape, how do we deal with it?

Terrence McNally: How old were you for the fall of the Berlin Wall?

Nina Hachigian: I was 22.

Terrence McNally: The Cold War is basically over as you’re graduating from college. I graduated in 1969 in the thick of the Vietnam War …

You say this is a unique moment in our history, but it seems to me we’ve been at this moment for a number of years now, haven’t we? How would you describe our response so far? And how do you explain it?

Nina Hachigian: When the Soviet Union collapsed, we were left as the only superpower. We have been conditioned — because of the rise of Germany and then World War II, and the rise of the Soviet Union and the Cold War — to see the rise of other strong nations as a potential threat.

You saw that playing out in the late 80’s and 90’s with Japan. Lots of fear about Japan and its economy, even though Japan is a military ally, a small country, and a democracy.

Terrence McNally: If we look back now and run some of the journalism or the TV coverage, “the rising sun” and so on …

Nina Hachigian: We have a chart in the book that I think is very funny. We compare the titles of publications that came out around that time about Japan to titles that are coming out now about China. The words are almost identical: hegemony, take us over, etc.

But the fact is that today none of these powers are our enemies. And we think it’s not even constructive to think of them as rivals.

They are in certain areas. There are still flashpoints — issues like Taiwan — where we have serious disagreements.

But if you look at the real issues that Americans care about — safety at home, their prosperity, even in the promotion of democracy — these countries are not our enemies. They are in fact our partners. If we want to be able to keep Americans safe at home, we have to work with them.

Terrence McNally: You say that when you set out to write this book you didn’t have your conclusion. You had questions. What were those questions, and were you surprised by what you learned?

Nina Hachigian: Yes, we were surprised. We had the idea for the book in 2005, and began writing in 2006. At that time there were a lot of headlines about military advances of China and outsourcing jobs to India. There still is today.

We trade so much with these countries, and they benefit us in so many ways. The Cold War route doesn’t make sense. We live in a different world now.

But what does make sense? Where are the issues where there is a conflict? And where are the issues where there is not? That’s the set of questions we were trying to address.

We were expecting to find a very mixed bag: that their rise is beneficial in some ways, but harms us deeply in other ways.

And what we found is that there are not many issues of consequence where we are at odds. There are some, but for the most part, the answers lie in America’s own strength at home.

That was another surprising conclusion of the book: getting domestic policies right will enable us to thrive. It’s not what China does, not what Russia does, not what India does — but what we do here at home.

Terrence McNally: What are some of the keys to getting our house in order at home? How do we thrive vis-a-vis the globe?

Nina Hachigian: Let’s look, for example, at innovation. There’s a lot of fear that more and more innovation is happening in China and Russia and India, and Brazil for that matter. And that is the case: a lot more innovation is happening elsewhere.

But that’s fine for Americans. In fact, we ought to welcome it. As Americans we will benefit if an Indian company comes up with a cure for Alzheimer’s or for cancer. We should celebrate that. There’ll be certain American companies that lose profits until they start to compete, but basically it’s a good thing for Americans. The key is that we keep our innovation system strong here at home.

So far we’ve been able to import talent to make up the difference, but a lot of Chinese and Indian and Russian scientists are staying in their own countries now. There are more opportunities for them.

Terrence McNally: … and that’s been exacerbated by our immigration policies since 9/11?

Nina Hachigian: Absolutely right. It’s getting harder to import talent. But we have to invest in our own kids, and they are not prepared to step into the breach.

It’s fine for innovation to happen elsewhere, as long as it continues to happen here. The OECD [Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development] does a study every few years. The most recent results showed that American teenagers are in the really dubious category of being less talented in math and science than their peers around the world, but more confident of their abilities. Investing in education is really important.

We worry about jobs being outsourced, but it’s actually a very small number — only something like 2% of the 15 million jobs lost every year are due to trade. The rest are mostly due to technology displacement.

Terrence McNally: 15 million jobs are lost every year?

Nina Hachigian: — in our economy. And the same number are created.

Terrence McNally: Of the 15 million lost, only 2% are lost because of trade?

Nina Hachigian: It’s a small number, but it’s deeply painful for those individuals and their families. Right now, I think we’re leaving our workers high and dry.

Trade benefits our overall economy, but there’s a lot we can do for our workers that we haven’t done. We could have a program like wage insurance: if they lose a job and then get a new job that pays less, the insurance makes up the difference. Universal health care would relieve some of the anxiety for folks who’ve lost their jobs, and now worry that they can’t take their kids to the doctor. Universal health care would also encourage businesses that are considering moving jobs overseas because health care is so expensive here.

Terrence McNally: I hear that the biggest cost in a car rolling off an assembly line in Detroit is health-care benefits. The competition in Japan has universal health care. They’re way ahead of us before they start building the car.

Nina Hachigian: That’s just another example of how it’s our domestic agenda that is going to enable us to thrive abroad.

Terrence McNally: Why is it so hard for Americans to see that? Why don’t they see that investing in education and training and universal health care is worth more than fighting any damn war?

Nina Hachigian: I’m not sure it’s Americans, I think it might be Washington. Mona and I found some really interesting stuff. Poll after poll, year after year, Americans are actually very multi-laterally oriented. They want to work with the rest of the world. They don’t want to disengage, and they don’t want to preach and dictate.

But if you look at the opinions of staffers in Congress, they’re very different. And if you ask staffers what Americans think, they always get it wrong. Something like 92% of staffers say that Americans don’t really want to work through the U.N. if it means it’s going to cost America a little more; whereas, Americans do want that. Staffers and people in the beltway don’t understand what Americans actually feel.

Terrence McNally: Yet they get elected and hired. So we have to ask ourselves why. Is it redistricting? Now that all congressional representatives are elected in safe districts, you can win by appealing to your base even if the mass of people have much more enlightened opinions … ?

Nina Hachigian: I think that’s definitely part of it. Also Americans don’t tend to vote on foreign policy.

Terrence McNally:Wait a minute! You mean Americans think that education and health care are more important than foreign policy? That should be a good thing. They should be electing different people.

Nina Hachigian: [LAUGHS] The point being that people don’t vote based on what their congressperson does about the U.N.

Terrence McNally: You mean they can get away with being wrong on foreign policy because, when it finally comes down to it, Americans vote on domestic policy. This is getting worse!

Nina Hachigian: That’s the bottom line. I’m actually kind of encouraged about this election, because for the first time universal health care is actually on the agenda.

Terrence McNally: The question is how universal is yours versus mine …

Nina Hachigian: Exactly, we’ve come a long way. All the candidates are talking about climate change. I feel like we are making some progress.

I don’t know why we haven’t been able to make the investments in education that we really should. I think it has to do with local versus national control … But God we really have to get that right.

Terrence McNally: Most commentators or politicians say, “though we’ve got some problems, we have the greatest health care in the world” — when, in fact, we do not. They will probably say “though we have some problems, we have the greatest education system in the world” — when we’re actually ranked 20th or 30th out of developed countries. My guess is that people have no idea how many more engineers China and India graduate than we do.

What are the biggest threats facing the U.S.?

Nina Hachigian: The two that could actually kill large numbers of Americans would be a terrorist attack — especially with some sort of nuclear device, and disease, a very contagious flu-like epidemic. After that, there are nuclear proliferation to hostile states like North Korea and Iran, climate change …

Terrence McNally: If you were writing the book today, would you be talking more about the economic crisis?

Nina Hachigian: At the time we wrote the chapter on economics, our economy was not treating everybody equally and there was stagnation in the middle and lower classes — but basically it was growing. Now we’re in a very different situation.

Terrence McNally: We do not save as a people or as a government. We assume that since other countries depend on us to consume their products, they won’t call our bluff or pull their funds.

Beyond the global finance crisis, is our indebtedness to China, Taiwan, Japan, the UK, Middle East oil states, etc. a threat? Does that give China enormous leverage?

Nina Hachigian: They do have leverage, but they also own huge numbers of treasury bonds. So it’s not at all in their interests to have our dollar devalue.

Terrence McNally: Sounds like a co-dependent relationship. We enable them and they enable us.

Nina Hachigian: Exactly.

Terrence McNally: We enable their bad labor and environmental practices, and they enable us to get by without learning how to save a dollar.

The two biggest threats: terrorism, pandemic. Both are most likely to emerge in failed states.

Thomas P. Barnett talks about a functioning core and a non-integrating gap, and he feels that failed states are where trouble happens. And in his latest book PLAN B 3.0, Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute, deals with the threat posed to civilization by failed and failing states. Your thoughts?

Nina Hachigian: I agree. I think failed states are a real source of instability. The good news (from the book) is that all these big powers share that threat. So they’re all are very invested in trying to counter terrorism and to shore up failing states.

We basically all want the same things. We want stability, we want open trade. Russia, China, India, Europe, Japan. We all want those same goals. So whether or not like each other, if we can work together fighting terrorism, and preventing huge destruction of climate change, and combatting pandemic disease by identifying the pathogens etc. — then we have a chance …

Terrence McNally: Is there something that the U.S. and other powers can do together to make it less likely that states fail?

Nina Hachigian: That’s a good question. We are working with them on a daily basis in terms of trying to counter specific terrorist plots and threats.

Terrence McNally: Is terrorism a symptom of a failed state? I guess not, since terrorism now shows up in London and so on.

Nina Hachigian: And the 9/11 hijackers were from Hamburg. I think failed states are where terrorists are likely to reside. … It’s where they set up shop. Afghanistan is a good example. When we went into Afghanistan, all these pivotal powers wanted to help us take out Al Qaeda.

Terrence McNally: Had we stayed the course in that country instead of shifting to Iraq, do you think they would have stayed with us as an international effort?

Nina Hachigian: Absolutely. NATO for the first time in its history invoked the clause that when one is attacked we are all attacked, but we obviously squandered that goodwill when we went into Iraq.

I want to talk a little about terrorism. For example, India has been tracking Islamic extremist groups for decades.

Terrence McNally: This was a surprise to me.

Nina Hachigian: Groups like LET and JEM were concerned about the disputed region of Kashmir, and only used to target India. Now they’re going after us, but we don’t know anything about them. Now we need to work with the Indians in order to figure out who these people are, what they want.

Terrence McNally: Indian intelligence worked with us to foil a plot by the LET, which you point out resulted in the most convictions on terrorism charges since 9/11.

Nina Hachigian: The extent to which India worked with us on that particular case would be classified, but they are working with us on a regular basis in terms of tracking down these groups and informing us about what they want, etc.

China allows our inspectors in their ports to screen shipping containers for smuggled nuclear material. It’s ideal to search before they leave for our shores, and there are three million or more that leave China every year. So that’s a pretty important form of cooperation.

Terrence McNally: An example of cooperation with Russia?

Nina Hachigian: They co-lead with us a group of 50 nations trying to keep nuclear material out of the hands of terrorists — a joint U.S.-Russian effort you don’t hear much about.

Terrence McNally: Despite Putin’s more autocratic rule, that cooperation has not flagged. The question is whether or how much we fund it?

Nina Hachigian: Right, we don’t fund enough the securing of loose nuclear material in Russia.

Terrence McNally: Do you see any of the presidential candidates more in tune than others with what you’re saying?

Nina Hachigian: I actually think Obama and Clinton are both pretty in tune with what we’re saying in the book.

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