the US in the 21st century

Martin Wolf writes that, because it cannot control the actions of others, the United States will inevitably have a diminished international role in the 21st century. Internal reform could improve these prospects, “but this has become impossible, because of the exploding role of money in politics and the rising intransigence of the Republican party”.

In principle, the US could … maintain its frontier position in science and commercial innovation. But, as my colleague Edward Luce shows in his thought-provoking new book [Time to Start Thinking (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2012)], the combination of xenophobia with hostility to science, self-inflicted fiscal constraints and weird spending priorities risks robbing the US of its access to the world’s talent and its commitment to world-leading research and innovation. Nothing captures the point better than this grim quote: “In 1990, [California] spent twice as much on its universities as its prisons. Now it spends almost twice as much on prisons.” That the US has the highest rate of incarceration in the world is not only a social statistic; it is also an economic one. The same is true of the costliness and inefficiency of the US healthcare system, which is the principal reason why long-term fiscal prospects look so grim. ….

Whatever happens inside the US, its influence will be smaller in the 21st century than it was in the 20th. This is largely because others have learnt so much from it. Even so, the US could retain huge, possibly unrivalled, influence, since its main rivals face even bigger challenges. Yet if the US is to be what it can be, it has to rediscover the pragmatism that long marked its policy making, notably in its responses to the many challenges of the 20th century. No democracy can thrive if its citizens view their own government as their greatest enemy. If Americans choose to make their government fail, the US is sure to do so, too.

Martin Wolf, “Era of a diminished superpower“, Financial Times, 16 May 2012.

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