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21st Century Superpower: How America Wields its Super Powers in a Shifting World

Marija Tesla
Graduate of Mount Holyoke College, having worked at the Center for International Development at Harvard University

It is rare to call a work both genuine and acutely analytical, especially when speaking about U.S. foreign policy, but that is how I see Ian Bremmer’s most recent book, Superpower: Three Choices for America’s Role in the World. The book’s aim is to create a more proactive, intentional, and in my opinion, a better America. Even though many, including Bremmer himself, have urged our current presidential candidates to read this book, I would like to extend that same invitation to my generation, who are, in fact, Bremmer’s most important audience. Superpower’s dedication reads, “To Willis,” but this book reads like a manifesto, dedicated to every American citizen, and Bremmer’s book is at its core about reclaiming the America we as citizens of the United States envision. Since the end of the Cold War, our foreign policy has been shortsighted and reactionary—as a superpower, we’ve been stumbling. Bremmer urges us to live in a country that reflects our values, both at home and abroad, and he presents three options our government must choose between for how to wield our super powers moving forward.

I come to this book as a millennial, at one point a refugee from Croatia, and a public school kid who grew up in Akron, Ohio and immigrated into the United States with the help of UNHCR when I was eleven. I know for a fact that no other country in the world could have provided me with the opportunities I was given upon coming to the United States. I also know that I overcame all the obstacles I faced with a lot of hard work and on the shoulders of my parents who were able to provide me with the support I needed only because they themselves were able to secure blue collar manufacturing jobs upon arriving in America. Apart from a world free of war, if I believe that anything in life is worth fighting for, it is this America. Indeed, I come to this book understanding many of the struggles faced by everyday Americans at home today, including those of my own generation, and while this book’s focus is on foreign policy, at its essence, to me it is also about the reclaiming of the American middle class.

The reasoning behind what I believe lies in the choice that I think is best for our country. After all, one thing that Bremmer asks of his readers, really of all of us, is that we choose the type of superpower the United States should be moving forward: Independent America, Moneyball America, or Indispensable America? This decision is not easy, and like most choices, all have merits and flaws, and all require compromise, but as Bremmer states, “I’ve argued that the worst choice of all is to refuse to choose.” By refusing to choose, we are dangerously confusing not only ourselves at home, but also our allies and rivals alike. As in our own lives, at a certain point we all have to make a calculative decision, take a chance, because as Bremmer writes, “If we fail to choose, our choices will be made for us—and we will live with more than our share of regret.” My generation has a big role to play in the future of our country and the larger world order, and I hope that we will be responsible enough to choose wisely. As the future leaders of our country, I hope that we have watched our current leaders analytically, and that we have learned the importance of compromise as we move into decision-making roles. We need leaders who truly listen to all sides of an argument, instead of only focusing on what aligns with the values of one party versus the other. We need all Americans to listen to all sides of an argument, and this book captures those sides free of allegiance or opposition to any single party.

So, how should the United Sates use its superpower status? Should we be Independent America, Moneyball America, or Indispensable America?

Independent America believes that we need to declare our independence from the responsibility to solve other countries’ problems, that we should lead by example, and that we should first and foremost invest at home. Now more than ever, this America needs knowledgeable citizens who are willing to ask tough questions of its government, whether it be around issues of privacy, balancing of our nation’s budget, or understanding the true costs of war. U.S. citizens have been empowering Washington’s superhero foreign policy at the expense of what local governments and the citizens of our country need at home. We have done all of this while empowering the presidency and upsetting the balance that our Constitution was designed to protect. Questions of war and peace and the true costs of war were hidden from the average American when Richard Nixon abolished the draft in 1973, and though a few want the reinstitution of the draft, we still must think critically about what it means to go to war. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is yet another example of U.S. foreign policy that gives too much power to the presidency, and the voice of the average American was heard when the House of Representatives voted against the TPP trade deal two weeks ago.

The American middle class is sinking while the American taxpayer is providing 186 countries with $42 billion, money that could be used at home. Since this book was published, the U.S. national debt has surpassed 18 trillion, or as Bremmer notes, “In other words, the national debt now exceeds the value of America’s entire economic output.” Independent America reminds us to think twice about accepting further burdens abroad that weaken our values at home. It reminds us that we have struggled at perfecting democracy at home, to understanding that others don’t want a U.S. imposed democracy, and that we have no right to coerce others to see things as we do. What makes our country great is not our power in the world, but our civil liberties, and what better way to show the value of freedom and democracy abroad than to lead by example at home.

The second choice Bremmer presents is Moneyball America, a foreign policy that understands that we can’t police every corner of the world and that we should not; instead, we should focus on making our country more secure and prosperous with an interest-driven policy approach which maximizes the return on the taxpayer’s investment. With this foreign policy, we believe in the importance of regional balances of power, including the value of NATO, and the value of negotiation, particularly when it comes to our enemies. Unlike Independent America, Moneyball America believes in the use of drones, as they are cost effective, reminding us that whenever there is conflict, innocent people will die. Further, it prompts us to consider the fact that if we oppose the use of drones, we also oppose the attack that killed Osama bin Laden, further reminding us of the grave realities our leaders are forced to choose between when making decisions.
This America recognizes that while we are gaining significant energy independence and could become energy self-sufficient within the next two decades, it knows that we must continue to protect the security of today’s interconnected global economy, particularly when it comes to energy. Further, it believes that we should use energy as a geopolitical weapon, just as rogue nations do, moving forward. We are reminded that the U.S. has the potential to be an energy leader, as neither China nor Russia has the technology or the know-how required to be able to fully tap into the resources of their own countries. This foreign policy believes that our future and economic grown lies in trade and further economic interdependence with China, of course supporting the TPP, which becomes particularly critical when it comes to tackling the problems China has created for the United States with its state driven economic model. It is time for us to stop embellishing our foreign policy, and accept the world we live in as opposed to the one we wished we lived in and to seek policies that act in our country’s interest. We should strive to preserve all of the aspects that make our country the most powerful and influential.

Finally, the third option we are presented with is Indispensible America, and this America believes that we will only be safer if others live in peace. This America believes that freedom is a right of every human being, and that we should work to create a world in which every nation will strive to become a democracy. Just as Independent and Moneyball America, Indispensible America believes that we have to make serious strides to reduce our national debt, focus on revitalizing our education system and to make sure that we stay the world’s most innovative country. While it believes that China’s fragility is a great risk to us at home, it believes that the greatest threat to America’s future is a terrorist with a nuclear weapon. We have to work to dismantle terrorist cells in weak and fragile states and prevent further breeding grounds of such activity by focusing on nation building and continuing to promote security through freedom. This America believes in the continuous value of the IMF, and the importance of making similar investments in the World Bank and World Trade Organization.

It believes that the TPP and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership and other treaties with China and India have the power to lift billions of people around the globe out of poverty while creating a true global middle class. It reminds us that in 2014, the average American taxpayer spent $80 on development assistance, and that this is a small price to pay to alleviate suffering and help to protect our own security at home. Indispensible America believes that the expansion of NATO was a good thing for the world, and that our help to the former communist countries will convince the citizens of Russia to want better from their own government. It recognizes that America’s power has narrowed recently, and it believes that for this reason we need to continue to promote democracy abroad. It believes that our relationship with China will continue to be the most important bilateral relationship, beyond our relationship with East Asia. At its core, Indispensible America is about the promotion of our values abroad—democracy and freedom.

Bremmer presents three compelling choices. In my opinion, all have pros and cons, and all remind us that this decision is not easy. When I first took the ten question quiz located at the beginning of the book, aimed at helping us decide which option we believe is best for our country, I tried to do so with the perspective of a policy maker or a politician. Then I took the quiz as my individual self, keeping in mind all the things that I love about the United States, and my answers were very different. Maybe our current policy makers should do the same. As Bremmer tells us, America has to choose, and our leaders have to be clear about our direction moving forward, not just at home but also abroad. Our allies need to know what to expect from us.

I am a U.S. citizen, but I am also a global citizen. Local and global agents uprooted and rectified my life equally, and I understand the power and interconnectedness of both. I will always believe that government is about community, and I will continuously fight to protect the essence of what it means to belong to that community. While a big part of me will always believe in Indispensible America, I, like Ian Bremmer, choose Independent America moving forward, but not for all the same reasons. Independent America’s version of trade is one area that Bremmer does not support, and I do. While I believe that technology is changing our labor force and will further continue to impact jobs in the U.S. and the world more than any trade agreement will, I also believe that we have a responsibility to protect and absorb some of the shocks that the average American will face due to the benefits we gain from an innovative, technology driven, free-market economy. This should be no different from how we regulate our banks, and no different from our desire to have more transparency when it comes to our trade agreements or our privacy. I don’t think that the passage of the TPP will be devastating to the U.S. economy and the average American living in Akron, Ohio, but as Harvard University professor and economist, Dani Rodrik, writes on trade, “If transparency would make it harder to sell the final product to the public, it raises serious questions about the desirability of what is being negotiated.”

My decision was not easily made, as I like to believe that Indispensible America works, but the truth is, many, if not most of those who felt the effects of U.S. wars or U.S. imposed nation building, want less from the U.S. and not more. While I believe in democracy and the free-market, I also believe that others should have the right to fight for what they believe in themselves. We all end up leading by example, whether or not we intend to, and I believe that Independent America is both a pragmatic and a responsible choice. 

* The views and opinions expressed in the articles posted on this page do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of CIRSD

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