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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 October 2018

Review: 'Unrivaled - Why America Will Remain the World's Sole Superpower' 

Empires rise and fall and critics say the US is on the decline with Donald Trump giving it a shove. A political scientist argues it will survive, writes Nick March

Despite the chaos in the White House and the scandal surrounding Donald Trump the US is a robust country. AFP
Despite the chaos in the White House and the scandal surrounding Donald Trump the US is a robust country. AFP

The White House is in chaos. The president is unfit for office and will be unseated within days. These are just three of the conclusions many observers draw from the seemingly unprecedented disruption of the Donald Trump years.

The catcalls, rarely less than shrill since the 2016 presidential election, have been amplified by a succession of explosive tell-all books released this year, giving insight into the state of the Trump administration – Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury, James Comey’s A Higher Loyalty, Omarosa Manigault-Newman’s Unhinged, and, most recently, Bob Woodward’s deep background book Fear – as well as a damning New York Times’ op-ed, written by an anonymous “senior official”, which describes an ill-informed and impulsive president who consistently “veers off topic and off the rails”. Another potentially damaging book is on the way next week.

The combined weight of this commentary feeds into the underlying paradox of the Trump age: it universally portrays the president as a wounded beast lurching from crisis to crisis and yet, none of it could truly have been said to have inflicted lasting damage upon him. The strikes keep coming in, but the administration keeps soldiering on, bruised but defiant.

The White House in Washington DC.
The White House in Washington DC where the Trump administration holds fort.

All of this provides a fascinating lens through which to view Michael Beckley’s new book, Unrivaled. His work provides a survey of the United States’ place in the world and answers the question of whether American supremacy will be sustained, even as the president’s critics argue that he is accelerating his country’s inevitable decay. It is not, it should be said, a study of the apparent entropy in the Trump era, but it is a broad survey of superpowers and international rivalry.

General approval of the US is in steep decline, undoubtedly sped up by the turbulence of the Trump era, but already evident years before he came to power. Other factors have led commentators to conclude that the end of the road is approaching for America. The conventional wisdom has it that US hegemony has persisted for too long; China and the developing world is rising fast and history is littered with imperial decay and destruction.

Experience also tells us that empires and superpowers rise and then they fall.

book jacket Unrivaled: Why America Will Remain the World's Sole Superpower (Cornell Studies in Security Affairs) by Michael Beckley
Unrivaled: Why America Will Remain the World's Sole Superpower (Cornell Studies in Security Affairs)

Beckley’s book debunks that theory and argues that America will retain its supremacy for years to come. He does it by interesting means, arguing not for the inevitability of US supremacy, but by picking away at the challengers. Chinese growth, he writes, “has been spectacular, miraculous, yet the veneer of double digit growth has masked gaping liabilities”. High growth has come at too high a cost for China to really topple the US.

It is an interesting counterpoint to the incessant argument that the centre of gravity is shifting inexorably eastward towards India and China. Similarly, the Chinese military, while vast in terms of numbers, is not combat ready, nor especially well-trained and is too preoccupied with internal security and border issues to throw down many gauntlets on the world stage.

The US, by contrast, has enjoyed years of supremacy and has the best trained and equipped military in the world.That is not to say that Beckley sets up America as a panacea. Far from it.

“By most measures America is a mediocre country,” he writes, “It ranks seventh in literacy, 11th in infrastructure, 28th in government development and 57th in primary education. It spends more on health care than any other nation, but ranks 43rd in life expectancy, 56th in infant mortality and first in opioid abuse. Yet in terms of wealth and military capabilities, the pillars of global power, the US is in a league of its own.”

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By many of the indicators above, it is a wonder that the US is the dominant force.

Beckley’s writing style pounds the reader with fact after fact to substantiate his central argument, that even if America were in decline, which it is not, it will be some years, if ever, before its supremacy is challenged.

Despite historical evidence to the contrary, Beckley does not believe superpowers are doomed to failure. The Soviet Union did not disintegrate because of some preordained historical arc – in 1977 it was considered by US experts to be more than twice as powerful as the US, and yet it collapsed only a few years later in 1991 – but because of the inefficiencies built into its state.

Beckley argues that indices exaggerate the wealth and power of China and India in the same way they once overvalued Moscow. He says analysts are too preoccupied with one side of a country’s balance sheet, when scales, such as the ease of doing business metric, which places the US as the seventh easiest country to trade in and with, and finds China to be 84th in that list, tell you far more about a country’s relative health than gross measures, such as GDP.

So America will beat on unrivalled, a world power without equal. There is one note of caution though. The US should be careful not to get drawn into “stupid wars”. It is exactly that kind of conflict that can unpick security and stability.

The US administration has been warned.