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American Leadership in a World in Flux

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There's never been a more important time to understand American power, and leadership. We need only look to Russian special forces in Crimea, Chinese warships in the East China Sea, and an ever-deeper crisis in Syria to see the stakes. In every region, and at home, critics decry the lack of American leadership, and American withdrawal from the world stage. The narrative of American decline and withdrawal is becoming the conventional wisdom. But is it right?

What we're really seeing is a mounting gap between the fundamentals, on the one hand, and perceptions and policy on the other. The fundamentals of American power are still strong. We spend more on our military than the next 15 countries combined, 10 of whom are close allies, and we have a huge advantage in high-tech weaponry, training, a global network of bases, a dominant intelligence capacity. (That doesn't necessarily translate into easy military answers to crises, of course.) We dominate the league tables in higher education. The shale and tight oil revolution give us an increasingly strong position in global energy markets, and demonstrate the technological dynamism of our economy. Our population is young, and growing. And no leading power in modern history has had anything like the suite of alliances that America enjoys.

Now, at some point in the next decade or two, China's economy will match that of the U.S. in size. But comparing the two on the basis of size is like comparing the Lakers to a middle-school basketball team -- yes, both have 11 players, but the comparison ends there. Even when China's economy overtakes that of the U.S., Americans will be far richer per capita, the American economy will occupy a far more influential segment of the market, and the American dollar will still play a vastly larger role in global finance. America's GDP may have declined to roughly 22 percent of the world total (from a high of around 25 percent) but American firms still account for almost 50 percent of global profits, and American business still dominate sectors like finance and high technology. Oh and there's this: the more China's economy grows, the more ours grows, since China is an increasingly large trade partner.

But there's no question that the big three emerging powers, China, India and Brazil, play an increasingly important role in international affairs. (Let's stop lumping Russia in with these countries -- one of the biggest problems with the concept of the 'BRICs' is the way it conflates these dynamic, market-oriented economies of the big three with Russia's resource economy's recovery from its 1990s collapse.) Are they trying to challenge the U.S.?

It's complicated. All three have grievances, and they're jockeying for space and leverage. They do want to challenge the West's dominance in key global regimes like trade and finance -- to reshape them, but not to break them. And China is looking to challenge American naval dominance off its coastlines in the East and South China Seas -- vital trading routes for the Chinese economy. In all this, they have common or at least overlapping interests -- and Russia is aligned with these goals.

But this is not a unified bloc seeking to challenge the West. India and China have fought three wars against each other, and while they're now huge trading partners they still eye each other with suspicion and nervousness, while their armies test each other in the Himalayas. China and Russia have some common interests, and occasionally collaborate to stymie Western initiatives -- but these are rival powers too, and each is actively exploring relations with other powers like India and Japan to balance their relationship with each other. What divides these powers is far more important than what unites them.

And in the case of the big three, their growth is dependent on a stable global financial system, and on global trade. For China and India, they're also embarked in a far-flung search for the energy resources they need to grow -- and they're finding them in places they have no power to stabilize on their own. They are both increasingly dependent on oil from the Persian Gulf, and thus on America's military presence there. The fact is that their growth, now and for the next decades, is still dependent on American power.

Not so with Russia. Russia looks more set to challenge Western influence in its neighborhood, and is less dependent on international trade. But even Russia is vulnerable to global markets, and to energy sales to Europe. As I write the threat of sanctions on Russia, in response to its military moves in the Crimea, is being felt in the Russian business community, and in the Russian stock market.

In short, there are a lot of sources of tension and rivalry in contemporary international politics, but also important sources of restraint -- and of cooperation, against terrorism in particular, but also proliferation and threats to trade.

Navigating this tense balance between rivalry and restraint is going to be the dominant challenge for American leadership in the years to come. It's going to take patient management of our allies (and a certain patience by our allies), and it's going to take an ability to work with countries like India and Brazil that are neither friend nor foe.

And it's going to take sound policy. An example of the opposite: taking out Qaddafi's regime, but failing to put a stabilization presence into Libya afterwards, to secure the peace. Syria is more complicated but little doubt that the administration's confused stance over chemical weapons and airstrikes in August 2013 did little to project confidence in American power.

Critics argue that if the United States withdraws from international leadership we're going to see chaos and confusion. They're right. This hasn't happened yet, though, despite some perceptions to the contrary. We have the underlying capacity, a powerful alliance structure, and a favorable international landscape.

But there's no time to waste. The longer the perception of American hesitation endures, the more ingrained it will be. The more uncertain our allies become, the more they'll act in ways that will create complications for the United States, in Asia, in Europe, and the Middle East. We've got global interests, and a global presence. Time to recall that we're still the top global power, will be for some time to come, and to project the confidence of our position.

Bruce Jones is Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, a consulting professor at Stanford University, and chair of the NYU Center on International Cooperation. His new book Still Ours to Lead: America, Rising Powers, and the Tension between Rivalry and Restraint will be published on 17 March by the Brookings Press.