/ Published January 24, 2020
Unrivaled: Why America Will Remain the World’s Sole Superpower by Michael Beckley. Cornell University Press, 2018, 248 pp.
Graham Allison’s concept of the Thucydides Trap has fed the hubristic notion in polarizing policy debates that China’s rise in the world is in relative proportion to America’s decline. While military conflict (economic and trade flaps notwithstanding) may in fact be avoidable as a result of the aggressive and interconnected aspects of other instruments of power, the authenticity of great power competition with China may in fact be just a facade—in every respect of that debate. This view is the overarching thesis of Michael Beckley’s new book Unrivaled: Why America Will Remain the World’s Sole Superpower, originally titled The Unipolar Era.
Beckley is an assistant professor of political science at Tufts University and an associate in the International Security Program in the Belfer Center at the Harvard Kennedy School. His work has been featured in numerous popular media (NPR, Washington Post, and Harvard Business Review, among others). He has served in academia, the think tank community (RAND, Carnegie Endowment) and in government (DOD)—making this book as credible as it is highly readable.
The central thesis of Beckley’s argument—that the US will remain the world’s sole superpower for many decades and perhaps the rest of this century—rests on the supposition that current comparative measures and indices of power do not sufficiently describe, and often fall well short of, articulating relative power. He contends that one of the primary measures, gross domestic product (GDP), exaggerates the wealth and military power of populous countries whose vast output also bears enormous welfare, security, and efficiency costs. Beckley also debunks the supposition that all great powers have predictable life spans (as history demonstrates) by excepting the US due to unique geographic, demographic, and institutional factors combining to keep it in the lead position in perpetuity. These same arguments are also advanced in Peter Zeihan’s The Accidental Superpower and Tim Marshall’s Prisoners of Geography.
In chapter 2, Beckley provides a history review, developing his argument via the framework and combined measure, which is quite convincing. He then builds upon this foundation in chapters 3 and 4 to test and make comparisons between the US and its closest and most talked about power rival, China, through a thorough economic and military lens. The primary conclusion economically articulates that the US has much lower welfare and security costs that traditional measures gloss over, creating the impression that China is overtaking the US. However, as Beckley demonstrates, China’s economy barely keeps pace as it backs profit-losing companies and tries desperately, but failingly, to fully meet the needs of one-fifth of the earth’s population. Likewise, in chapter 4, the results are stark. The US has five to 10 times the military capabilities of China, whose weapon systems are half as capable. Further, China’s limited operational experience, training, and lack of combat—coupled with personnel costs 25 percent higher than similar US costs—work against it. Beckley argues that for China to successfully compete in these areas, it must grow much faster than it currently is, which he deems as unlikely.
Chapters 5 and 6 analyze the future prospects of great powers and their implications. In the former, Beckley critiques two theories—balance of power and convergence—in furtherance of his argument in a fair and reasoned manner. In support of the argument, he develops a new framework projecting the rise and fall of nations that draw on separate and credible economic studies underpinned by geography, institutions, and demography. He concludes chapter 5 by noting that the US “has the most potential for future growth, in addition to an enormous economic and military lead,” yet cautions like any astute political scientist that this will not guarantee future unipolarity. Beckley articulates four implications concerning US unipolarity to bolster his thesis and arguments. He advises that a perpetually unipolar US is not assured, yet, if handled properly, can allow the US to prosper indefinitely—another astute argument.
Beckley adeptly cautions that his argument is not about guaranteed perpetual US dominance. For example, the advantages that elevated and have kept the US in its unipolar status could be squandered by restricting high-skill immigration, or allowing special interests or demagogues to capture political institutions and run the country into the ground. To further balance his argument, Beckley notes that a taming of American power could take several other forms, such as other countries “denying the U.S. access to their domestic markets, suing the U.S. in international courts, bribing American politicians, bankrolling anti-American terrorist groups, hacking U.S. computer networks, and brandishing weapons of mass destruction,” among others. It would take a concerted, concurrent, and persistent effort by a disinterested America to allow this to happen, which is highly unlikely. The supporting chapters clarify these counterarguments while also reinforcing his thesis.
To make his case, Beckley sets about developing his own framework for measuring power and assessing trends. He then builds another framework for predicting power trends, subsequently using it to “assess the future prospects of today’s great powers.” Lastly, he cogently ties the two together and discusses the implications of his findings on world politics and US policy. As noted earlier, measures such as GDP and the Composite Indicator of National Capability (CINC) (an index combining military spending with data on troops, population, and industrial output) alone do not aggregate and illustrate the true picture of power according to Beckley. He explains how he takes the advice of historian Paul Bairoch by “simply multiplying GDP by GDP per capita, creating an index that gives equal weight to a nation’s gross output and its output per person” to derive a more accurate measure of power.
For those interested in political science and/or foreign or international affairs, Beckley’s arguments will provide a new and refreshing look updating tired, older theses. At 248 pages, his book can easily be read over a weekend.
Brig Gen Chad Manske, USAF
Commandant, National War College
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