By Martin Wolf

What will be the role of the US in the 21st century? This is a question I rashly agreed to address last week at the Carnegie Council in New York. In analysing it, I considered a closely related issue that also exercises Americans: is the future role of the US in its own hands? The answer is: yes, but only up to a point. The US can control what it does. But it cannot control what others do.

The historic dominance of the US is the fruit of its exceptional assets. It is a continental power bounded by oceans to the east and west, and unthreatening neighbours to the north and south. It has huge, albeit dwindling, natural resources. It has had the world’s largest economy and the highest output per head since the late 19th century. The market-driven US economy has also been the world’s most innovative since at least the same era.

The US is home to the world’s most influential financial markets, albeit ones that triggered the Great Depression and Great Recession of recent years. It has been the issuer of the world’s main reserve currency since the first world war. It has offered one of the largest import markets, surpassed only by external imports of the EU.

The US possesses the world’s most technologically advanced and potent military. Since the second world war, it has also had more of the world’s leading universities and research institutions than any other country. It has the world’s most potent popular culture. Its political values still grip the world’s imagination, even if it has frequently fallen short in practice. Its democratic system has proved sufficiently legitimate and flexible to cope with the many challenges history has thrown up.

Possessed of all these assets, the US managed to form strong alliances and to win its 20th-century wars, both hot and cold, against Germany, Japan and Russia. It shaped the open world economy, which was born after the second world war then became global after the collapse of the Soviet empire. It has offered the world’s most influential model of modernity. Whether we like it or not, we all live in the world it has made.

How much of this array of assets will the US retain in this century? Read more…

As published in www.ft.com on May 15, 2012.


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