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Donald Trump is wrong: America wins all the time, and this new book proves it

Republican Presidential Candidate Donald Trump Holds Campaign Rally In San Jose, California (Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images)
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

America, Donald Trump is fond of saying, needs to be made great again. "We don't win anymore, whether it's ISIS or whether it's China with our trade agreements," he said in one representative speech. "No matter what it is, we don't seem to have it."

But what if Trump is wrong? What if America is actually winning the most important competitions in world politics — and Americans have just sort of forgotten about it?

That's the case that Dartmouth University professors Stephen Brooks and William Wohlforth make in their new book, America Abroad, publishing this August. Brooks and Wohlforth argue that, contrary to Trump-esque pessimism, the United States is the most powerful country in the world, and will remain so for many decades — if not indefinitely. The US has used this power, they argue, to create and sustain an international order that has made it a vastly safer and wealthier country than it would have been otherwise.

Though Brooks and Wohlforth didn't intend it as such, their book is a kind of anti-Trump: a direct and devastating riposte to Trump's vision of US foreign policy. And while Trump's ideas come from … well, Trump himself, Brooks and Wohlforth's arguments are grounded in the most up-to-date research on how US foreign policy works.

"It's weird, because when we first started writing this thing and researching it, it was very much an academic thing," Wohlforth told me, "But now we really feel that what we have to say in this book is directly relevant to the debate in Washington."

Interestingly, Wohlforth explains, their argument serves to rebut neoconservatives, who think America's biggest problem is that it's not using its strength enough, as much as it counters pessimists about America like Trump himself. Both, he says, fundamentally misunderstand the nature of American power: Neither really appreciates that American strategy is oriented around preserving a basically good status quo, not changing the world.

In many ways, it's the perfect book for our anti-establishment moment: one that suggests that maybe there are some things about America that are already great.

America is winning at every measure of military power

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel Travels To Mideast (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

It's true that the United States has declined, relatively speaking, in the past 10 years. China — the only country on Earth that could hope to challenge the US as global leader in the foreseeable future — has made real gains in the military, economic, and political spheres. Its military gains, in particular, have made it much more capable of fending off a US foray into Chinese waters.

Brooks and Wohlforth don't deny this. Their point, rather, is that the United States is much more powerful — winning by so much, in Trump's parlance — that Chinese gains don't register very much on a global scale.

The US spends about three times as much per year on defense as China. In fact, the US spends more on defense than China and all other large powers combined (meaning Japan, Germany, Russia, France, the UK, India, and Brazil).

That statistic still understates the military gap between the United States and China. In order to be a global power — that is, to wield military influence in places around the world — you need to have the military hardware necessary to deploy in different regions. That means things like aircraft carriers, military satellites, and advanced warplanes.

The chart below shows the percentage of these weapon systems owned by the US and China out of the total possessed by six large military powers (India, China, Russia, the US, the UK, and France). The gap is absolutely staggering — in every case, the US owns the majority of these weapons, while China owns only a relatively small percentage. For example, the US has more than 70 percent of all aircraft carriers in the group, while China has fewer than 10 percent:

The US doesn't just own more stuff. It owns better stuff.

American military technology is far more advanced than Chinese technology in virtually every relevant sphere, which gives the US a massive leg up in military might that isn't reflected in the statistics.

Brooks and Wohlforth recite a telling anecdote from the Gulf War that illustrates just how much advanced technology matters in military effectiveness:

In the Gulf War, for example, technological superiority gave the American MI tank a decisive battlefield advantage over the most advanced Iraqi tanks. Due to its advanced computer guided firing mechanism, the M1 was able to destroy Iraqi tanks from as far as 4km away and to regularly score first round hits of Iraqi tanks from 3km away; this is something the Iraqi's T-72 simply did not have the commensurate capacity to do. Beyond this, the M1's advanced sights helped give it a marked advantage in detection over the Iraqi T-72 tanks: the M1 had the ability to detect T-72s "four times as far as the Iraqis."

As a result of these two technological advantages, US M1 tanks were in a position to "detect and destroy Iraqi vehicles from outside the Iraqis' maximum range."

It's hard to compare the US experience in the Gulf War to a hypothetical war against China, of course. But the general point is that technological gaps can make massive differences in the way that even similar-seeming systems (like tanks) work. Since there is a massive gulf between the US and China, then, the US military is even more dominant than basic statistics suggest.

"There is no modern historical precedent for this situation," Brooks and Wohlforth write. "The recent rising states of note — namely, the United States in the 19th and 20th century, Germany in the early 20th century, and the Soviet Union in the middle of the 20th century — were not at dramatically different technological levels than the leading state."

Why China will have a hard time catching the US

China Holds Military Parade To Commemorate End Of World War II In Asia
PLA soldiers.
(Jason Lee/Pool/Getty Images)

The question, then, becomes how long it might take for China to catch up to the United States. Over the phone, Wohlforth told me that it would take "many decades — and it may never get there."

To understand why, you need to understand the nature of the technological and economic gaps separating the two countries.

In the 20th century, military technology wasn't that complicated. After Britain introduced the Dreadnought battleship in 1906, Germany had a similar ship in three years. Today, however, it takes decades to develop advanced weapon systems, owing to the complexity and computer-driven nature of modern military technology. The result, then, is that you need a massive and advanced scientific establishment to even hope to catch up.

China doesn't have that. The below figures show the US and China technological achievements on various measures, each of which looks at the percentage of these accomplishments per country out of the group of nine major powers. One measure, for example, is the number of "triadic patent families" in the US, EU, and Japan: Basically, if you're patenting stuff in those three places, it's probably a new technology.

Royalty and licensing fees that accrue to a country is another way to measure whether a country is producing technologies people want to use. It's clear from these metrics that the United States is the world's technological hub:

China's lack of internationally competitive research institutions and its inefficient state-driven research sector make catch-up very unlikely in the near future.

"The United States is the only state that has for decades made the necessary investment that allows it to produce and successfully use the full range of systems and associated infrastructure needed for significant global power projection," Brooks and Wohlforth write.

To make matters worse, China is facing significant economic problems. Its growth rate is plummeting, as its fundamental economic model of spending money on construction projects is reaching diminishing returns.

Pollution is doing serious damage to long-term growth; a 2006 estimate from China's then-deputy chief of its environmental agency suggested that it knocked off "roughly 10 percent" of Chinese GDP.

And China's population is aging far faster than the United States' population, owing to decades of the one-child policy and extremely low immigration rates. China's population is projected to shrink substantially in the next 90 years, meaning it will have to spend more and more money caring for seniors, freeing up less for research, development, and the military:

So China will find it increasingly hard to catch the US economically — especially since it's already behind by more than you might think. Brooks and Wohlforth cite a statistic called "inclusive wealth," which assesses a country's wealth in terms of physical assets, skill level of the population, and environmental resources. They say it's a better metric than GDP for a country's ability to translate its economic power into military might. America's inclusive wealth level, about $144 trillion, is 4.5 times China's ($32 trillion).

The bottom line, then, is that America is winning. It's been winning by so much and for so long that most Americans can barely even appreciate how dominant their country is in the struggle for global influence.

How America translates its power into benefits for itself

NATO Holds Noble Jump Exercises Of VJTF Forces
A Polish army soldier next to a NATO flag.
(Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

The United States has used its overwhelmingly dominant position in a historically peculiar way. Instead of colonizing other countries and taking their resources — something Trump has proposed — it has built a web of alliances, partnerships, and global institutions. Things like NATO, the United Nations, and the International Monetary Fund link the US to other countries, a system designed to discourage military aggression and encourage trade and global economic development.

One could argue that the US, despite its overwhelming global dominance, is getting a raw deal from these institutions. That establishing and maintaining bases in other countries like Japan and Germany costs the US a lot of money without getting much back in return.

This is a staple of Trump's rhetoric on foreign policy. "Our allies are not paying their fair share," Trump said in a major speech outlining his foreign policy in April. "The countries we are defending must pay for the cost of this defense — and, if not, the US must be prepared to let these countries defend themselves."

The bulk of Brooks and Wohlforth's book is devoted to challenging this argument. Their claim, after spending nearly a decade surveying the academic research, is that America's forward strategy, which they call "deep engagement," has tremendous benefits — and comes at a lower cost than Trump and others think.

The basic case for America's alliances and forward bases, in Brooks and Wohlforth's estimation, is that they make the world far more peaceful than it would be otherwise.

It's easy to forget now, but conflicts between major powers used to be fairly common. Think of the War of 1812, the Napoleonic Wars, the Crimean War, the Franco-Prussian War, the Russo-Japanese War, and World War I, just to give examples from one 120-year period.

Since World War II, however, there have been exactly zero wars between major powers.

Brooks and Wohlforth argue that one major reason why is American security policy. The US's alliances and bases in Europe and East Asia deter aggression from hostile powers like Russia and China.

Moreover, this strategy puts potential rivals — like Germany and France, or Japan and South Korea — on the same military side.

These countries have historically seen each other as threats, given their geographic proximity, and hence built up their militaries to counter each other. But with the United States guaranteeing security to both sides, neither country feels particularly threatened (nor do they feel threatened by the US, which has demonstrated no interest in turning France or South Korea into a US colony). Therefore, the countries don't have each other to fear, reducing the risk of a conflict between them.

This argument is rooted in rigorous quantitative research. One study, from professors Jesse C. Johnson and Brett Ashley Leeds, surveyed about 200 years of data on conflicts and concluded that "defensive alliances lower the probability of international conflict and are thus a good policy option for states seeking to maintain peace in the world."

Another study looked specifically at the 1950-to-2000 period and found that "formal alliances with nuclear states appear to carry significant deterrence benefits." The US's formal agreements, then, deter aggression against its non-nuclear partners (like Japan and Germany).

Brooks and Wohlforth also surveyed research from regional experts and found a similar consensus. Among East Asia scholars, "the dominant view" is that the US deployment secures the region, preventing "arms racing, nuclear proliferation, [and] militarized crises." Likewise, in Europe, "most assessments nonetheless sum up to the conclusion that NATO is a net security plus."

Now, Brooks and Wohlforth's argument does not mean that without the United States' current policies, a major war in Europe or East Asia would be inevitable. That's impossible to know for sure, especially since there are other reasons, like the spread of democracy, that make war less common than it used to be.

What it does mean, however, is that we have very good reason to believe such wars would be more likely with different US policy. And such wars would be very bad, both for the United States (which relies on global peace for its own prosperity and security) and for the world.

Brooks and Wohlforth also argue that the US's dominant position in these alliances and global institutions, a situation created by its overwhelming military might, results in all sorts of other benefits for the United States, which make it safer and wealthier.

Those benefits include:

  • Preventing the spread of nuclear weapons: "The most recent statistical analysis … concludes that 'security guarantees significantly reduce proliferation proclivities among their recipients.'"
  • Maintaining a basically open trade system that benefits the United States: "The influence of hegemonic leadership is clear regarding international trade, in which moving away from protectionism at the global level is hardly the natural or default state of affairs. … This is not a controversial argument."
  • Using its political influence to shape global financial institutions to its benefit: "Significant examples along those lines are the role of the dollar as the leading international currency and the privileged position that the US holds in the IMF."
  • Fostering cooperation on climate change: In our conversation, Wohlforth said that "decades of scholarship" support the idea that "you're less likely to get institutionalized cooperation on stuff you care about without a leading state. … As best as we can tell right now, if the US pulls back, we're just much less likely to get cooperation on climate change, the international economy, or a large number of other issues."

And all these benefits come at a lower cost than you might expect.

Brooks and Wohlforth compare cost estimates of the current strategy to several alternative plans, where the US would retain a powerful military but withdraw from its foreign bases and alliance commitments. They conclude that withdrawing would save at most $40 billion a year — which isn't actually all that much (the total Pentagon budget was $585 billion last fiscal year).

Now, this new book isn't conveying gospel. International relations scholars disagree on these issues, with many arguing that the US really ought to scale down its global commitments.

But Brooks and Wohlforth have documented at least some clear benefits of current US policy, rooted in the most recent research. It's the best case to date that Trump is wrong about the international order — that America really is getting a lot out of the status quo.

What Trump — and some of his critics — get wrong about "winning"

Trump (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

The thing that's really striking about Brooks and Wohlforth's book is how fundamental it is. Their argument is about the basic structure of American foreign policy and the big picture, often invisible ways in which it shapes our world.

But the public debate on foreign policy takes all of this stuff for granted. We focus on things like the war on ISIS or whether to intervene against Bashar al-Assad in Syria. These are really important decisions, but less important than the really, really important decision of whether the United States should maintain its deep engagement strategy in general.

The problem with Trump is that he confuses the former with the latter. When he says "we don't win anymore," he seems to mean that the ISIS war is going badly or that China benefits more from China-US trade. These are both questionable ideas at best — the former, in particular, is undoubtedly false. But they do not address the question of whether the United States is "winning" overall at foreign affairs — that is, getting more out of being involved in the world than not.

Trump's proposed solutions — force US allies to pay more or quit American alliances entirely — are thus totally out of whack with the examples he cites of America "losing." He seems to have literally no understanding of the current US-led global order or the basic arguments for why it should be maintained.

The problem comes partly from thinking of "winning" in a narrow sense, of the United States getting what it wants in a specific foreign policy issue, rather than winning in an overall sense, in that the status quo is much better than it could be if the US changed its mind.

"The world that would emerge [without these alliances] would be much, much worse, which means, in some sense, every day that we sustain this strategy we are are winning," Wohlforth tells me.

Interestingly, Brooks and Wohlforth think Bush-style neoconservatives also fail to appreciate the way the order actually works. While neocons love to praise the US-led global order, they suggest it's buckling — and argue that because Obama didn't do things like intervene more forcefully in Syria, he's "withdrawing from the world."

Wohlforth thinks this is just nonsense, that it confuses "optional" tasks, like humanitarian intervention, with the basic stuff of the US-led global order — maintaining alliances and international institutions. You can intervene in Syria, or not, without threatening the deployment of US troops in East Asia or the viability of NATO as an alliance.

"That's the sort of caricature of the strategy that we disagree with: the idea that somehow you either have to withdraw, à la Trump, or be everywhere doing everything," Wohlforth says. "That's just empirically untrue. … We've constantly made [intervention] trade-offs in the past, and managed to sustain the grand strategy."

He and Brooks document a number of examples of past trade-offs in the book:

Battling communism everywhere was the sine qua non — until it wasn't, and Nixon normalized relations with the People's Republic of China. Jimmy Carter began his administration with a strong emphasis on human rights, but shifted course midterm. After the Cold War, George W. Bush began by emphatically eschewing democracy then shifted to make it a central feature, only to back away again toward the end of his second term. The commitment to humanitarian intervention is even more variable, with presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama veering between seeming to deny any US obligation, soaring rhetoric affirming the responsibility to protect, and case-by-case conditional arguments.

Amidst all this variation, the deep engagement strategy remained the anchor — unseen, often unremarked upon, but constant.

Brooks and Wohlforth themselves favor the US scaling down from "optional" commitments like democracy promotion and refocusing more on shoring up the foundations of the deep engagement strategy. They think what neoconservatives have proposed, on balance, has undermined the basic system rather than bolstered it (most notably with the US invasion of Iraq).

But Trump is a different kind of threat altogether. By threatening US alliance commitments, he is explicitly threatening to sacrifice the US's most significant accomplishments in global affairs — and to do it, ironically enough, on the altar of "winning."

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