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[Thomas Klassen] Foundation of American power

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Published : 2014-04-20 20:06
Updated : 2014-04-20 20:06

The relative power and influence of the United States is in decline. America commands a smaller role in the world economy than at any time in almost a century, and its sway will decrease in the years to come. America’s military might is constrained as illustrated in Crimea and Syria, not to mention Iran and North Korea.

Yet the United States will continue to dominate the global arena for decades, if not centuries, because it has one feature that its competitors lack: incomparable internal cohesion. 

Other large nations ― China, Russia and India, for example ― have deep and longstanding ethnic, regional and religious schisms. In India and China, citizens from different regions of the same country do not share a language, so that in India they resort to English to communicate. Parts of China, India and Russia seek independence: Tibet, Kashmir and Chechnya among many others.

Even Canada, the country most like the United States, has a strong nationalist movement in its French-speaking province of Quebec that dominates political life, and threatens to dismantle the country. The European Union has no shared culture among its members, but rather is a collection of nations that have agreed to follow a particular set of regulations, mostly on the movement of goods and people.

Sudan, Africa’s largest nation, split apart in 2011 along religious lines. Later this year, Scotland will vote on whether to become independent from Great Britain. Smaller nations too are often racked by language and cultural differences that can tear a nation apart. Belgium is frequently politically paralyzed for months, or years, by an ancient schism along cultural lines.

In contrast, the United States has no substantial internal divisions. No regions of the nation seek independence and no influential groups question the political order.

American political institutions are uniquely devised to ensure stability and coherence. The United States is rare among democracies by having only two political parties. Consequently, in order to attract sufficient voters, both the Democrats and Republicans need to gravitate to the center of the ideological spectrum.

Moreover, the division of powers between the Congress and the president, and within Congress between the Senate and House of Representatives, limits policy shifts. Policy reform is slow, sometimes convoluted, but forges a consensus that is not overturned by future presidents or legislatures. Unlike most nations, a change in president or ruling party in Washington produces only slight policy change.

Beyond its cohesive political institutions, the United States has but one language and one culture. Fundamental to the culture is the American dream, with its promise of individual freedom, equality and opportunities for material comfort.

This dream attracts highly educated and motivated immigrants from abroad. There are so many who wish to immigrate that only the most suitable are permitted to become residents. These tend to be the individuals and families who are most likely to leave behind the religious, cultural and historical conflicts of their homelands to join the American melting pot.

The outcome is a virtuous cycle: a steady stream of high performing new citizens who sustain innovation and economic growth, while accepting American culture.

Regardless of economic and military developments at home or abroad, the United States will continue to draw benefits from its remarkable political and social cohesion and stability. This cohesion, more than anything else, will permit America to dominate the global stage for a very long time.

By Thomas Klassen

Thomas Klassen is a professor of political science at York University in Toronto, Canada. He is currently in Seoul as a Korea Foundation field research fellow, and visiting professor at Yonsei University. Email: tklassen@yorku.ca. ― Ed.

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