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The second American century

| Saturday, May 4, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

It was in 1941 that Henry Luce exhorted his countrymen to eschew isolationism, enter the war and make the 20th century the first great American century. Fulfilling his vision, the United States managed a historic trifecta, prevailing in two world wars and the subsequent Cold War.

If Luce were alive today, he would no doubt be tempted to urge his fellow citizens to make the 21st century the second great American century. This one, however, would focus not on winning ideological struggles and thwarting totalitarian bids for dominance, but on creating meaningful rules and international arrangements to contend with the defining challenges of the era.

This notion of a second American century may seem bizarre, given the country's obvious domestic troubles — from poor schools and crumbling infrastructure to mounting debt and low economic growth — and its external challenges, including terrorism, a rising China, an antagonistic North Korea that has nuclear weapons and an equally hostile Iran that appears to want them.

Nevertheless, we could already be in the second decade of another American century.

The United States is and will remain for some time first among unequals. This country boasts the world's largest economy; its annual GDP of almost $16 trillion is nearly one-fourth of global output. Compare this figure with $7 trillion for China and $6 trillion for Japan. Per capita GDP in the United States is close to $50,000, somewhere between six and nine times that of China.

The United States also has the world's most capable armed forces. No other country comes close to competing with it on the modern battlefield.

There is no peer economic competitor on the horizon. Chinese growth is slowing. Japan is saddled with a large debt. Russia will continue to be held back by its politics.

Additionally, the world's most powerful countries might not always agree with the United States but they do not normally see America as implacably hostile or as an impediment to their core objectives. Challenges from the likes of Iran, North Korea and al-Qaida, while significant, are neither global nor existential.

The U.S. population is large but not so large that it is a major burden. More important, the population is relatively balanced by age. The ratio of working-age people to those too young or too old to work is better in the United States than almost anywhere else in the developed world, leaving this country better positioned to deal with its looming social obligations.

The United States has one other big demographic advantage: the mix and talent of its society. This is the most open country in the world, by a long shot. America accepts more than 1 million immigrants a year on a permanent basis, far more than any other nation. Numerous studies highlight the positive links between immigration, innovation and entrepreneurship. One statistic alone — that immigrants established nearly one-fifth of the Fortune 500 companies — speaks volumes.

The alternative to a U.S.-led 21st century is not an era dominated by China or anyone else but rather a chaotic time in which regional and global problems overwhelm the world's collective will and ability to meet them.

Americans would not be safe or prosperous in such a world. One Dark Ages was one too many; the last thing we need is another.

Richard N. Haass is president of the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of “Foreign Policy Begins at Home: The Case for Putting America's House in Order.”

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