This By-invitation commentary is part of a series by global thinkers on the future of American power—examining the forces shaping the country’s global standing, from the rise of China to the withdrawal from Afghanistan. Read more here.
THE GREAT, late George Shultz, America’s secretary of state under Ronald Reagan, once told me to always focus on demography to understand the world and the forces shaping the future. The grim images from Afghanistan highlight the limits of America’s military power and the mismatch between its goals and the tools available to achieve them. Yet the future of American power depends far less on military might than on the demographic change taking place within the United States. In the next two decades America will evolve from a white-majority nation into a “plurality nation”: a country in which no one racial or ethnic group holds a majority. America must either figure out how to harness the enormous benefits of reflecting and connecting the world, or allow demographic tensions to tear it apart.
Look at any map of current flows to and from the United States—flows of money, goods, services, people and data—and the thickest lines are invariably to Europe. Look further at a map of military alliances, or consulates, or sister cities, and the density of the United States’ connections with Europe will again stand out. That is not an accident.
Between 1870 and 1900, nearly 11m European immigrants came to America, along with some 250,000 from Asia, mostly from China, and almost 100,000 from Central and South America. The American population essentially doubled over this period, from 38m to 76m. By 1900 it also included some 9m Americans of African origin, almost all of whom were descended from enslaved people ripped from their families and tribes and forcibly brought to the United States, leaving most unable to trace their origins, much less develop economic or cultural links back to their homelands.
Over the course of the 20th century, the new waves of immigrants settled and integrated into the economy and society, overcoming plenty of prejudice and obstacles. As they looked abroad—for capital, markets, ideas, travel and history—they looked to the “old country”, which almost always meant Europe.
No longer. Between 1965 and 1990 another huge wave of immigrants entered the country, but this time they came overwhelmingly from Central and South America, Asia and Africa. Immigration laws may change, but once here, immigrants do what they have always done: get jobs, go to school, have families, run for office and accumulate wealth and power.
Along the way, they reach out to relatives, friends and contacts from whatever their “old countries” are, thickening the strands of a commercial, cultural and civic web. A study from 2017 concludes that a 10% increase in recent immigrants to an American state raises imports from their countries of origin by 1.2% and exports to them by 0.8%. A National Bureau of Economic Research study in 2015 further shows that “a one percentage point increase in immigrants from a particular country into a local labour market leads firms in that area to export 6% to 10% more services to that country.”
Today less than half of Americans under 18 self-identify as white. By 2027, a year after the nation’s 250th anniversary, this will be true of under-30s. Sometime in the 2040s the United States as a whole will be a country without a racial or ethnic majority. As a nation, Americans will have a far more equal distribution of family and cultural ties to every continent: ties that are potential pathways of economic growth and diplomatic and cultural influence.
To capitalise fully on the benefits of being a plurality nation, however, Americans will have to think differently about identity and power. The 20th century saw a shift from melting pot to multicultural mosaic, from e pluribus unum to plures. The key to success in the 21st century, at home and abroad, is to define American identity as plural identity: concentric or intersecting circles of identification with other groups or countries. Americans can be plures et unum at the same time, many and one. That capacious concept of identity will allow us to connect to our roots around the world and celebrate our diverse cultures while simultaneously taking pride in a country big enough to hold us all.
To make such rhetoric reality we must imagine and implement a genuine 21st-century migration policy—not just for immigrants but also for emigrants and people maintaining residences in multiple countries. The goal is to attract talent but also to share that talent with home countries, to allow American citizens and residents to move back and forth to other countries to work and live, and to supplement digital lives with physical presence.
This vision may seem like conservative America’s worst nightmare, a realisation of all the fears that Donald Trump and his aspiring successors have so brutally and successfully manipulated. Indeed, the former British prime minister, Theresa May, scoffed at the very idea of such multiple identities with her claim that “If you believe that you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.”
She touched on a genuine concern. One of the great mistakes that globalisation enthusiasts have made is to embrace the global at the expense of the local. It is both possible and necessary to celebrate and support local identities rooted in one or more physical communities—to come “from somewhere,” as David Goodhart, a British political commentator, put it—while also benefiting from living and working everywhere, in both digital and physical spaces. As the pandemic has demonstrated, we can live and invest in one place, and work in another, simultaneously.
Power can also be more plural. American foreign-policy officials and strategists should shift from a hierarchical to a more horizontal conception of power, from king of the mountain to centre of a web. The image of the United States as the “global policeman” was always overblown, but 20th-century American foreign-policy elites and international-relations scholars certainly saw the country as a global hegemon—either as one of two superpowers, or one on its own. As a hegemon, it exercised the hard power of coercion and the soft power of attraction, merging them in various conceptions of smart power.
• Robert D. Kaplan on why America can recover from failures like Afghanistan and Iraq
• Niall Ferguson on why the end of America’s empire won’t be peaceful
• Francis Fukuyama on the end of American hegemony
Yet power can be measured in terms of connection as much as combat readiness: as a function of the breadth and depth of a web of constructive, productive relationships. Instead of today’s Foreign Service, an institution created in 1922 and largely unchanged since, the United States should create a new Global Service. A diplomatic corps that looks like the world, that speaks the world’s languages and understands the world’s cultures from birth, or at least through family ties, will have a huge advantage in terms of building strong relationships with people across the globe. And just as it has been important to have European-Americans learn the languages and cultures of countries that received them in the 20th century, we should expect to see African-American Mandarin speakers, Hispanic-American Arabic speakers, or Arab-American Russian speakers in the 21st.
In the military arena, a far more diverse corps of foreign-policy and national-security leaders should come to think about war in the Middle East, Africa, Asia, or Latin America with the same horror and concern that the present generation feels about the prospect of war in Europe. Not simply because of the potential death or wounding of American troops, but because of a much wider awareness of what conflict anywhere means for civilians—civilians who are connected historically or currently to American families.
These new elites will also bring their own cultural traditions with them. European-Americans who grew up in the second half of the 20th century, as I did, are far less likely to associate the use of American force with imperialist overstretch or intervention on behalf of corrupt elites than do Hispanic-Americans, Arab-Americans, or African-Americans, whose families come from countries that have often had a far more negative experience of American military adventures. Together with veterans of the decades-long and at best inconclusive Afghan and Iraq wars, their focus is likely to be more on building up America’s deterrent capacity, aiming to become the nation known globally more for avoiding or preventing wars than winning them.
That deterrent capacity, in turn, will again rely on the power of connection. Michèle Flournoy, a former undersecretary of defence for policy, argues that the Defence Department should invest in “a secure and resilient ‘network of networks’ for what is known as C4ISR: command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance”.
“Networks of networks” defines and describes the virtual world that we all increasingly live and work in. Network power is the power of strategic connection and disconnection. It is plural and multi-centered, and its amplitude results from its uses. To succeed with its own people, and gain respect from the world’s peoples, America must move from policeman to problem-solver, becoming a central force at the governmental and non-governmental level in accomplishing things like the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.
Achieving the Group of Seven agreement on a global minimum corporate tax is exactly the right kind of move: working with the European Union and other allies to achieve a result that will benefit citizens everywhere by ensuring that corporations pay their fair share. Successful global problem-solving means leading from the centre rather than the top, and focusing on outcomes for people more than on power-games between nations.
A plurality America will not only increase its economic, diplomatic and military power; it will also vastly increase its cultural power as it develops art, literature, film, music and other kinds of media that reflect all the world’s cultures. And if the country can tap the full talents of women with and without caregiving obligations, it can reap further huge benefits—including from women who would not be able to contribute fully if they were still in their native countries, but now can build commercial, cultural and political ties to their friends back home.
Interestingly, China has long understood the power of networks, ties based on kinship, commerce and culture. The plan for China’s Belt and Road initiative explicitly refers to the need to “leverage the unique role of overseas Chinese and the Hong Kong and Macao Special Administrative Regions”. The project itself is a grand strategy based on building infrastructure and other connections around the world. Tellingly, two years ago China surpassed America in the number of its embassies and consulates. Yet China is also likely to be making a set of very different connections due to its own demographic forces. Its population is ageing fast. And according to some studies, China is “missing” about as many women as the entire population of Canada, some 35m, due to forced abortions (or worse) owing to family preferences for males. Millions of Chinese men are already looking for brides around Asia, many of whom are trafficked.
A plurality nation is not pre-ordained to succeed. The demographic and technological forces that hold such promise for America could also tear the country apart. Political polarisation has all but paralysed Congress. It is rooted in deep, existential mistrust and fear. These deep divides reflect —in part—the perception by many members of the white majority of the country of what they stand to lose, and by many members of various minorities of what they stand to gain.
The rise of overt white-supremacy politics in the Republican party is not accidental. And it will exercise far more influence over American politics as a whole than do the equivalent extreme parties in Europe, because of the dysfunction of America’s two-party first-past-the-post political system that too often elects individuals who do not command the support of a majority of voters.
At the very core of the idea of democracy is the belief that every American has an equal opportunity to vote, and that elections must be free and fair. It is equally essential that the electoral system should guarantee that winning candidates actually command a majority, rather than a plurality of votes cast. Without reforms such as the adoption of ranked-choice voting and multi-member congressional districts, as well as an end to gerrymandering, it is quite possible that America will see-saw back and forth into increasing political and economic dysfunction.
If the United States can vanquish its demons, it can harness a new kind of global power. In his first address to Congress, three months into his presidency, Joe Biden spoke of the need to “win the 21st century”. Baby-boomers in his audience may have shared his vision of America as a triumphant democracy celebrating victory over an autocratic China and Russia. But for millennials in America and around the world, whose lives have been deeply disrupted by a global pandemic and are worried as to whether they will still inhabit a liveable planet in this century, that language is as archaic as talk of the Concert of Europe.
From their perspective, “winning” is not a matter of one nation beating another, but of people surviving and even thriving in the face of existential threats. The Taliban’s overthrow of an elected government in Afghanistan, which the United States had fought to establish and maintain for two decades, will reinforce the bankruptcy of trying to lead the world through military dominance. Many right-wing Republicans and left-wing Democrats actually agree on a version of “America First,” even if they have very different definitions and visions of what America is and should become. The mantra of “restraint” is on the rise, couched as “responsible statecraft”.
Restraint is not a strategy, however. It may counsel what not to do, but it does not offer a positive prescription for American leadership in the world, alongside many other nations. The time is thus ripe for a new definition and vision of American power. In the 21st century the United States is uniquely positioned to harness its connections to all the world’s peoples and to unlock their strength, talent and innovation to respond to existential global threats.
Anne-Marie Slaughter is the chief executive of New America, a foundation in Washington, DC. Earlier, she was dean of Princeton University’s School of Public and International Affairs in 2002-09 and the director of policy planning for the State Department in 2009-11. Her latest book is “Renewal: From Crisis to Transformation in Our Lives, Work and Politics” (Princeton University, 2021) to be published in September.