Still Ours to Lead: America, Rising Powers, and the Tension Between Rivalry and Restraint, by Bruce Jones

Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman on a shrewd analysis of the global order

July 3, 2014

Some of the best things come in plain wrappers. Still Ours to Lead is not the Beatles’ White Album, but to those interested in global cooperation, it’s mind-blowing nonetheless.

Underneath this book’s nondescript cover is an incredibly lucid analysis of our topsy-turvy world, and a hard-headed but optimistic vision of its future. For Bruce Jones, the globe has finally achieved what Churchill and Roosevelt only dreamed of: a liberal trading order with nearly universal buy-in.

Unforced and uncoerced, “rising powers” such as India, Mexico, Turkey and China “have repeatedly demonstrated that they do not seek to break the international order but rather to profit from it and to take a turn at the helm of major international institutions”. All have a stake in freer trade, open waterways, stable borders and sound money. Rising powers have found that “conflict and collapse are absolutely bad for business”.

There are few victims here, Jones implies. In the first 40 years of the Cold War, the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) stayed on the sidelines of the global financial system. Suspicious of capitalism and Western motives, they experimented with alternative models. As it turned out, “their economies stagnated while those of the West (and of Western allies like Japan and South Korea) took off”. They and others shifted orientation and jumped “headfirst” into global trade.

Their leap paid off. In 1980, only America and the USSR held membership in what Jones calls the Trillionaires’ Club – countries with GDPs above a trillion. Today, 15 states belong to it and three more are close. Together, they house 90 per cent of the world’s population. Poverty has declined, although pollution has climbed. All this occurred because the US backed an open system in which onlookers could join, compete and rise.

This has created new leadership opportunities. As emerging nations find their “voice”, they want more say. Some resent former humiliations. But they seek to shape, not replace, the system. Globalisation works to their advantage, so they defend it. China deploys its navy off the coast of Somalia to patrol for pirates, India contributes the world’s largest contingent of UN peacekeepers, Brazil heads efforts to stabilise Haiti, and Russia has given logistical support to the US in Afghanistan. None wants to be dominated by the US, or thinks it has to be. Instead, emerging nations use America. As one Chinese official says: “We know our growth is dependent on American security power. It’s very convenient for us.”

Still Ours to Lead explores how the US can creatively influence the system it wished for, and now has. Jones demolishes the myth of decay. The US retains the geographical advantage of friendly neighbours and distant enemies. It enjoys innumerable allies, while its greatest rivals attract precious few, and Russia’s leader Vladimir Putin fewer than ever. America’s self-reliance means that foreign trade is only 25 per cent of GDP compared with 55 to 60 per cent for Europe and Asia. It possesses the world’s largest diplomatic service – an advantage in building coalitions – and military resources greater than those of the rest of the world combined.

America’s biggest challenge will be drawing more countries into serious crisis management. Jones suggests that the US must neither underestimate emerging countries’ fierce pursuit of parity, nor overestimate the threat it poses (especially China’s). Walking this line is easier said than done, and the book is worth reading carefully for its analyses of both deft and bumbling attempts. One issue Jones neglects is what benefits might accrue to the US as it gradually lets go.

It has long been the mantra of realists – and the favourite accusation of leftists – that if not for arm-twisting, the global system Washington cherishes would collapse. If Jones is correct – and the trend of world history since 1648 sustains him, I believe – that order is now on strong, independent foundations.

For a slim, plain book, Still Ours to Lead has remarkable depth and breadth. It takes readers down multiple surprising pathways. Rather like the White Album. Listen.

Still Ours to Lead: America, Rising Powers, and the Tension Between Rivalry and Restraint

By Bruce Jones
Brookings Institution Press, 6pp, £18.99 and £15.00
ISBN 9780815725121, 5978 and 5138 (e-book)
Published 25 April 2014

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