Impact of US Strategic Power on Global Well-Being (quick take)


I find that the value of in­creas­ing US strate­gic power (and, more broadly, the strate­gic power of the West/​NATO) is pos­i­tive and sig­nifi­cant. This is a rel­a­tively su­perfi­cial take with a lot of hand­wavy per­cep­tions – mainly done for my own pur­poses, but shared for the benefit of oth­ers.

Some schol­ars pre­dict that US hege­mony will end (For­eign Af­fairs), im­ply­ing that our main ques­tion is what sort of in­fluence Amer­ica will have in the en­su­ing mul­ti­po­lar sys­tem. Others think that there is hope for re­tain­ing an Amer­i­can-led world or­der, albeit with some level of re­trench­ment and re­bal­anc­ing (Lake 2018, MacDon­ald and Par­ent 2018). Either way, it should be kept in mind that US in­ter­ests over the next decades will be less globally com­pre­hen­sive than those of the last few decades.

“Strate­gic power” here is the abil­ity to ex­ert the na­tional in­ter­est across mil­i­tary (in­clud­ing cy­ber), eco­nomic, poli­ti­cal and so­cial do­mains in the in­ter­na­tional arena.

Cur­rent In­ter­na­tional Disputes


Chi­nese ac­tions in the South China Sea have had a minor nega­tive im­pact on lo­cal in­ter­ests and un­der­mined the cred­i­bil­ity of in­ter­na­tional law. US de­ter­rence has had a benefi­cial, though minor, im­pact.

Taiwan benefits from its in­de­pen­dence.

The im­pact of Chi­nese policy to­wards North Korea, vis-à-vis what the United States wants out of Chi­nese policy to­wards North Korea, is not clear (I am un­in­formed about this topic).

Chi­nese sup­port for Pak­istan in op­po­si­tion to In­dia is harm­ful to the long-run in­ter­ests of Kash­mir and pro­vokes vi­o­lence in the re­gion; the US has min­i­mal in­volve­ment here but I ex­pect it to in­crease in the fu­ture.


Rus­sian mil­i­tary ac­tivity in Ukraine and Ge­or­gia has been sub­stan­tially harm­ful and un­der­mined norms of sovereignty, hon­esty and in­ter­na­tional law. In both cases, bet­ter US op­po­si­tion and de­ter­rence would have been lo­cally benefi­cial by min­i­miz­ing Rus­sian ag­gres­sion and de­struc­tion (though I make no claims as to whether it would have been broadly wise).

Rus­sian efforts to sup­port the As­sad regime in Syria seem harm­ful, but US efforts to counter them do not seem to have been sig­nifi­cantly bet­ter.

NATO coun­tries benefit from se­cu­rity against Rus­sia, but they are gen­er­ally ca­pa­ble of defense and de­ter­rence with­out ma­jor US as­sis­tance.

Rus­sia’s bel­liger­ence may be com­ing to a halt (Moscow Times).

Rus­sian in­terfer­ence in the United States 2016 elec­tion sup­ported Trump, who is a poor pres­i­dent (Can­di­date Scor­ing Sys­tem).


US mil­i­tary efforts in the Mid­dle East and North Africa have good goals but flawed ex­e­cu­tion that tends to ren­der them worse-than-neu­tral. Some­times they also un­der­mine the cred­i­bil­ity of in­ter­na­tional law. Fu­ture poli­cy­mak­ers may be cau­tious enough to avoid this, or they may sim­ply re­trench from the re­gion be­cause of shift­ing struc­tural in­ter­ests. Bet­ter strate­gic power may cre­ate a moral haz­ard for in­creased in­ter­ven­tion, but it may also lead to more suc­cess in in­ter­ven­tions.


Iran’s geostrate­gic goals in­volve dis­rup­tively re­shap­ing the re­gion in ac­cor­dance with its Is­lamist vi­sion (Kiss­inger 2015). It’s not clear whether Is­lamist gov­er­nance is do­mes­ti­cally worse than sec­u­lar dic­ta­tor­ship in the Mid­dle East, but democ­ra­cies could also be threat­ened and geopoli­ti­cal dis­rup­tion always has cer­tain costs. Deter­rence of Iran’s nu­clear pro­gram and ter­ror­ism ac­tivi­ties would be benefi­cial.

US-North Korea

Stop­ping North Korea’s nu­clear pro­gram would in­crease the safety of the re­gion. It would worsen North Korean se­cu­rity, but regime weak­en­ing or regime change in North Korea might be pos­i­tive. In any case, the US won’t weaken North Korea severely enough to cre­ate a ma­jor risk for South Korea.

Benefi­cial Values

Tra­di­tional and Sec­u­lar-Ra­tional Values

Tra­di­tional val­ues em­pha­size the im­por­tance of re­li­gion, par­ent-child ties, defer­ence to au­thor­ity and tra­di­tional fam­ily val­ues. Peo­ple who em­brace these val­ues also re­ject di­vorce, abor­tion, eu­thana­sia and suicide. Th­ese so­cieties have high lev­els of na­tional pride and a na­tion­al­is­tic out­look. Sec­u­lar-ra­tio­nal val­ues have the op­po­site prefer­ences to the tra­di­tional val­ues. Th­ese so­cieties place less em­pha­sis on re­li­gion, tra­di­tional fam­ily val­ues and au­thor­ity. Divorce, abor­tion, eu­thana­sia and suicide are seen as rel­a­tively ac­cept­able. (World Values Sur­vey) There is no strong di­rect rea­son to pre­fer one or the other.

Sur­vival and Self-Ex­pres­sion Values

Sur­vival val­ues place em­pha­sis on eco­nomic and phys­i­cal se­cu­rity. It is linked with a rel­a­tively eth­no­cen­tric out­look and low lev­els of trust and tol­er­ance. Self-ex­pres­sion val­ues give high pri­or­ity to en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion, grow­ing tol­er­ance of for­eign­ers, gays and les­bi­ans and gen­der equal­ity, and ris­ing de­mands for par­ti­ci­pa­tion in de­ci­sion-mak­ing in eco­nomic and poli­ti­cal life. (World Values Sur­vey) Self-ex­pres­sion val­ues are prefer­able to sur­vival val­ues as they lead to bet­ter so­cial in­ter­ac­tions and a more so­cially effi­cient dis­tri­bu­tion of re­sources.

The United States has a high self-ex­pres­sion score. Every na­tion with a higher score than the US is a mem­ber of the Western bloc. Mex­ico has an equal score to the US.

Some mem­bers of the Western bloc have av­er­age or be­low av­er­age scores, in Catholic and Ortho­dox Europe. But at a glance, it seems that most of the EU’s GDP is com­prised by na­tions with high scores.

In­dia, Brazil, Pak­istan, and Turkey have av­er­age scores. In­done­sia has a slightly be­low-av­er­age score. China and Rus­sia have low scores.

Pro-An­i­mal Values

Other Western bloc coun­tries, Brazil, In­dia, Malaysia and the Philip­pines have higher an­i­mal welfare rat­ings than the US. In­done­sia, Ja­pan and Mex­ico have equal rat­ings to the US. China, Rus­sia, south­east Asia, south­west Asia, and Africa have worse rat­ings (World An­i­mal Pro­tec­tion).

Effec­tive Altruism

Effec­tive Altru­ism is cur­rently small, but its pop­u­lar­ity may be an im­por­tant in­di­ca­tor of a pop­u­la­tion’s val­ues, and it may be use­ful for the EA com­mu­nity to re­ward ac­tors on the ba­sis of their re­cep­tive­ness. EA mainly ex­ists in the United States and el­se­where in the Western bloc; no other re­gions have sig­nifi­cant per-cap­ita num­bers of EAs (EA Hub).


China has gen­er­ally been a prag­matic sup­porter of tech­nolog­i­cal re­search and ex­per­i­men­ta­tion, which usu­ally leads to faster progress. Western cul­tural tropes pro­mote harsher pub­lic over­sight and con­trol of R&D, which usu­ally in­volves bet­ter safety. The ma­jor ar­eas of in­ter­est are ma­chine learn­ing and ge­netic en­g­ineer­ing, which are both sources of ma­jor risks and benefits. It is not clear whether the Western ap­proach or the Chi­nese ap­proach is prefer­able.

Struc­tural Incentives


Democ­ra­cies rarely go to war with one an­other (Reiter 2017). The Western bloc is gen­er­ally more demo­cratic than the rest of the world. The US has an ap­prox­i­mately av­er­age level of democ­racy for the Western bloc, and a similar level to In­dia and South Amer­ica. Amer­ica is slightly more demo­cratic than Brazil, and much more demo­cratic than China and Rus­sia.


Amer­ica’s ad­vanced liberal econ­omy causes it to fa­vor un­fet­tered in­ter­na­tional trade, which is globally benefi­cial, al­though the eco­nomic gains of fur­ther trade liber­al­iza­tion are rel­a­tively small (Cle­mens (2011). Amer­ica and the Western bloc have sig­nifi­cantly lower tar­iffs than other na­tions, in­clud­ing all BRIC coun­tries (In­vesto­pe­dia). China’s high level of cen­tral­ized eco­nomic plan­ning in­cen­tivizes them to en­gage in un­fair trade prac­tices that hin­der long-run global growth.

Global Power Structure


Wor­lds with fewer com­pet­ing ac­tors are safer in the face of emerg­ing tech­nol­ogy risks (Arm­strong et al 2013), eas­ier to keep peace­ful, and more amenable to cuts in defense bud­gets. Cur­rently the US is the mil­i­tar­ily dom­i­nant power and the global hege­mon. It is the sec­ond-largest econ­omy be­hind China when mea­sured by GDP (PPP) (Wikipe­dia), un­less the EU is in­cluded. US po­si­tion will prob­a­bly de­cline, but it will still be the world’s third-largest econ­omy in 2050 (PWC 2017).

If China ex­pe­riences un­ex­pect­edly strong and sus­tained mil­i­tary and eco­nomic growth, US strate­gic power could com­pli­cate and weaken an even­tual state of Chi­nese hege­mony, thereby mak­ing the world or­der less sim­ple in the long run. How­ever, in the short run and in other long-run sce­nar­ios, US strate­gic power can keep other na­tions to­gether in the Western bloc, thus min­i­miz­ing the num­ber of in­de­pen­dent global en­tities. A de­cline of US strate­gic power would lead to greater in­de­pen­dence of Western Europe, Ja­pan, and South Korea. The lat­ter two may sim­ply be in­te­grated into Chi­nese re­gional hege­mony. How­ever, the US may have the op­por­tu­nity to in­te­grate with In­dia, In­done­sia and other na­tions in South Asia into a col­lec­tive bloc as con­flict with China be­comes more press­ing.

Eth­i­cal Status


The Western bloc is gen­er­ally wealthier than BRIC coun­tries and the rest of the de­vel­op­ing world (Wikipe­dia), so wealth ac­cu­mu­lated in the lat­ter re­gions will cause a greater in­crease in welfare.


I feel that peo­ple whose at­ti­tudes fall be­low com­mon Western baselines of tol­er­ance are less de­serv­ing of wealth and pros­per­ity. Rus­sia, China, In­dia, and many other coun­tries in Asia and Africa meet this crite­rion (Tele­graph), though the mea­sure­ment is partly re­lated to the gov­ern­ment rather than the pop­u­lace.


Most of these is­sues (with the ex­cep­tion of cur­rent in­ter­na­tional dis­putes) will have a diminished, but still real, effect size as emerg­ing mar­kets ex­pe­rience catch-up eco­nomic growth with the West. Grow­ing au­thor­i­tar­ian states may not con­verge to Western demo­cratic liber­al­ism (For­eign Af­fairs).

Most of these is­sues sup­port a prefer­ence for US strate­gic power. To me, they seem sig­nifi­cant enough to sug­gest that efforts to in­crease US strate­gic power are com­pa­rable in long run value to efforts to re­fine US poli­cies. So in typ­i­cal prac­ti­cal ques­tions where we face trade­offs be­tween re­fin­ing US poli­cies and im­prov­ing US power, there is no uni­ver­sal an­swer.