Look at America from above, as though the world is a game of Risk. Which country is the undisputed global leader, and how will the next few turns play out? Crunch the economic statistics, commerce, military power, demographics. Consider the intangibles, like culture. Up until 2000, the clear answer was, the United States. We were the number one economic power, with unquestioned military might, unparalleled cultural influence, unrivaled in scientific achievements, and our greatest enemy, the Soviet Union, lay vanquished with its pieces scattered all over the table.
But now, with wars raging in the Middle East, the national debt in the trillions, global trade moving money all over the world, and that other player, China, gunning for second place, could the 21st century possibly be an “American Century” like the 20th? Brian Haig certainly thinks so.
“Anybody who’s logical who takes a look at the United States, and looks at strategic factors from population to educational institutions to dominant industries to our scale of wealth and infrastructure would come inevitably to the same conclusion, particularly when you look at the rest of the world,” he says.
Haig will explain why he thinks America will remain dominant for another century on Thursday, September 12, at 11:30 a.m. at the Princeton Chamber of Commerce luncheon at the Princeton Marriott. Call 609-924-1776 or visit www.princetonchamber.org. $50 members, $70 nonmembers.
Haig isn’t just an armchair optimist. The son of secretary of state Alexander Haig, Brian is, a bestselling author of military thriller novels, a former president of the Erickson helicopter company, and a former Army staff officer who made war plans against the Soviet Union and North Korea. Haig brings the mind of a strategist to the question of whether the United States will remain the world’s only superpower for the decades to come. And when he looks at the numbers, he sees the U.S. remaining on top.
The most important factor, he says, is growth rate. Compared to its rivals — China, Japan, and Western Europe — the United States enjoys a high birth rate and population growth. This means that America will have a better proportion of young people to old people in the future.
“Today, 14 percent of the United States is 65 or older. That will remain pretty constant for another 34 years. It’s estimated that soon, 40 percent of China will be 65 or older,” Haig says. “The reason that’s important is that retirees are sustained by younger people.” An imbalance of age groups can create a drain on an economy, he says.
Haig points to education as another field that ensures American supremacy over the coming decades, noting that depending on the study anywhere from 40 to 50 of the world’s top 100 universities are located in the U.S. With such a robust higher education system comes innovation and an outstanding workforce. This talent pool helps keep American industries at the top, he says. Although China’s manufacturing sector overall outproduces America, there are many industries in which American firms remain dominant, including automobiles, publishing, consumer goods, and entertainment.
“When you look at incubating companies, nobody has the system that we have for being able to start a new company and being able to turn it into a juggernaut. There are so many sources of American greatness,” he says.
But what about China and its double-digit growth rate? Most economic estimates see China’s growing GDP overtaking the USA’s at some point over the next few decades due to its extraordinary growth rate, but Haig thinks differently.
“Remember China’s baseline. When they started their growth, they were a phenomenally impoverished country. When you get growth rates from 8 to 10 percent, it is from a base that is so low as to be astounding.” Haig recalls another country that was blessed with an excellent growth rate, at least on paper: North Korea. Haig notes North Korean growth surpassed that of South Korea from 1953 through the late 1980s.
He also believes China will be hindered by an overly-centrally-planned economy, just as the Soviet Union was, compared to America’s relatively nimble capitalist system. He also believes China will be undermined by a lack of openness in Chinese society.
“It does not have a free press, which is a self-correcting mechanism for the nation. Without a free press, you don’t have a conscience. As irritating as the press can be to most people, it forces you to constantly improve. It forces you to be introspective and to fix things that are wrong. If your press is not particularly imaginative or well-educated, it can be a problem, but I would argue that a lack of a free press is one of China’s worst enemies.
“China’s growth will hit a ceiling because of their own inherent frailties. Already, everybody is talking about an economic crisis that is occurring in China, with a real estate bubble that is absolutely enormous, with banking issues that are really problematic, and on top of it all, it’s very difficult to tell because nobody trusts Chinese figures,” he says. “It’s not to say that America doesn’t have problems, but in almost every way that you measure it, the next century looks to be another American century.”
Haig notes that the last “American Century” was characterized by two world wars and a depression, events he sees as unlikely to happen again. “The next American Century will be infinitely better than the last American Century,” he says.
Furthermore, he adds, continued American leadership will be a good thing for the world, if the past is any example. And it’s much better than the alternative of letting another world power step in.
“If the U.S. steps back from the stage, there are enough very aggressive nations that would fill that role. You have to take a look at the nature of those countries. They want a different world than the one we want to create for ourselves and our children.”
Haig argues that American influence has largely been benign, despite some missteps along the way. “If you look at what American leadership has done since World War II, it is simply staggering. You begin with the fact that the first thing we did was create a global economic system through Breton-Woods, creating an international bank, and creating rules for commerce. That didn’t exist before then. Certain international currency rules and exchanges were highly problematic before that, and probably led to the Great Depression. We created a base for international commerce and economic growth that was unprecedented. Even the Romans were unable to accomplish that.”
Following up on that triumph, he says, was the defeat of communism. “When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, which was very much due to American leadership, it created a global economy that has doubled and quadrupled since then. What history suggests is that American leadership has been a very good thing for the world. It has led to a more peaceful world and a more prosperous world, and why would we want to step back from that?”
Leadership, to Haig, does not mean imperialism. He says the United State should not try to impose democracy on other countries at the point of a bayonet. “That is always a recipe for failure,” he says, pointing to Iraq as an example. However, Haig said he favors intervening in Syria more strongly than President Obama has so far. “You have a case of humanitarian catastrophe that threatens to destabilize the entire region,” he says. “I don’t think it would be a bad thing to help contain that and try to slow it down.”
Haig spent much of his career pondering what happens when nations collide. His father, Alexander Haig, was a Vietnam War hero and general who served as secretary of state under President Reagan, and was White House chief of staff for presidents Nixon and Ford.
Haig said he grew up idolizing his father, who would discuss world affairs at the dinner table, not surprisingly given that his mother also came from a military background — her father was a lieutenant general who served with Douglas MacArthur in Japan during World War II. “The conversation focused around his life and his activities,” Haig recalls. “From a very early age, it gave you an intense interest in the world, and he was a brilliant teacher.”
Haig says he was inspired by his father’s example. “You knew growing up in his household that he was a brilliant man, and that he was crushingly hard working. He would come home at 11 or 12 o’clock at night, working seven days a week. So then you look at it and say, that’s what it takes to succeed. I’m not sure I had that.”
Nevertheless, Haig followed his father into the military in 1975 after graduating from West Point. He retired as a lieutenant colonel after a 22-year career, during which the Army sent him to Harvard to earn his master’s degree and a speciality in military strategy. After retiring from the military, he spent several years in business, leading Erickson Aircrane and International Business Communications before moving on to writing.
These days Haig doesn’t maintain as hard-driving a schedule as his father did. He has raised four children in Pennington, where the family has lived for the past 13 years. His youngest child is scheduled to graduate from Hopewell Valley Central High School this year, and then he plans to move to Texas.
Haig deliberately chose a career path where he could be home more often for his children, he says. His job as a writer allows him to work from home and raise kids while earning a good living.
Haig says he could have lived anywhere in the world, and chose Pennington because he considered it an ideal place to raise kids.
“My aunt, my father’s sister [lawyer Regina Haig Meredith], lived here most of her adult life, with her husband and my four cousins,” He says. “My grandmother lived and died here as well. So I’ve been visiting the area since the ‘50s and knew what a terrific area it is to live in. Three tours in Washington, DC, convinced Lisa and I that we wanted to live in a more rural place with manageable traffic, friendly folks, great public schools, and yet still have all the amenities our modern economy provides. Pennington is pretty much the epitome of all the above.”
The family lives just down the street from Joyce Carol Oates, whom Haig met one night at the White House, and introduced himself as her neighbor. “I love Hopewell, and I love Hopewell High School,” he says. “That school has had a huge impact on all of our kids.”
Those kids, he says, are likely to be another source of America’s greatness into the next century.
Despite growing up with one of the great figures of the 20th century, Haig is not among those who believes that the younger generation of “milennials” is unmotivated or lazy compared to those who have gone before. Quite the opposite. Haig says everything about American life has become more competitive since he was a kid, including admissions to Ivy League schools. About half the students admitted this year to Haig’s alma mater, Harvard, had perfect SAT scores, compared to a handful of top-scorers when he was in school there.
“When you look at what it takes to get into competitive colleges compared to the late 1960s, everything in American life has become enormously more competitive. This generation of young people has their talents and work ethic refined far beyond what it was for my generation.”