America’s History of Luck Is Running Out

The country’s rise was fueled by fortunate circumstances that seem unlikely to last much longer.

By , the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University and a columnist for Foreign Policy.
A woman fills out a Mega Millions lottery ticket on October 19, 2018 in New York City.
A woman fills out a Mega Millions lottery ticket on October 19, 2018 in New York City. ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images

The United States is the luckiest country in modern history. It began as a set of marginal European outposts, separated from the settlers’ home countries by a difficult sea voyage. When the colonies gained independence, they were weak, poor, and fractious. But in less than a century and a half, those 13 original colonies had expanded across North America, survived a civil war, driven other great powers from the Western Hemisphere, and created the world’s largest and most dynamic economy. That ascent didn’t stop until the end of the 20th century, when victory in the Cold War left the United States alone at the pinnacle of power. For a little while.

Americans like to attribute this remarkable story to their ancestors’ virtues, the enlightened wisdom of the Founding Fathers, and the intrinsic merits of America’s peculiar blend of liberal democratic capitalism. But in addition to the considerable cruelty displayed toward the native population and the slaves imported from Africa, good fortune played a major role as well.

Americans were fortunate that North America was rich with natural resources and fertile land, traversed by navigable rivers, and had a mostly temperate climate. And from the very beginning, the United States benefited from rivalries among the existing great powers. France backed the American Revolution in order to weaken its British rival, and the new nation doubled its territory when Napoleon needed money to wage war in Europe and was willing to sell the Louisiana Purchase at a bargain price. War in Europe also helped the United States survive its foolish decision to invade Canada in the War of 1812; Britain was too busy defeating Napoleon to turn its full strength against its obnoxious former colonists. The United States gradually attracted more attention as it expanded across the continent and took Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California from Mexico, but the European powers spent most of the time competing with each other and for the most part left the United States alone. By 1900, British concerns about a rising Germany led them to abandon their territorial claims in the Pacific Northwest and South America and appease the United States. And at that moment, the Monroe Doctrine of 1823 became a reality.

Indeed, no other great power has enjoyed the so-called free security that America has possessed since its founding. Apart from Britain, every other major power has been invaded at least once in the past 200 years, and several of them have been conquered and at least temporarily occupied. Even Britain lost some 50,000 civilians to German bombings during World War II. Foreign troops last occupied U.S. soil during the War of 1812, and the continental United States was effectively unscathed during the two world wars that decimated Europe and Asia during the 20th century. That free security also permitted the United States to be the last major power to enter both wars, to suffer the fewest losses, and to emerge in a dominant position when the fighting stopped.

To be sure, U.S. leaders also made some smart decisions that took advantage of these lucky breaks. They adopted a constitution that privileged individual freedom and spurred the creation of a boisterous capitalist economy. They opened the continent to immigrants from all over the world and managed to contain the frictions that waves of immigrants occasioned. And while the shameful legacy of slavery continues to blight the American experience, the North’s victory in the Civil War prevented a permanent division of the continent and allowed the reunited country to reach its full power potential.

Since becoming a great power, the United States has also been fortunate in its choice of enemies. Imperial Germany was a daunting military power, but its armed forces had been depleted by the time the American Expeditionary Force arrived in 1918. The Nazi Wehrmacht was even more capable, but Adolf Hitler was an incompetent strategist, and the Soviet Union did most of the work to defeat Germany anyway. Imperial Japan’s economy was roughly a fifth the size of America’s in 1941, its wartime leadership was deeply divided, and it already had thousands of troops bogged down fighting in China. World War II in the Pacific was hardly a cakewalk, but the outcome was not in doubt once the United States mobilized for war.

The Soviet Union was by far America’s most formidable adversary, but the deck was still heavily stacked in America’s favor. The Soviet economy was significantly smaller, its allies were much weaker and less reliable, and it faced serious rivals on several frontiers while America sat unthreatened in the Western Hemisphere. The Soviet command economy was a wonderland of waste and inefficiency, and Soviet leaders had to devote a much higher percentage of GDP to defense just to keep the United States in sight. Mikhail Gorbachev’s belated efforts to reform the system failed, and the Soviet Union collapsed not with a bang but with a whimper.

The result was a brief unipolar moment when the United States faced no serious rivals and both politicians and pundits convinced themselves that America had found the magic formula for success in an increasingly globalized world. The hubris of the 1990s was to be expected, perhaps: No other country could claim such a long and mostly unbroken run of success, where ill fortune never seemed to hold the country back for long.

Is this still the case today? Can Americans continue to assume that the world is their oyster and that things will always turn out right no matter how irresponsibly they seem to behave?

Maybe, but maybe not. Here are four reasons why the United States’ luck just might be running out.

First of all, the free security that the nation has known since its founding is not quite as profound as it used to be. Don’t get me wrong: Having no serious enemies nearby is still a considerable benefit, and those two vast oceanic moats still protect the United States from a fair number of potential problems. The Pentagon is formally the “Defense Department,” but America’s armed forces don’t spend much time or money defending U.S. soil directly. Instead, they go into harm’s way in order to try to shape political conditions in a host of faraway places. Why can they do that? Because Americans don’t have to worry about an invasion from Canada or Mexico—or anybody else.

Unfortunately, 2020 has given us a grim reminder that the protection the United States once enjoyed is not as ironclad as it once was. Case in point: In less than a year, the coronavirus has killed more Americans than World War I, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War combined. As I write this, the daily death toll in the United States is larger than the number of Americans killed on 9/11. Distance still matters, but it does not protect against every danger.

We also learned last week that a foreign power (generally believed to be Russia) has hacked into a vast array of government computer systems, including many that are part of the U.S. national security establishment. The full extent of the damage is still unknown, but the incident illustrates another vulnerability that distance cannot diminish. The United States is still fortunate to be located where it is, but that advantage is not as great as it once was.

The second cause for concern is China, which is a far more formidable rival than the Soviet Union ever was. Americans may have racked up a long winning streak from 1776 to the mid-1990s, but China boasts a much better record since then. China’s economy will soon be substantially larger than that of the United States, it has stayed out of ruinous wars, its ruling elites believe they are destined to be a (if not the) leading power in this century, their model of single-party state capitalism has generally worked well, and they are fully engaged in key international institutions and in every region in the world. While the Trump administration has been busy flirting with various forms of protectionism, China has been negotiating and signing new trade and investment deals. Beijing’s mishandling of the coronavirus outbreak allowed it to spread abroad, but its subsequent response (and the cooperation of the population) has kept its own death toll below a reported 5,000 lives (in a country of 1.4 billion people). As a result, the Chinese economy is back open for business. The United States had more time to prepare for the pandemic, but the number of dead is well over 300,000, and the U.S. economy is still devastated by lockdowns and other pandemic-related restrictions.

The challenge China poses could be overstated. China’s per capita income is still significantly lower than America’s, and its new power surplus (i.e., the amount of wealth that can be mobilized to shape events elsewhere once domestic needs are met) is smaller. Its splashy Belt and Road Initiative hasn’t gone nearly as well as Xi Jinping hoped, and its recent embrace of belligerent “wolf warrior” diplomacy and its heavy-handed approach toward dissidents, trading partners, and its Uighur minority have sparked growing concerns about China’s long-term intentions. Even so, only an incurable optimist would assume that China will fall by the wayside as readily as America’s earlier rivals did.

A third reason to wonder about the United States’ continued good fortune is the series of wounds Americans decided to inflict on themselves. The list is long: the ; the deliberately manufactured polarization and the resulting gridlock that makes timely action on vital issues difficult to impossible; the fetishizing of “liberty” to the point that millions of Americans think refusing to wear a mask in the middle of a pandemic is not stupid but heroic; the enduring public prominence of a phalanx of liars, charlatans, and trolls who have built lucrative careers spewing a toxic blend of falsehoods and hatred; the pervasive influence of well-funded lobbying organizations whose commitment to truth is paper-thin; the distorting impact of money in U.S. politics and a ramshackle electoral system that increasingly enshrines minority rule; and a foreign-policy elite that is largely free from accountability and seems incapable of learning from past mistakes. I could go on, but you get the idea.

And then there’s climate change. The atmosphere doesn’t care what you or I happen to think about this problem; it’s going to follow the laws of physics and chemistry no matter what we choose to believe. Humans are free to deny the reality of climate change, but the planet isn’t paying attention. Favorable geopolitics won’t rescue the United States if the atmosphere keeps heating up (though some other countries will face even greater hardships), and having big-deck aircraft carriers, sophisticated ballistic missiles, state-of-the-art anti-submarine warfare or cyberwarfare capabilities, and the other trappings of a modern great power won’t help on this front either. A large economy, well-trained scientists and engineers, and an innovative private sector may help the country mitigate, adapt, and adjust in various ways, but the challenges they will have to address grow ever more daunting each year. When you marry what is happening to the planet to the political dysfunctions discussed above, it’s easy to imagine how the United States’ long run of good fortune could come to a sad end in a generation or two.

Am I being too gloomy? I hope so. The United States retains many strengths—especially in science and technology—and its potential rivals face serious problems of their own. A return to the unchecked primacy of the 1990s is not in the cards, but intelligent reforms could go a long way to preserving the security and prosperity of the country along with its core political values. The imminent departure of the Worst President Ever will surely help.

Branch Rickey famously remarked that “luck is the residue of design.” Americans should no longer assume that success is simply their birthright or that Otto von Bismarck was right when he reportedly quipped that there is “special providence for fools, drunkards, and the United States of America.” If Americans want to enjoy a future as favorable as their past, it will take a willingness to work together that has gone missing for a couple of decades. If they can’t bring it back, the United States’ long run of luck is likely to come to an end.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University and a columnist for Foreign Policy.