As the United States faces a new era of competition with Russia and China, many analysts and observers have urged the country to respond by making more significant investments in military capabilities and strategic technologies and strengthening its overall global defense posture. But Michael Mazarr, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation, believes that the lesson of history is that what ultimately determines success in global competition boils down to a handful of critical societal factors. As he puts in his important new study, The Societal Foundations of National Competitiveness, “the factors that ultimately govern success are societal ones, qualities that reflect the kind of country that a nation is rather than the things it builds or does.” And unfortunately, this analysis concludes that America is losing many of the attributes that accounted for its success.
Michael Mazarr is a Washington-based writer and policy expert with long experience in government, academia, and the think tank world, specializing in U.S. defense and national security issues. The Societal Foundations of National Competitiveness was commissioned by the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment, the Defense Department’s in-house think tank, and carried out by Mazarr and a team of RAND researchers, along with the contributions of outside historians. The far-reaching survey of history’s most successful nations and civilizations concludes that their critical shared attributes are:
- National ambition and will.
- Unified national identity.
- Shared opportunity.
- An active state.
- Effective institutions.
- A learning and adaptive society.
- Competitive diversity and pluralism.
The study concludes that while the U.S. retains considerable strengths in these areas, it also “displays characteristics of once-dominant powers on the far side of their peak of competitiveness.”
While the report is descriptive rather than prescriptive, it suggests that America can rejuvenate its competitive dynamism if it can recover and build upon those societal qualities that made it great — but that partisan polarization and social fragmentation may prevent this from happening. Mazarr’s study contains grounds for optimism but also points to the magnitude of the challenge confronting Americans who hope to reverse our national decline.
Mike Mazarr: And thinking about the most nuanced and accurate sort of middle ground and balanced perspective is something that the information context of our society, and the political context of our society, are making more and more difficult.
Geoff Kabaservice: Hello! I’m Geoff Kabaservice from the Niskanen Center. Welcome to the Vital Center Podcast, where we try to sort through the problems of the mighty, muddled, moderate majority of Americans, drawing upon history, biography, and current events. I’m delighted to be joined today by Michael Mazarr, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation. He’s a Washington-based writer and policy specialist who has worked in government, academia, and the think tank world, specializing in U.S. defense and national security issues.
And more particularly for our purposes today, he is the author of a stunning new study entitled The Societal Foundations of National Competitiveness, which was commissioned by the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment. And behind its somewhat anodyne title, the study is a probing and ultimately somewhat chilling assessment of the danger of American national decline. But despite the disturbing subject matter of your study, Mike, I’m really pleased to be talking to you today.
Mike Mazarr: Well, likewise. And I think there’s a lot of hope buried in the report, too.
Geoff Kabaservice: This is true. Before we get into the study, can you tell me something about where you come from, where you studied, and what led you to the position that you now hold?
Mike Mazarr: Sure. I’ve been in the national security field for 30 years — was interested in it in school and graduate school. Started working at think tanks when I was in college, actually, to start to pay for school. Went to the Georgetown National Security Studies Program for a master’s, and University of Maryland for a doctorate, and have worked at a few think tanks, worked on the Hill, worked in the Pentagon, did time in the Navy Reserve, worked at the National War College in professional military education. So a variety of different kinds of places, all around the theme of being a generalist in national security studies.
Geoff Kabaservice: You got your B.A. as well as your M.A. from Georgetown, correct?
Mike Mazarr: Yep. That’s right. Mm-hmm.
Geoff Kabaservice: I believe after you got your Ph.D. from Maryland, you were for a while a legislative assistant to Representative Dave McCurdy.
Mike Mazarr: That’s right. This was a long time ago — showing my age. But yeah, I worked for Dave when he was… He had been chairman of the Intelligence Committee, and when I worked for him he was heading a subcommittee of Armed Services, and was then also chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council. I did some political speechwriting for him as well as defense work, and then I actually went back to work for him at a trade association, the Electronic Industries Alliance, looking at trends in the high-tech world.
Geoff Kabaservice:The Democratic Leadership Council was, of course, the moderate entity that became the base of power for Bill Clinton and fueled his rise to the presidency.
Mike Mazarr: Yeah, exactly. And at the time it was — which looks sort of quaint in retrospect now, given the fate of neoliberalism, so to speak — but it was an effort to kind of pull the Democratic Party back from what was perceived as being too far to the left to win national elections and so on. But I think there’s a lot of themes, for example, in the current study, in our current work, that hark back to aspects of priorities of the DLC. Two leading ones are a kind of de-bureaucratization and addressing the problem of bureaucratic overreach, which constrains innovation. And then another one is national service, which was a big focus of Dave’s and was a DLC-related idea — just the notion of how you get young people (in various ways, military and otherwise) to have opportunities to serve their country and build national identity that way. It is something he was very interested in. So there were a lot of issues that remain very timely, I think.
Geoff Kabaservice: Yeah, he was actually an Oklahoma Democrat, wasn’t he? Sort of in the David Boren model, if I’m remembering right.
Mike Mazarr: Exactly right. Yes, a moderate in the good old days of more of a bipartisan sensibility and a larger number of Democrats and Republicans who kind of occupied the center.
Geoff Kabaservice: You were for about a decade a teacher at the National War College. What is the National War College?
Mike Mazarr: The National War College is a senior professional military education institution. So folks in the military, if they stay through colonel, for example, they’ll go through their… I mean, they could come in through ROTC, but if they go through the military academies, they’ll have their initial (this is officers, obviously) undergraduate training and then they have intermediate level school, which is typically very operationally focused and designed to make them better kind of majors and lieutenant colonels eventually. And then there’s senior level PME, which is lieutenant colonels, colonels or, in the Navy, captains or commanders.
It’s generally designed to help rising senior officers become better strategists and better all-around leaders for more senior rank. So the National War College is one of a number… Each of the services has their own. There’s Army War College, Navy War College. National is a joint one, although they all have representatives from all the services there. We would also have international students from armies all over the world. We had State Department, intelligence community, USAID. So it’s an opportunity for somebody who’s, say, a colonel who’s going to go on to brigade command and then maybe more senior leadership, a promotion of the general officer ranks, to come and interact with folks from around the government, from other militaries, to study strategy for a 10-month master’s program — it’s an accredited master’s program — and hopefully to make an investment in the quality of their future leadership.
Geoff Kabaservice: Thank you for that explanation. You’re now with the RAND Corporation. I think for a lot of listeners that will require some explanation as well.
Mike Mazarr: So RAND is sort of a child of the Cold War, in a sense: a research organization that supports government analysis of defense issues, basically. And it started out with I think primarily a narrower focus on Air Force, nuclear deterrence kinds of issues. It has since then broadened. RAND as a whole has non-national security components as well. Only I think less than half of our staff deals with national security. We have a big health, education, and other components. But on the national security side, RAND has sort of the official, external what they call Federally-Funded Research and Development corporation —an FFRDC — for the Army and the Air Force and one that serves the Defense Department.
So the interesting thing about RAND is that we are sort of halfway in government and halfway out. We are explicitly designed to be an outside voice to a service, for example, that they can ask a question of and get an independent, analytically grounded answer. Some of the questions are very technical — about specific weapon systems. Some are much more strategic — about the future of the Army in the Indo-Pacific or something like that. We do our work in those cases for sponsors inside the government. We have access to classified information and current government plans. And more than sort of traditional academia or other think tanks, I think, in a lot of cases we’re perceived as being kind of inside the tent, as being part of the team and helping offices with whatever questions they need answered. But yet we really prize our independence and our ability to say things that are sometimes uncomfortable or sometimes not exactly what a potential sponsor was expecting to hear or maybe even wants to hear. And the vast majority of folks we work with in government really understand and value that independence, because they know they’re going to get an objective answer from RAND.
Geoff Kabaservice: Perhaps the most famous alumnus of RAND was Herman Kahn, the strategist of nuclear war and nuclear competition, who was parodied as Dr. Strangelove in the film of that name.
Mike Mazarr: Yeah, exactly. I think our softball team is the Strangelovians or something like that. We have a lot of fun with that at RAND. Another famous alumnus of RAND is Dan Ellsberg, who of course was… It’s forgotten that he did some really interesting work on decision theory and was a very promising, budding academic who — I’m not sure he would’ve gone on to be Tom Schelling, but had the rest of his future not happened he could’ve become a very well known academic and theorist of decision-making and related sort of topics. But obviously he had a different experience.
Geoff Kabaservice: And this report that you’ve completed was commissioned by the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment. Can you explain what that is?
Mike Mazarr: Yes. Office of Net Assessment, or ONA, is often described as the Pentagon’s internal think tank. It is an office that both conducts and commissions research to answer long-term questions of national competitiveness for the Defense Department. As the name implies, it became famous for a particular analytical approach of conducting net assessments. That is to say, in a given area like integrated air defense or whatever it might be, RAND in its history has commissioned net assessments of the United States versus potential competitors: where we stand, how we’re doing relative to them.
Most of its work is classified and very little of it — even the stuff that they commission from the outside — is necessarily released. Some of the work they’ve commissioned from RAND, including this study and a couple of others I’ve done on the future of the international order and work on disinformation and some other RAND work commissioned by them, has been published — because that’s RAND’s approach of doing things. But essentially they’re helping the Defense Department to think long-term, deeply, and often in innovative ways about how to think about making the nation secure.
Geoff Kabaservice: The Office of Net Assessment is a Nixon-era creation, created in 1973. I believe it had only one director for about 40 years, which was Andrew Marshall, known sometimes (not to his face) as Yoda. Was he anyone you ever crossed paths with?
Mike Mazarr: No. My involvement with them came after his departure, and working with the current director, Jim Baker, who I’ve worked with on the studies I’ve done with them.
Geoff Kabaservice: So the current director is James H. Baker, not to be confused with James A. Baker, the former secretary of state. He was, if memory serves, a former advisor to chairmen of the Joint Chiefs including Admiral Mike Mullen and General Martin Dempsey. What is he like?
Mike Mazarr: Right, exactly. So Jim is a retired Air Force officer and served in those positions as the senior strategic advisor to two chairmen of the Joint Chiefs and had other strategy jobs in the Pentagon. Jim is one of those great examples — and this is one of the reasons why working in a place like the War College is so much fun, because every year there are a number of the students who come through that you discover are among the most… They’ve had a very operational career. Their day job requires that they focus on maybe narrow, particular, sometimes technical military topics. But they’re among the most intellectually curious and thoughtful people that you will ever encounter. And Jim, I think, had sort of an unrealized passion for strategic issues before he came to the War College and is just an incredibly incisive thinker and a really outstanding supervisor and researcher, in my view. So he’s, I think, a great person to have in that position.
Geoff Kabaservice: Yeah, he has four master’s degrees, including one from the National War College.
Mike Mazarr: Right. That’s not as unusual as one might think, as I say. And working at the War College was a constant education in the number of military officers who pursue that kind of constant intellectual engagement, graduate education, just constantly learning. And it’s just a real pleasure to work with folks like that in a graduate setting.
Geoff Kabaservice: So what do you think Jim Baker and the Office of Net Assessment were looking for when they commissioned this study of national competitiveness from RAND?
Mike Mazarr: The idea that the fundamental U.S. national security challenge is large-scale rivalries or competitions with peer or near-peer rivals has been building for a number of years. Obviously it became sort of the centerpiece of the 2018 National Defense Strategy, and since that time has been sort of the default approach: that we’ve moved out of a post-Cold War era of being focused primarily on regional challengers like Iraq and Iran and North Korea, although they’re still there. We’ve moved then out of the counterterrorism era of post-9/11 U.S. national security focus to now a focus on Russia and China, primarily. But in that focus, we tend to equate the idea of the response to that — of the national security policies required, at least in the national security realm — as primarily being about how much we spend on certain weapon systems, how many of them we buy, or maybe the technologies that we reshore (such as the new CHIPS or USICA Act) to sustain technological competition with China.
But I think Jim’s sense was that there is a more fundamental level of national competitiveness — the basic qualities of a society that make it dynamic or competitive — that are the origin point of the other competitive advantages: economic growth, economic dynamism, productivity, technological advancement. Those are all important indicators of how well you’re doing, but they originate in more fundamental societal characteristics.
And so what he had in mind, I think, was beginning to lay the groundwork for how we would approach a societal net assessment: how the United States stacks up, in particular, with China — because even before Ukraine, Russia just didn’t have the qualities to be as competitive long-term. How we stack up with China and how other countries around the world might theoretically stack up in these really essential engines of competitive advantage.
Geoff Kabaservice: So the quote, actually, at the beginning of the report is that “History suggests that the outcome of the confrontation with China is more likely to be determined by the basic characteristics of U.S. society,” which you called “qualities that reflect the kind of country that a nation is rather than the things it builds or does.” And apparently that perspective came direct from Jim Baker?
Mike Mazarr: Yeah. We sort of came to the idea of the study. He had the notion of it. We worked it together. I don’t want to… The report doesn’t have his name on it, so he shouldn’t be associated with any particular quotes in there.
Geoff Kabaservice: Fair enough.
Mike Mazarr: But that reflects the spirit of what we were trying to pursue, which was this idea that… And it’s not to say defense policies are irrelevant. It’s not to say that the level of our military preparedness in Asia doesn’t make a difference. Of course it makes a difference. It’s only to say that when we think about competing, we ought to think first and primarily about how we compete as a society.
Geoff Kabaservice: Right. So I should add that this study is not classified. It is available from RAND itself. You can also get it on Amazon. I believe it’s also available as a free download. I found it just fascinating to look at this study, because you were really sort of surveying the sweep of human history and the principal great powers and civilizations to try to find out what made them effective and ultimately what led to their decline. So this is something that very much stands in the line of a lot of comparative historians who I’ve been familiar with, including David Landes, Paul Kennedy, Deirdre McCloskey… How did you go about conducting the study?
Mike Mazarr: Yeah, that’s a great description. And some of the folks you mentioned really are sort of, I think, the models that we tried to emulate as we did this work. We did a number of, I would say, sort of three main components of the research agenda. One was to review some of the folks you’re talking about: comparative histories of various kinds, authors that already were trying to look across at least some sweep of history and compare variables and factors and come up with ideas of what produced national rise and decline, national success and failure.
So you’ve mentioned a number of them. Joel Mokyr is another one. There’s folks like Ian Morris who eventually come down to emphasizing more specific factors like energy production. Acemoglu and Robinson, of course, are famous for their emphasis on institutions and inclusive versus extractive institutions. So there are some of those comparative pieces that end up making an argument about one variable or one factor, a dominant one. And there’s others that sort of just survey the landscape.
So we uncovered and read all of that that we could. We then did 12 in-depth historical case studies ranging from Ancient Rome to the present United States. We did that by doing internal research and by commissioning outside historians, experts in a number of those different dozen historical empires and countries, to help us think through the sources of advantage and disadvantage that governed their trajectories.
And then the third thing we did was looked at more recent empirical evidence. Once we had began to uncover some factor… So, for example, one of our characteristics is shared opportunity: Does a society get the talent out of the greatest number of its people possible and give them the opportunity to express that talent to innovate, to be entrepreneurs, and all the rest? We looked for specific research that would support or deny those factors. So does inequality affect economic growth or productivity? Does social mobility affect the level of innovation in a society? More specific questions that researchers over the last several decades have done — sometimes more quantitative, more measurable research to determine — and we use each of those to assess each of the characteristics.
And as we went, we accumulated a longer list of potential characteristics. We winnowed it down over time, combined some, broke some up. And the final list is somewhat subjective. And ultimately, this is a qualitative work. There’s no index here. There’s no number of exactly where the Renaissance Italian city-states stood on a shared identity or shared opportunity. But it is grounded in a very detailed way, as you saw, in those three baskets of research.
Geoff Kabaservice: What size team are we talking about who contributed to this?
Mike Mazarr: The actual written document is ultimately my product. We had about a half a dozen RAND folks internally that contributed background research to helping develop it; they’re acknowledged in the study. And we had about, I think, eight outside historians that contributed to it. So it’s not an enormous team, but it’s certainly more than just one.
Geoff Kabaservice: Part of the appeal of the book is that it’s very well written — congratulations! But it’s also a synthetic work. It’s not one chapter on Rome, another on China, another on Austria-Hungary; it’s all of them together, drawing upon different points in their histories. And it does seem that the two most relevant, perhaps, are Britain (where the Industrial Revolution developed) and then also the Soviet Union, which in some sense was our counterpart during the Cold War and declined for reasons that you get into. But the principal finding, as you just mentioned (or at least the first finding), was that there is in fact an identifiable set of societal characteristics that do seem to be related to competitive success. I’ll just list them — there’s seven of them.
The first is national ambition and will, by which you mean to achieve both internally and externally, to push the frontiers of scientific knowledge and technical achievement while mastering the natural world. The second is a unified, coherent national identity, one that encourages effort, loyalty, sacrifice, and commitment to the common good. The third is shared opportunity which is significantly and widely accessible throughout the society. The fourth is an active and effective state. The fifth are effective institutions, including economic, social, political, and military institutions. The sixth is a learning and adapting society, one that’s intellectually curious, open to change. And the seventh is competitive diversity (as measured in many different ways) and pluralism, in which various actors or levels of governance can take distinct initiative. Again, it’s a big question to ask how you came up with those as opposed to others, but maybe just tell me something about the process of finding and identifying those seven critical characteristics.
Mike Mazarr: I think the first step in the process, really the first literature that we consulted, was the comparativists that we talked about, and related literature including… As you know, there’s a big literature on what’s called the Great Divergence: Why did Europe leap ahead of the rest of the world in terms of economic growth rates and technology development after about 1500? There’s a lot of economists that have done work on that who are not global comparativists but are trying to explain that particular thing. So we went through that literature and essentially made a roster of the factors that people were identifying. In some cases, like I said, they were very specific, like institutions or energy capture. In other cases, they’re more abstract, like McCloskey or Mokyr or Landes talking about ideas and the essential cultural values of a society.
But that’s where we started and tried to identify the things that had been nominated so far. And we took that list into the historical case studies and then asked the question: “Do we see these in these cases? Are they present? If they’re not, why not? If they are, can we…” We tried for the longest time to ask if we could quantify some of these things, and the data is not very good in a lot of cases. As you know some of the most famous, even relatively recent efforts to quantify, for example, economic growth, like Angus Maddison, has been significantly altered by newer scholarship. But we just didn’t feel like trying to stretch this over a long period of time in real quantified ways. But we took the nominated characteristic into the case studies and winnowed them down, and then having done that had roughly the final list and then looked for more recent empirical research that might support some of those.
And in some cases there is a lot. In some cases, really we were searching around the edges for proxy things that could give us a hint as to how exactly unified national identity contributes to economic growth. There’s ways to think about that and there’s research that’s been done. But anyway, that was the journey. And so, to be clear, as we stress at the beginning and the end of the study, we’re not claiming that these are the only seven characteristics. This is not designed to be the final word. And in fact, if somebody were to write something saying, “Number five doesn’t really work, here’s all the historical evidence. You should remove that from your list,” that’s fine. I mean, we were trying to start a debate and get people thinking about just essentially resuscitating this idea of national competitive advantage from a societal perspective and get people thinking and talking about it. But that was the basic analytical journey that we used to get to the final seven.
Geoff Kabaservice: You add a number of other big global points at the outset of this study. The second one I thought was very interesting for me as a historian of moderation. You emphasize the importance of a prudent balance in seeking sources of national advantage, because all seven of those societal characteristics that you enumerated carry danger when they’re thrown out of balance.
Mike Mazarr: Absolutely. And it makes it challenging to recommend or simply say, “Here are the seven characteristics, turn them up to 11 on the dial and you’ll be fine.” Because on the first one, national ambition and will, obviously national overreach is one of the most common sources of the decline of empires and nations. So moderation and balance in all of them. I mean, in some of them, national opportunity, I suppose there’s ways to go too far in sharing that if you mandate certain levels of shared opportunity in ways that would constrain innovation or something. Some of them are not as much of a danger in terms of a loss of balance. But a number of them: national ambition and will… Unified national identity obviously can become a constraining orthodoxy. Active state — an active state is great until it becomes a controlling, overbearing state that weighs down on a country’s dynamism. So there’s four or five of them that getting out of balance is really a direct ticket to national decline.
Geoff Kabaservice: I’m not really a theoretician of moderation — that’s more my friend Aurelian Craiutu, who’s a political scientist at Indiana University. But I thought it was significant that he subtitled his most recent book, Faces of Moderation, as “The Art of Balance in an Age of Extremes.” Because moderation really is about trying to find a balance between what are often two good quantities. So just for example, the one you mentioned, shared opportunity. Yes, we need to widen opportunity to the practical maximal extent possible. But on the other hand, as you point out, there’s a tendency when widening opportunity to downgrade ambition and merit and other qualities that actually are ultimately very important for a dynamic society.
Mike Mazarr: Yeah, exactly. And I mean, I think this gets to… I mean, there’s a narrower political way to think about moderation, but this broader social way I think is just critical in the sense that it is a finding of the study that empirically countries, societies that can find a way to appreciate both sides of a coin — that can, in that old phrase, hold two opposing ideas in their mind at the same time, that think in terms of both/and instead of binary oppositions… I suspect that’s really part of the… When we’ve had periods of more of a bipartisan sensibility in our politics, that’s been some of the at least implicit mindset of a lot of the leaders, that “Yes, A is true, but B is also significantly true.”
Just on a relatively different issue, you see a lot in the debate about Ukraine today where one side says, “Russia is evil, Russia is the aggressor, Russia must be destroyed and defeated.” And the other side says, “NATO enlargement was the problem. We provoked them, we were to blame.” There’s elements of truth in both of those statements. And thinking about the most nuanced and accurate middle ground and balanced perspective is something that the information context of our society and the political context of our society are making more and more difficult.
Geoff Kabaservice: Exactly. You mentioned a third overall point which is that there are a set of distinct factors other than those societal characteristics that also matter. And there is any number one could add: the quality of leadership… But you particularly mentioned the, I guess, posture of a nation’s elite: whether it’s actually trying to contribute to the common good or whether it’s rent-seeking and hoarding power and influence for itself. And then also factors like the climate and environmental sustainability; fiscal sustainability in terms of a nation’s debt and its position; its relation to energy sources… One could go on and on, on that level.
Mike Mazarr: I was going to say, exactly. And there’s one chapter where we summarize those. You give a number of good examples. I would also stress that there’s a couple dealing with finances and investment that we originally had as possible characteristics, but eventually decided they’re not really societal characteristics. They’re the output of other kinds of more fundamental characteristics. They’re national behaviors. But the relative decline of the application of capital for productive investment (as opposed to moving stock prices or profit-taking) is something that has emerged in a number of historical cases before it’s occurring in the United States. And then fiscal or financial sustainability is another huge theme, going back to Paul Kennedy and others. So there’s a variety of those sorts of other things. And one of the things we do at the end of the study is just briefly offer a little bit of a framework for saying, “Okay, apart from the main seven societal characteristics, here’s some things to look at to see if you’re competing well in these other areas as well.”
Geoff Kabaservice: Yes, exactly. The shadow of one book that I read recently seems to hang over this study a bit. And that’s Ross Douthat’s The Decadent Society, where he makes essentially the fourth point of your study, which is that positive feedback synergies are extremely important, and that dynamic nations that do achieve comparative success almost always have these societal characteristics going for them at the same time. And conversely, nations that decline have problems go wrong with each of these things at the same time. You also make the point that these dynamic nations are almost always plugged into energetic and productive networks of exchange, whether that be commercial, intellectual, or otherwise. And they almost always serve as global hubs of trade, finance, culture, and intellectual dialogue.
Mike Mazarr: Exactly. And that’s partly a product of some of the societal characteristics. I mean, one of them is a learning and adapting society, and that is a very consistent theme of civilizations and societies on the rise and at their peak. They’re very intellectually curious. They want to engage the outside of world. They want to get ideas. Meiji Japan is a great example of this, sending a significant part of their senior officials abroad for a year and a half to study and bring back lessons, but just in general being anxious and open to learning from the outside world. And, in the process, obviously, not exactly reversing but modifying earlier Japanese practices of greater isolation (although those can be exaggerated) to try to place themselves more at trade hubs and other kinds of things. But the most competitive and dynamic societies want to engage the outside world, and they eventually become a gravitational force for systemic patterns: trade, learning, science, culture. So that’s a very consistent pattern among these kinds of countries.
Geoff Kabaservice: And your fifth point was one that you thought might have been the most important, which is that there’s something you call “the Renaissance spirit” that’s the one default mosaic of success, the one recipe that’s really representative of all the most dynamic and most sustainably competitive societies. And its characteristics include a national ethos that is open, tolerant, full of intellectual energy and commitment to learning. It has strong and effective public and private institutions. It’s characterized by a pluralistic clash of ideas. It draws upon the abilities of people from many backgrounds to offer their talents and succeed. It’s motivated by a competitive spirit. And there’s a societal reverence for experimentation and new ideas. And it is, as you mentioned before, the hub of international networks of various kinds.
Mike Mazarr: Yeah. That’s a great summary. I think the one word that comes to mind to describe this is confidence. These are confident societies. They feel able to be open to outside ideas. They don’t feel the need to wall themselves off from the world, so to speak. They look to the future with confidence. They think that they have the ability to shape the international future, and they believe the future of their own society’s going to be better. And all of that helps to underwrite this essential grassroots, dynamic, forward-looking positive energy that characterizes these kinds of societies. And obviously — and I’m sure we’ll talk about this — but it’s one of the reasons to be concerned about the United States today. Because in a variety of ways, we see significant constraints on that sort of confidence and that sort of mentality that tends to underpin what we call the Renaissance spirit.
Geoff Kabaservice: Yeah. I found out about your study via David Ignatius’s column in the Washington Post over the July 4th weekend. And David was also deeply impressed by this study, but he found it disturbing, because as he writes, “Mazarr’s disturbing conclusion is that America is losing many of the seven attributes he believes are necessary for competitive success.” And he begins with American ambition and confidence, which once was one of the things that really defined us. He quotes: “Writers and scholars alike have argued that the spirit of adventurousness, experimentation, and determination to remake the future have all ebbed in the American character.” Can you just expand on that a little bit?
Mike Mazarr: So the study has eleven chapters, one of which… 90% of our work was to identify the seven characteristics and related general findings, and then 10% was to apply that to the United States and say, “Okay, how are we doing according to those factors?” And it was very kind of David to write the piece. Obviously, I think, one of the more newsworthy or striking points of the study will be chapter 10, which applies to the United States and says in a variety of these areas there’s real reason for concern. And I think the story of what’s going on in the United States today and why we seem so soul-sick as a nation is obviously tremendously complex. And our study does not try to explain that but merely does a snapshot diagnosis of what the data look like in the seven areas, the seven characteristics in terms of the trends in the United States today. So for example, we’re talking about confidence and ambition — the first one, national ambition and will. In all of these areas, one of the things we stress is that there’s a tremendous amount of residual ongoing energy in the United States. A lot of the data support the idea that it would be wrong to say that the United States no longer has these characteristics, no longer has any ambition. There are lots of, thousands of entrepreneurs, CEOs, scientists, others that still reflect exactly the level of ambition to remake the world that we’re talking about in that characteristic.
Mike Mazarr: But if you look at polling of what the majority of Americans think about their country, how it’s doing, where it’s headed, what its role should be in the world, the degree to which the United States is an exceptional nation — there’s just a lot of objective evidence that the degree of optimistic, confident ambition for the future has absolutely ebbed in the United States. Again, for a lot of reasons that are beyond what we go into in the study. But yeah, in that and in other areas, there’s plenty of data to support the idea that we are on the far side, at least for the moment, of our peak of a lot of these characteristics.
Geoff Kabaservice: That’s a disturbing conclusion, but I find it kind of hard to argue with that. You did actually start that segment by pointing out that the United States in the second half of the 20th century might have represented the most complete package of competitive advantages, the most ideal representation of the Renaissance spirit you spoke about, of any great power in history.
Mike Mazarr: Yeah. And partly because we had, as we were talking about earlier, balance in a lot of these areas. One of the characteristics, the active state, is a great example. The binary opposition is state versus market. But actually as many scholars — Marianna Mazzucato and others — have demonstrated, the active intervention in limited, targeted ways of the American state — in trade policy, but in particular in research and development support, in the offshoots of a lot of the DARPA programs that are very famous, the ARPANET that leads to the Internet and so much more, support for education, scholarships, fellowships, general research support — the American government at various levels (not only the federal level) has been catalysts of competitive advantage, even while sustaining a system that is, as we find, where the most sustainable forms of advantage are essentially grassroots and market-based.
So one of the reasons why… The United States has had very good ratings in all of these characteristics, good at its peak: a strong sense of unified national identity, a very clear sense of national ambition and will, more shared opportunity than most large powers in recent history and an increasing degree of shared opportunity over time. And it has reflected a decent balance in a lot of these areas. And so we certainly don’t suggest that it’s an ideal case or an ideal type, but when you compare to the real world of other major powers — as you mentioned in the modern era, Britain probably comes closest — but the United States clearly has a more competitive model than even Britain at the height of the Industrial Revolution.
Geoff Kabaservice: To return to Ignatius’s article, he points out that the United States does seem to be falling away from past performance on each of these seven societal characteristics. So national unity and cohesion are declining. The country no longer seems to be as effective at assimilating diverse groups as it once was. America is still an opportunity society in principle, but you point out, evidence of rising inequality and growing constraints. There’s obviously the Raj Chetty point that you repeat here, which is that in each generation since 1945 children have been less likely to make more money than their parents. The government hasn’t been able or willing to address or correct the problems. There’s a real problem of declining government effectiveness in the United States over the past twenty years. Private-sector productivity has also been stagnant. And both private and public sector institutions are really dealing with bureaucratic bloat — what you, in another article in American Affairs, have referred to as “predatory abstract systems.” So this is actually kind of a lot of problems. And as Ignatius points out, your conclusions are that when countries begin to fail, “it is a negative-feedback loop, a poisonous synergy.” And some people could maybe just give up on the whole project and want to burn it down and start over.
Mike Mazarr: Well, that’s where some people are now, unfortunately. I certainly am not. So everything you’ve said is correct, and there is definitely this risk of a negative-feedback loop, and I think we’re seeing that. Some of the reactions today are to a decline in what we would call the active state and effective institutions, where people no longer believe that the leading institutions in their society, public and private, have their interests at heart or are accountable in any way to the popular view. As you’ve indicated, the stagnation issue is not just a public-sector problem. The rise of what’s been called managerial capitalism has created in the private sector a variety of behavior patterns that are having some of the same effects there.
My remaining optimism comes from two things. Number one, even with those problems, as we see in U.S. economic growth rates over the last couple of years, the resilient dynamism of the stock market, continuing examples of U.S. innovation, the continuing relative strength in a global sense of the U.S. higher education sector, the United States has a lot of accumulated advantages and a lot of accumulated strength. Michael Beckley has made some comparisons between the United States and China, and one of the things he emphasizes that most others don’t is, in a way, that stocks are as important as flows, and that the United States has a multiple of the accumulated wealth of China. Even though, on an annual basis, their growth rate might be higher, their economy is growing to match ours, we have this incredible accumulated foundation of competitive potential.
The other reason that I’m still optimistic is that, particularly when we think about competing with China, their problems are a lot more systemic than ours are. The nature of their system means that their real estate challenges, their real estate bubble, their debt problem, their demographic issues and how to deal with them, are nested in a centralized, more inherently corrupt, less inherently dynamic sort of system. Whereas in the United States, the problems we’re talking about, the vast majority of them are definitely subject to mitigation by the right kind of public policies. There’s a lot of low-hanging fruit out there in most of these areas, these societal characteristics, that could be grabbed. There’s just glimmers of hope in some of the recent technology bills that people are identifying those.
The issue now is whether the negative-feedback loop has taken hold to a degree, and you’re going to have the intersection of public loss of faith leading to extreme politics, leading to collapse of the center and higher levels of partisanship, leading to a further decline of institutions, and so on. Are we already sliding too fast down the hill to get ahold of that? I don’t think so. I don’t think that’s the case yet, but it’s obviously very worrisome. But those are the two reasons why I retain optimism that we could in theory create the next era of American dynamism built on these same characteristics if you just have the right critical mass of public policy. The question is whether we can get there, whether we have the will as a nation to demand the kind of leadership that gets us there.
Geoff Kabaservice: That is a big “if.”
Mike Mazarr: Yeah.
Geoff Kabaservice: You point out in the conclusion of the study that its aim was diagnostic not prescriptive. But at the same time, you do point to some of the elements that an agenda to rejuvenate America’s engine of social dynamism likely would include. And these would include a renewed commitment to shared opportunity; an unapologetic celebration of American national community and spirit; a somewhat stronger role for the state, targeted on areas where there would be the best return on investment; policies to encourage more productive use of capital; improved investment in learning and experimenting, including research and development and new models of education; a new war against bureaucratic excess; and a much more urgent program to combat mis- and disinformation in the society.
Mike Mazarr: Yeah, those are all big-ticket items. I mean, those are broad categories — by intent, because like I say, by the charter of this study, we were not trying to say, “This legislation is a good idea, that legislation is not a good idea.” But in a number of those cases, as I say… In shared opportunity, for example, there are hundreds of experiments going on around the country, just as one example, to bring more venture capital funding to traditionally underserved communities, to empower entrepreneurs in areas where they have not had access to or visibility to the venture capital community. There’s some really good work going on there. There are some research and nonprofit organizations devoted to that. There are some venture capitalists who are trying to contribute to it. There are hundreds of examples like that of existing experiments with a track record that could be picked up and taken advantage of. In the area of disinformation as well, a lot of work is going on in terms of how do you get people to distinguish fact from falsehood and equip them with the kind of tools they need to be intelligent information consumers.
I think to me the issue is not so much that we haven’t discovered the right things to do. It’s that there’s too much of a partisan fury that would appear to discredit some of these ideas or create skepticism about them. And there is not the groundswell of demand that… I think in all of these areas, one of the consistent themes is that the required change is bigger than tinkering at the margins. Not transformative change in an extreme direction, but transforming institutions, dealing with problems of bureaucracy in ways that… I see this very much in my field, in the defense field — in the Defense Department, in the State Department, in other aspects of the procurement of military hardware — we need bigger change than we have been led to believe or traditionally thought would solve the problem. And crossing that hurdle without going to extremes, without saying the big change is to start scapegoating parts of society and blaming everything on them and erecting walls around the country and things like that.
That national consensus to have the courage again to make change in a positive direction is, I think, the underlying theme. But again, that gets back to our issue of the problem of this negative-feedback loop. To have that kind of courage at this moment, surrounded by the kind of partisanship, division, corrupted-information environment that we are in, it’s very difficult to get people to that point of confidence and willingness to say, “Yeah, I’m willing to toss away some of these established ways of doing business in favor of a new approach.” That takes confidence and an optimism about the future that it’s not clear that we’ve got right now.
Geoff Kabaservice: I think a lot of Americans despair of the kind of renaissance you’re talking about because they don’t see it as being possible through our political system.
Mike Mazarr: Yeah.
Geoff Kabaservice: And you do touch briefly on some of the constraints in the American political system, including gerrymandering and low-turnout primaries which elect extremists from both parties, people who essentially have no interest in appealing to moderation or the center. And yet you don’t really discuss politics in the American context much. Why was that?
Mike Mazarr: Well, primarily because what we were doing in looking at the United States was really strictly, narrowly limited to saying, “Here are seven characteristics. What do the data say about how the United States is doing?” And excavating the real sources of those outcomes. Some of our other analysis would give hints, but it just wasn’t our job. So I think, as you’re saying, we did sort of highlight — and this is an area of significant concern — that there are some of the partisan divisions and ideological divisions in the country that have begun to become institutionalized in certain ways, through for example the construction of certain kinds of congressional districts, that goes beyond just sort of an attitude that can change quickly. But even there, the solutions are potentially on the table. And a number of states, as we know, have been experimenting with these ideas of independent commissions designed to build or to lay out maps of congressional districts. Some localities are looking at ranked-choice voting and a number of other ways of trying to get at this problem.
But that’s a perfect example, I think, of the route to the solution of some of those barriers to an effective, active state and effective institutions. It would require people saying, “We want a system that maximizes the potential for sensible, non-corrupt public policymaking.” And so getting money out of politics, and changing the habits of gerrymandering, and in other ways creating the best structural context you can to encourage the right kind of public policy — it’s not that complicated, it’s not that radical. But yet making that leap to the point where a critical mass of the public says, “This is what we want and demand” — we all know some of the reasons why that’s not happening. But that’s the transition that has to happen. If I’m concerned and if my optimism has real limits, it’s that I’m not quite sure I see the impelling factors that are going to create that.
As you know, we cite in there a historian, Walter Scheidel, whose book The Great Leveler talks about the fact that large societies in their phase of decline see increasing inequality and greater and greater wealth capture and rent-seeking by elites. And the only thing he says that interrupts that pattern is a large calamity: a major war — like a really major war, a world war, not even a modest war — an enormous pandemic like the Black Plague, or something like that. That in his view, he found it hard to find cases of societies that simply decided that they needed to pull themselves out of that sort of a relative decline. I think we can still do it, but time is getting shorter, I guess.
Geoff Kabaservice: Coincidentally, I just struggled through Scheidel’s Escape from Rome…
Geoff Kabaservice: …where he points out that actually one of the best things that happened to humanity (or certainly Europe) was the collapse of this centralized state.
Mike Mazarr: Right.
Geoff Kabaservice: Because that gave rise to a number of competing societies that spurred each other on to make the breakthroughs that led ultimately to the Great Divergence.
Mike Mazarr: Right. Which is an argument for why… I mean, fragmentation has its cost, but it’s a reason why Europe advanced. It’s another reason why the United States has such a competitive advantage. Our states are laboratories of policy. You can have a race to the bottom where everybody’s trying to cut taxes to attract business and ends up with enormous debt. But you also have these wonderful experiments where a state will try something with regard to homelessness, with regard to providing medical care, whatever, and it works. And other states look at that and they want to compete, so they follow it as well. So within the American federal system, we have built in a little bit of that advantage that Europe gained and that Scheidel is talking about in that book.
Geoff Kabaservice: Although there again, Ron Brownstein’s most recent column for CNN is talking about how we’re losing some of that federalism; that in fact, politics are militating in the direction where you actually have one side wanting to prescribe how all of these different states should actually behave according to one unitary model.
Mike Mazarr: Yeah. I mean, that’s true, I guess, on both sides of the political spectrum. And it gets back to our issue of balance. It’s always this struggle between the perception of absolute values, whether it’s justice or normative things that people want to impose on the entire system, and the willingness to allow variety in a way that ultimately produces a stronger whole. It’s a never-ending dialogue. It doesn’t have to be resolved. But yeah, I think the risk is when you get to the point where the productive variety gets kind of undermined in favor of maybe excessive central regulation.
Geoff Kabaservice: And one of your overall lessons is that orthodoxy is ultimately the enemy of dynamism. There are many qualities that go into making up dynamism, but one of them is openness to new ideas, new peoples, new ways of doing business. One of the ways in which you can define moderation is not just seeking the middle ground, but also as eclecticism. And, for example, when you were going through your list of findings and recommendations… Yes, they’re nonpartisan. But it’s the conservative side in this country that’s more associated with support for vibrant commercial markets, escaping from stifling bureaucracy, emphasizing national community and identity. It’s the liberal side that’s more identified with the active state, with equality and shared opportunity. And clearly what’s needed is not coming down on one side or the other of that, but an eclectic mix that includes all of those factors.
Mike Mazarr: 100 percent. And I love that term eclecticism. I think that really is another nice word that captures some of the essential spirit of this Renaissance spirit or other aspects of the most dynamic model. So, yeah, absolutely. And I think there’s a ready agenda for somebody that wants to bust these kind of paradigms and say, “The future of national dynamism is about an eclectic mix of things that you think of as conservative and as liberal.” I mean, one of them — I know you’re familiar with this as well… One of the more dynamic journals of the last several years — some find its origins a little controversial — but American Affairs has been publishing a lot of work by, not exclusively, but many self-identified conservatives who have come to question certain aspects of a more pure neoliberal or market-based model and talk about the value to promote conservative principles of aspects of industrial policy or aspects of a government role in providing shared opportunity or things like that.
And you have, going back to the DLC days, you have folks that were associated with the Democratic Party and more of “the left” talking about the importance of national identity through shared national service and things like that. So there is, I think, an increasingly rich intellectual investigation of this kind of eclectic system. And that, as in the past, can provide the basis for a future agenda in public policy. It’s just, are the trends in politics too negative and fracturing to allow that kind of eclectic agenda to come to the fore?
Geoff Kabaservice: That is a pretty critical question. Let me ask you a question about the reception of this report. What use do you think the Office of Net Assessment is going to make of it?
Mike Mazarr: I don’t want to, again, put words in their mouth. I think the purpose of it was to encourage people in the national security field, including in the Defense Department, to be thinking in these societal terms. There are ways that the defense enterprise can contribute to some of these things; shared opportunity is a great example. The Army has been having problems with recruiting, as we’ve been reading in the last couple of weeks. And the Army Secretary, my former RAND colleague Christine Wormuth, and General McConville, the Chief of Staff of the Army, recently issued a letter indicating that to create a larger pool of recruits in the future, they thought the Army might need to reach beyond college-age folks — beyond even high school-age folks — and develop some experimental programs to begin trying to ensure that young people not only see the Army as a potential career but are developing in terms of their study, in terms of their physical fitness and other ways, in ways that provide… So it would be a military service reaching out into society and doing even more to generate shared opportunity.
But this is obviously a long-term issue. It’s a issue of national competitiveness that looks ahead decades. So it’s not going to affect a current defense policy in most ways. But I think the idea was to just ground our current thinking in the competition in this larger context and ask what it means for current policy.
Geoff Kabaservice: This might have been just a personal reaction, but as I was reading through your study, it occurred to me that the military is maybe the institution in American society that best exemplifies a lot of those societal characteristics you’re talking about as an organization, and is very consciously working to support them.
Mike Mazarr: I was going to say, in a lot of ways, yes. I think that’s true in terms of the willpower and ambition that they try to inculcate institutionally in individuals and in terms of the opportunity that they share. So in a lot of ways, yes. There are problems… I’ve thought that this framework is a tool that could be applied to organizations or institutions as well as societies. And we haven’t done that, but if you did it, if you applied it to the Defense Department, you’d see some areas of concern as well. Their equivalent of the active state has become incredibly bureaucratized, to a degree that is significantly constraining the innovative capacity of the Defense Department, of the national security enterprise, for example. And in some other areas you could identify some real challenges. But yes, as institutions they reflect a lot of these characteristics to a significant degree.
Geoff Kabaservice: I mean, you warned, like I said, about the danger of orthodoxies coming to constrain the discourse. And I followed H. R. McMaster back from the time in the Iraq war when it was actually pretty important to see whether he would be given a star or whether he would be expelled for his heresy. And it turned out that he was given a star.
Mike Mazarr: Yeah, and of course eventually became National Security Advisor. I do think that the military as an organization — and certainly military leaders would recognize this, it’s not anything new — it reflects some of the tensions between these characteristics and the importance of balance. So the emphasis on what you would call a unified identity and sort of a unified effort toward a goal can often then become a constraining orthodoxy. And in a number of wars — in Vietnam, in Iraq, in Afghanistan — the U.S. military (specific services and the military more broadly) has had a real problem breaking out of the orthodoxy that this is a war that we’re winning, this is a war where the trends are looking good, we can win this war. A mission-driven organization always is at risk of developing conventional wisdom orthodoxies and shared commitments that then quash independent thinking and make it more difficult, as we’ve seen in the Afghanistan papers and other kinds of things, to have contrary views to what is the conventional wisdom.
So I think like all major organizations, the military services — the Defense Department, what we would call the U.S. military on the whole — is a wonderful example of, for example, building shared opportunity over time in ways that have typically run a bit ahead of the larger society. And yet it also, like all institutions, reflects the dangers of where some of these characteristics can become excessive and go wrong.
Geoff Kabaservice: I agree. One more point on the military… You actually, around the middle of the book, were talking about the problems of Ottoman armies. And, in particular, how Arab tactical commanders failed to demonstrate initiative, flexibility, creativity, independence of thought, an understanding of combined arms integration, an appreciation for the benefits of maneuver in battle. And ultimately this led to a lack of aggressiveness, responsiveness, movement, intelligence-gathering, adaptability. That sounds very much like the problems that the Russian army has encountered in Ukraine — and again, for the reason that it doesn’t give sufficient initiative to its junior-officer level. And that I think is one thing that the Army has done spectacularly well in recent decades.
Mike Mazarr: Well, another example… And the analysis that you’re referring to there is more about modern Arab armies than the Ottoman era, but the work of Ken Pollack and others highlights a lot of the factors that you’re talking about, and that’s one of the reasons why the armies of, not all, but a number of the modern Arab states have had difficulty producing high levels of military effectiveness. And yeah, absolutely, it’s a great example of the practical effect of societal characteristics. Because it’s just very difficult for a centralized but also nepotistic, corrupt governing structure to produce a highly effective military. And you saw that in some of these earlier cases. I think you’re seeing it to a degree in the Russian army.
One of the hallmarks of that is this sort of famous distinguishing factor of the NCO ranks, the Non-Commissioned Officer ranks, kind of senior enlisted ranks. The U.S. and some other militaries are well known for cultivating very strong, highly-trained, respected NCOs, including senior NCOs. People that the officers respect as essentially substantive equals and rely on, and that become really kind of the beating heart of the command structure of militaries. And you just don’t see that in the Russian army, or in some of these early Arab armies. In part, because — maybe a little less true of the Russian army today — but the distinction between the officer and the enlisted ranks can be so stark, and the officers perceive themselves to be almost sort of a different class than the enlisted people in ways that really reduces military effectiveness. So yeah, it’s a great example of how societal characteristics eventually transmit themselves into the operational effectiveness of an army.
Geoff Kabaservice: And that extends to many other areas with society as well. Just for example, you cited the non-hierarchical aspects of institutions like the Mechanics Society in Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries, intellectual societies that drew in autodidacts, people from working-class backgrounds as well as the elite, and brought them together on a basis of equality in pursuit of the shared objective of mastering the natural environment, if you want to put it that way.
Mike Mazarr: Right. And of course, it’s easy to exaggerate the degree of social mobility and equality in Britain in almost any era, including today. The dominance of the Oxbridge elite is well documented. But yeah, in very important ways, that notion of “We’re looking for good ideas wherever they come from, and we don’t care that much about your background, your rank, anything else. If you’ve got the solution to the problem, if you’ve got an idea for a new product, we want to see it.” And that spirit is a pretty good summary of the American opportunity society in a lot of ways. It’s a characteristic of the most successful companies. So yeah, that open-mindedness is a part of the shared opportunity in society that really underpins national dynamism.
Geoff Kabaservice: You point out in your conclusion — and maybe this is where we end — that not all engines of national dynamism are created equal, and that in the modern world (as opposed to perhaps some eras in past human history) there’s really a few key characteristics that are determinant. And these include, openness and embrace of diversity, and the benefits of pluralistic governance structures, opportunity fueled in part by a strong commercial ethic, a learning and experimenting mindset grounded in powerful national identity and ambition and supported by effective institutions in an active state. Or in short, a tolerant, open, opportunity-granting, effectively governed society. And I think that’s what we all need to be working toward.
Mike Mazarr: Yeah, absolutely. And that’s one of the reasons why I feel like one of our characteristics, which we call a learning and adapting society, is really the hub on which all the others revolve. I view it as kind of the centerpiece of this idea of a Renaissance society, and that kind of intellectual energy and openness to ideas from various places. This sort of confident and open-minded tolerance for contributions, and really an excitement about drawing ideas from different parts of a society, is just so clearly related to national success.
And again, it’s one of the reasons why people have loved the American model, why immigrants so often, even to today, speak very often (not always) in such reverent terms about American society. Because it has managed to reflect a lot of those characteristics more than most — certainly more than just about any other great power that we can identify. That still exists. That essential character of the American society is still very much there. And if we can build on it and get to an appreciation for the need for some of the change we talked about earlier, there’s no reason why we can’t have another phase of that sort of American dynamic competitiveness.
Geoff Kabaservice: From your lips to God’s ears. Mike Mazarr, thanks so much for joining me today, and thanks for your great work. You’ve given us a lot to think about.
Mike Mazarr: Thank you so much for having me. It’s been a real pleasure.
Geoff Kabaservice: And thank you all for listening to the Vital Center Podcast. Please subscribe and rate us on your preferred podcasting platform. And if you have any questions, comments, or other responses, please include them along with your rating, or send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks as always to our technical director, Kristie Eshelman, our sound engineer, Ray Ingenieri, and the Niskanen Center in Washington, D.C.
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