President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney don’t agree on much, but one thing they do agree on is this: Both men reject the growing consensus that America is doomed to an irreversible spiral of decline. “The greatest days of America are ahead,” Romney emphatically declares. Obama puts it this way: “If anyone tries to tell you that our greatness has passed, that America is in decline, you tell them this: Just like the 20th century, the 21st is going to be another great American Century.”
Yet despite what Obama and Romney say, the worrisome signs of decline are seemingly all around. The U.S. lost its AAA bond rating in 2011. “Nine Signs of America in Decline” blared a recent U.S. News & World Report headline. “A Superpower in Decline” declared a Der Spiegel article. A New York Times columnist called America “an empire enthralled with its own power and unaware that it is fading… a society that has turned its back on any notion of cultural openness.”
It’s no wonder that 70 percent of Americans believe the country is “in decline.” But are they right?
Today and Yesterday
Of the many ways to address that question, two seem especially helpful: 1) comparing America’s global status today with earlier junctures in history and 2) considering American power in relation to that of other nations. Let’s start with the U.S.-versus-U.S. comparison.
While we tend to think of decline as a modern phenomenon—something that emerged after the fall of Saigon in 1975, Iranian hostage crisis in 1979 or market meltdown in 2008—early examples can be found in the 18th century.
The United States entered the world stage with a bang, defeating the greatest empire on earth. Yet less than 30 years later, the War of 1812 saw U.S. forces routed and the capital set ablaze. When measured against its own position just a generation earlier, the United States had declined in drastic terms.
The country endured another period of decline in the Civil War era. Upon entering office, Lincoln described America as a nation “exposed to disrespect abroad,” a land on the verge of “ruin.” After Lincoln’s murder, General Sherman openly feared America slipping into anarchy, wondering “who was left on this continent to give order and shape to the now disjointed elements of the government.” Pointing to the “great debt that has been contracted” in preserving the Union, Grant concluded that American industry and commerce were destroyed. “A prostrate commerce is to be rebuilt,” he sighed in 1869.
The American people did just that, as the country rebounded and emerged as a global power at the beginning of the 20th century. By the end of the Great War, American ideals were embraced around the globe.
Yet the postwar period saw American power plummet on the world stage. In 1933, FDR called America “a stricken nation in the midst of a stricken world.” Perhaps worse than the economic collapse, which merely destroyed America’s wealth, was the evaporation of America’s global clout and strength, which jeopardized America’s independence. America had fallen so far from the heights it held in 1918, FDR warned, that its destiny was no longer in its own hands. “I find it, unhappily, necessary to report that the future and the safety of our country and of our democracy are overwhelmingly involved in events far beyond our borders,” he said as America limped through the 1930s. “As long as the aggressor nations maintain the offensive, they—not we—will choose the time and the place and the method of their attack.”
In short, American power had declined to where it was a century earlier.
Although America’s military, industrial and economic power was unrivaled by the end of World War II, it pays to recall that the 1950s began with debates over “Who lost China?” and ended with debates over “Who lost Cuba?” In between, Americans wondered how they lost the space race.
Writing in 1960, Norman Mailer dourly concluded that “America was in danger of drifting into a profound decline.” Indeed, the 1960s began and ended with humbling setbacks (the Bay of Pigs and Vietnam), opening the way to a period of profound self-doubt in the 1970s. “We’ve become fearful to compete with the Soviet Union,” then-Governor Carter concluded in 1976. “I want to see our nation return to a posture and an image and a standard to make us proud once again.”
In 1984, Reagan declared that the American people had “stopped a long decline that had drained this nation’s spirit and eroded its health.” Yet by 1992, the elder Bush conceded, “There’s a mood among us…There’s been talk of decline.”
The tide turned again in the early days of this century. One historian even declared in 2002 that America had “too much power for anyone’s good, including its own.” That all changed—and the declinist chorus returned—as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan took their toll. Then came the mortgage meltdown, which devastated Wall Street and Main Street alike.
This jaunt through history reminds us that there is an ebb and flow to America—and that while the declinists and doomsayers may frustrate us, they are not completely unhelpful. “Declinism performs a useful historical function,” as Samuel Huntington once observed. “It provides a warning and a goad to action in order to head off and reverse the decline that it says is taking place.”
America and the World
America has certainly seen better days. But before we replace Old Glory with a white flag, consider American power in relation to that of other nations.
Even amid today’s retrenchment, the U.S. economy remains a remarkable force. At $16 trillion and growing (albeit anemically), America’s GDP dwarfs that of every other country. Only when the European Union cobbles together its 27 economies can it claim to rival U.S. economic output. U.S. GDP is about 50-percent larger than China’s and three times bigger than India’s. Yet the U.S. labor force is two-thirds the size of the EU’s, one-third the size of India’s and one-fifth the size of China’s.
To be sure, China’s economy is booming, but it’s important to recognize the immense gap in per capita income—$47,200 in the U.S. versus $7,600 in China—and China’s systemic problems. Although China has an ocean of cheap labor and a swelling treasury, it doesn’t have a stable middle-class, a social safety net, a political system that embraces the rule of law and responds to the will of the people, or a government that breeds confidence in its neighbors or subjects. (Witness the secret selection of Xi Jinping to succeed Hu Jintao and Xi’s inexplicable absence from public view in the weeks leading up to his taking power). That’s not a formula for long-term success.
As for America’s current health, the recession exposed serious problems. Entitlement spending is unsustainable. Borrowing from tomorrow to pay for today is unsound. And the country’s public debt, bulging from 38 percent of GDP in 2008 to 63 percent in 2010 to more than 90 percent today, has entered a danger zone. However, these are solvable problems that policymakers have the tools, if not the will, to tackle.
The problems facing much of Asia and Europe put America’s problems in perspective. For instance, many countries would be thrilled to have America’s debt-to-GDP ratio: Japan’s public debt is 211 percent of GDP; Britain’sexternal debt is 451 percent of GDP, France’s 254 percent, Germany’s 183 percent, Australia’s 139 percent.
Despite its economic challenges, the U.S. remains the engine of the global economy, boasting 18 of the 50 largest companies on earth—three times as many as the closest challenger. America is home to the world’s largest aerospace (Boeing), biotech (Amgen), pharmaceutical (Pfizer), retail (WalMart), petroleum (ExxonMobil), software (Microsoft), technology hardware (HP), computer services (IBM), communications equipment (Cisco) and heavy equipment (Caterpillar) firms, as well as the world’s highest-valued firm (Apple). Rather than simply mass-producing, reverse-engineering or pirating what others create—like China’s state-controlled industries—these corporations are shaping the future and propelling globalization.
That brings us to America’s enormous cultural power. Some have argued that globalization is just another word for Americanization, and they may be right. Indeed, it is in the wake of globalization that we begin to glimpse the full breadth of American power:
• Baghdad is teeming with Burger King, Chili’s and KFC knock-offs. In fact, American-style fried chicken is so popular that Iraqis call all forms of fried chicken “Kentucky.”
• Seventy percent of Coke’s drinkers reside outside North America. Half of McDonald’s restaurants are located somewhere other than the U.S. Retail juggernaut WalMart has 4,500 stores outside the U.S.
• Cubans and Iranians are erecting illegal satellite dishes to catch a glimpse of American TV.
• Even amid the deadly violence in pockets of Libya, the Libyan people are clamoring for iPhones, Nikes, Ford Mustangs and Eminem CDs.
• Thanks to the success of Yao Ming, some of the NBA’s biggest fans are in China. Beijing honored the millionaire basketball star as its 2005 “vanguard worker,” an award once reserved for Maoist revolutionaries.
• Ninety percent of the PCs on earth run Microsoft software.
And it’s more than pop culture and consumer culture that America influences. The U.S. claims six of the world’s top ten universities, accounts for more than a third of all international patent filings (two-times more than second-place Japan) and dominates the roster of Nobel Prize recipients. Moreover, as Nicolas Sarkozy noticed, “More than half of America’s Nobel Prize laureates are immigrants.”
Indeed, America has a magnetic pull on peoples of every race and region. When they arrive, these would-be Americans find a culture eager to accept the new—a nation where a refugee from Czechoslovakia could serve as secretary of state (Madeleine Albright), an Austrian bodybuilder could become governor of the most populous state (Arnold Schwarzenegger), an Afghan immigrant could represent U.S. interests in Kabul or Baghdad or both (Zalmay Khalilzad), a Taiwanese or Cuban kid could grow up to serve in the president’s cabinet (Elaine Chao and Carlos Guiterrez), a Polish immigrant could head the Joint Chiefs of Staff (John Shalikashvili), or a kid whose dad was born in Kenya could become president (Barack Obama). So much for the cynical view that America “has turned its back on any notion of cultural openness.”
Finally, the U.S. military is an indispensable force for good around the world—providing a security umbrella to about half the world’s landmass, policing the world’s toughest neighborhoods, and serving as the world’s first responder and last line of defense. Because of the U.S. military’s restraint, foreign governments invite the U.S. onto their territory: Kosovo, Korea and Kuwait want U.S. troops to maintain regional stability. From Germany to Georgia, those who remember a Europe of concrete walls and iron curtains want U.S. forces on their soil as a hedge against Russia. And those who fear China’s rise are strengthening their U.S. ties.
As to the declinist charge that America is militarily “overstretched,” the numbers simply don’t support this diagnosis: In the 1950s, the United States had 3.4 million troops on active duty. With a population of 160 million, that represented a sizable 2.1 percent of the country. In the 1960s, the U.S. had a million troops stationed overseas. During the Cold War, Americans spent between 6 percent and 10 percent of GDP on defense annually. Today, the U.S. has 1.4 million troops on active duty (out of a population of 313 million); 70 percent of U.S. forces are based in the United States and its territories; and Americans spend just over 3 percent of GDP on defense.
Gazing through their half-empty glasses, the declinists tell us America’s greatest days are behind us. But given their less-than-stellar record—and America’s record of rebounding and renewal—it seems more likely that America will emerge from this time of troubles a stronger nation.