Snap out of it, America. You're good enough, smart enough -- who cares if people don't like you?
- By David RothkopfDavid Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017.
America is in decline. America is broke. America is unwilling to lead. America has alienated the world. America is fat. America is addicted to sugar, reality television, and hearing itself speak.
Washington is dysfunctional. Washington is corrupt. Washington is full of liars, con men, and self-promoters who prove that there is no limit to how far people can go in life if they have the right PAC spending dough behind them.
Americans are a violent people. They are narcissistic. They are misogynistic. They are puritanical, hyped up on religiosity, and turning against science, math, and history.
Americans don’t read. They don’t work hard anymore. The American dream is dead. Today’s children will be the first generation who must learn to expect less, not more, than their parents had.
For the richest and most powerful nation in the history of the Earth, having ideas like these bouncing around the Internet and laced into talk-show banter sure does suggest that America has a nasty self-image problem. Call it body-politic-dysmorphia. Call it the self-hating superpower disease. Call the problem whatever you want — so long as you recognize the country needs to deal with it.
What America needs is an intervention. Not another overseas intervention; it has tried those, and they only accelerated the descent into a collective neurosis that has Americans behaving like they’re channeling Woody Allen.
No, what the country needs is a good, strong domestic intervention, along the lines of what someone would do for a self-destructive friend or family member. Americans all gather in someone’s living room — Jay Z and Beyoncé probably have space for everyone at their house — and start telling some hard truths in the hopes that the country will snap out of this downward psychological spiral it is in.
The intervention needs to show that this mopey, downcast Eeyore of a global power is actually doing much better than it thinks it is. The facts suggest that, come the end of this century, perhaps the only things that will be the same on planet Earth are that America will still be seen as the richest, most powerful nation around — and the world will still be complaining about it.
Of all the world’s major developed economies, America has best recovered from the financial crisis, showing again its resilience and ability to reinvent itself. Thanks in no small part to this reality, North American partners — that is, Canada and Mexico — are enjoying simultaneous periods of promise. NAFTA is working, big time. For example, Texas exports almost as much to Mexico as the United States exports to China. Integrated supply chains are fueling this, and more integration of the countries’ economies is inevitable. That’s all very good, especially because, when there is growth below the border, Mexico’s youthful, energetic population is less inclined to head north (and more likely to be reliable consumers of U.S. products back home).
Moreover, cheap energy, especially natural gas, is already driving investment flows to the United States. That will make it easier for the country to compete in key sectors, such as petrochemicals and other similarly energy-intensive industries, while also lowering emissions. Hitting President Barack Obama’s new goal of reducing emissions by almost a third should be a relative snap. (This, in part, is thanks to the fact that overall emissions have already fallen 10 percent since 2005, the start date from which the cuts are to be calculated.)
Critically, too, the U.S. budget deficit is shrinking. The total for the first eight months of this fiscal year is the smallest since the same time period in 2008, and the overall deficit for 2014 is projected to be about half a trillion dollars — a big fall from $1.4 trillion in 2009. The country is certainly not out of the woods, but it is trending in a direction that makes deficit spending sustainable.
There is concern that budget pressures will result in America cutting back its defense spending in some quarters and that America will therefore become weaker internationally. In their article about American power in this issue of Foreign Policy, for instance, Elbridge Colby and Paul Lettow fret that the U.S. has already weakened itself by cutting $600 billion from planned defense spending over the next decade. But that probably won’t happen, given Washington’s penchant for the status quo on such things. And even if it did, that would only be a 10 percent cut (based on current spending). Given that today America spends as much as the next 10 countries (ranked by defense budgets) combined, the number will still be pretty darn beefy.
Some argue that, regardless of what’s happening with defense and deficits, America is losing its will to lead in the world. There are plenty of well-founded criticisms of the current administration’s foreign policy — and I’ve aired them before — but the reality is that the country is in a typical retrenchment that follows major overseas military involvement. And historically, after World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War, America has re-engaged within a decade or two. My guess is that, no matter who wins the presidency in 2016 (Hillary Clinton? Jeb Bush?), she or he will be more inclined to have America play its traditional leadership role. And many of America’s allies and other actors will welcome that re-engagement in ways that would have been impossible to imagine after the fiasco in Iraq. After all, global institutions and alliances require an engaged United States.
In terms of new technologies that will propel economic growth — 3-D printing, biotechnology, and more — no country is better prepared to be at the forefront of R&D. This is because of America’s system of higher education, the size of its economic market, Americans’ predisposition to inventiveness, and their willingness to embrace change. On top of that, old factors that made America strong in the past — from being surrounded by oceans to the domestic and regional struggles faced by key rivals — are holding steady.
In short, there’s every reason to expect that the 21st century might also be seen as an American century.
Can the country screw it up? It doesn’t take a long look at Congress or America’s failing infrastructure or its lousy math and science test scores to know that this is a possibility. And to be sure, myriad problems big and small need fixing. However, perhaps America’s best character trait is that it has learned to grow and recover without too much "help" from the government. States and localities, as well as the private sector, are sources of much innovation. And sooner or later, the government always comes to realize that there are some roles only it can play, and even Washington steps up to bat.
So it’s time to intervene, to set aside the gloom and doom of the chattering classes and face facts — the good kind. Sure, there will always be declinists. Even a robust America will allow them to continue to peddle their slogans. Because in the richest and most powerful nation in the history of the Earth, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, there will always be those who think that the only way to go is down.