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Cheer up, America: You’re still on top of the world

By Daniel Twining It is a quality of human nature to extrapolate the present into the future. What else explains the pervasive gloom about America’s future in the international system? Headlines around the turn of the new year were full of learned and normally astute commentators bemoaning the inexorable diminution of the West by the ...

ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP/Getty Images
ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP/Getty Images
ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP/Getty Images

By Daniel Twining

It is a quality of human nature to extrapolate the present into the future. What else explains the pervasive gloom about America's future in the international system? Headlines around the turn of the new year were full of learned and normally astute commentators bemoaning the inexorable diminution of the West by the ever-growing economies of Asia in the wake of the global financial crisis and what many perceived to be a lost decade from 2001- 2009.  Surveys show that three in five Americans believe their country is in decline. A little more New Year's cheer is in order.

The United States today enjoys a share of global GDP no different than it did in the 1970s. The spread of democratic capitalism to large parts of the world that, during the Cold War, suffered from closed economies of scarcity is an enormous victory for American power and principles, and has made this country -- not to mention billions of people across Asia, Latin America, Central and Eastern Europe, and at least parts of Africa and the Middle East -- decisively better off.

By Daniel Twining

It is a quality of human nature to extrapolate the present into the future. What else explains the pervasive gloom about America’s future in the international system? Headlines around the turn of the new year were full of learned and normally astute commentators bemoaning the inexorable diminution of the West by the ever-growing economies of Asia in the wake of the global financial crisis and what many perceived to be a lost decade from 2001- 2009.  Surveys show that three in five Americans believe their country is in decline. A little more New Year’s cheer is in order.

The United States today enjoys a share of global GDP no different than it did in the 1970s. The spread of democratic capitalism to large parts of the world that, during the Cold War, suffered from closed economies of scarcity is an enormous victory for American power and principles, and has made this country — not to mention billions of people across Asia, Latin America, Central and Eastern Europe, and at least parts of Africa and the Middle East — decisively better off.

This outcome, no less than the end of the U.S.-Soviet balance of nuclear terror, is the ultimate victory of the Cold War, and its final chapters have yet to be written — as China’s leaders, consumed by domestic insecurities even as the world lauds their unprecedented ascent to world power, seem to understand.

The United States remains the world’s indispensable nation, even if President Obama has cast off the bracing language of American primacy in favor of a more subtle and understated poetry about American purpose. Washington’s security commitments continue to order Asia, deter aggression in the Middle East, and make possible Europe’s historic experiment in regionalism. The United States remains the international system’s core convening power — as seen most recently at Copenhagen– and no solution to any pressing international problem is possible without American leadership. 

The same cannot be said of China, so often conflated to be America’s global equal despite possessing an economy one-quarter of America’s size and political, demographic, and economic challenges that dwarf those of any other great power (with the possible exception of Russia, whose future appears bleak). China’s passive acquiescence may be necessary on a host of international challenges, from stemming Iranian proliferation to (not) agreeing to climate change targets. But where is Beijing forging international solutions on the hard issues of the day? More often it is free-riding on the leadership of others, or belatedly consenting to decisions after being forced to take a position by the more active leadership of the West.

Uniquely within the developed world, America possesses a population that does not face a demographic crisis over the coming few decades, thanks in part to our historical tolerance for immigration. U.S. universities continue to educate the global elite — and if they go back to India or China to start software companies rather than staying in the United States, that is in part an indictment of our tough controls on highly skilled immigration that deter the world’s best talent from staying.  At the same time, while it would be better to import than to export talent, we shouldn’t diminish the value of the latter in extending American influence into these important new centers of power and seeding economic growth there that benefits us, too. 

The United States is well-placed to compete in a globalized world — we always have been, which is why generations of American presidents have pursued free trade and freedom of the seas as enduring national objectives. Half the S&P 500’s earnings come from abroad, which means every American who owns a retirement fund in stocks, even if not invested internationally, benefits from the economic "rise of the rest" (as does every American who doesn’t own a retirement fund but shops at Walmart and chooses to consume cheap imports).  And it’s worth pointing out that economic growth in the BRICS relies in part on the soft infrastructure of trade and finance that is dependent on the security of the global commons, still policed overwhelmingly by the U.S. military and our allies.

The United States suffered calamitously from the financial crisis of 2007-2008, which started here at home from our own Schumpeterian excesses of capitalism. But the United States also appears poised to lead the developed world out of recession and into sustained, if moderate, growth. It is true that China, in contrast to the West, had a good financial crisis.  But its extraordinary stimulus spending combined with its artificially undervalued currency is creating a different set of financial and economic risks. The country’s opaque and underdeveloped banking system, not to mention its rigid and non-transparent political regime, will be hard-pressed to manage these with ease. 

More broadly, as Thomas Friedman has said, the 21st century cannot belong to a country that doesn’t let its citizens use Google. Americans (and our friends abroad) should have a little more confidence in the values and purpose that have inspired us to help make the new world we live in. We have plenty of problems at home, from inadequate infrastructure to an underperforming educational system and, perhaps most disturbingly, a growing burden of national debt that, if not corrected, will increasingly undermine our welfare at home and our leadership abroad.

That said, I wouldn’t trade America’s problems for those of any other country. For his part, President Obama certainly doesn’t want to spend four or eight years presiding over American decline. It doesn’t pay to bet against the United States. We should have faith in our political leadership — and actively involve ourselves in the political process — to shape a coming decade and century that prove the skeptics wrong.

Happy 2010.

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