Are America's best days really behind us?
Fareed Zakaria is one of our most perceptive analysts of America’s role in the world, and I generally agree with him. But in the case of his new special essay for Time, "Are America’s Best Days Behind Us?," I think he paints too gloomy a picture of American decline.
Americans are prone to cycles of belief in decline, and the term itself confuses various dimensions of changing power relations. Some see the American problem as imperial overstretch (though as a percentage of GDP, the United States spends half as much on defense as it did during the Cold War); some see the problem as relative decline caused by the rise of others (though that process could still leave the United States more powerful than any other country); and still others see it as a process of absolute decline or decay such as occurred in the fall of ancient Rome (though Rome was an agrarian society with stagnant economic growth and internecine strife).
Such projections are not new. As Zakaria notes, America’s Founding Fathers worried about comparisons to the decline of the Roman Republic. A strand of cultural pessimism is simply very American, extending back to the country’s Puritan roots. English novelist Charles Dickens observed a century and a half ago: "[I]f its individual citizens, to a man, are to be believed, [America] always is depressed, and always is stagnated, and always is at an alarming crisis, and never was otherwise."
In the last half-century, polls showed Americans believed in their decline after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957, after Richard Nixon’s devaluation of the dollar and the oil shocks in the 1970s, and after the closing of Rust Belt industries and the budget deficits of Ronald Reagan’s administration in the 1980s. At the end of that decade, a majority of Americans believed their country was in decline; yet within the next 10 years they believed that America was the sole superpower. And now, after the 2008 financial crisis and recession, polls show a majority believes in decline again. These cycles of declinism tell us more about Americans’ collective psychology than underlying shifts in power resources, but as British journalist Gideon Rachman argued in these pages recently, maybe this time decline is real. After all, as the Congressional Budget Office warns, on current trends the U.S. national debt will be equal to its GDP in a decade, and that will undermine confidence in the dollar.
Zakaria lists other worrying indicators related to education and infrastructure. According to the OECD, American 15-year-olds rank 17th in the world in science and 25th in math. The United States is 12th in college graduation rates, 23rd in infrastructure, and 27th in life expectancy. On the other side of the ledger, America ranks first among rich countries in guns, crime, and debt.
All these are very real problems, but one could also note that the United States is still first in total R&D expenditures, first in university rankings, first in Nobel prizes, first on indices of entrepreneurship, and according to the World Economic Forum, the fourth-most competitive economy in the world (behind the small states of Switzerland, Sweden, and Singapore). The United States remains at the forefront of technologies of the future like biotechnology and nanotechnology. This is hardly a picture of absolute economic decay, ancient Rome style. The truth is that one can draw a picture of the United States today that emphasizes either dark or bright colors without being wrong. No one can be sure which shade better portrays the future because the number of potential futures is vast, and which one comes to pass will depend in part on decisions not yet made.
Drawing on the thinking of Mancur Olson, the late great political economist, Zakaria believes that America’s very success has made its decision processes sclerotic, like that of industrial Britain. But American culture is far more entrepreneurial and decentralized than that of Britain, where the sons of industrial entrepreneurs sought aristocratic titles and honors in London. If Olson is right, Zakaria says, the solution is to "stay flexible." And despite recurrent historical bouts of concern about it, immigration helps keep America flexible. In 2005, according to Forbes, foreign-born immigrants had participated in one of every four technology start-ups in the previous decade. As Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew once put it, China can draw on a talent pool of 1.3 billion people, but the United States not only draws on a talent pool of 7 billion, but can recombine them in a diverse culture that enhances creativity in a way that ethnic Han nationalism cannot.
Zakaria also worries about the inefficient American political system. But the Founding Fathers created a system of checks and balances precisely to preserve liberties at the price of efficiency. Moreover, just because we are now going through a period of excessively partisan politics and mistrust of government doesn’t mean the American political system is in decline. Some aspects of the current mood are probably cyclical and related to unemployment, while others represent discontent with the bickering and deadlock in today’s political process. Compared with the recent past, party politics has indeed become more polarized, but nasty politics is nothing new and goes all the way back to the Founding Fathers. Supporters of John Adams reputedly once called Thomas Jefferson "a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father."
Part of the problem of accurate assessment is that faith in government became abnormally high among the generation that survived the Great Depression and won World War II. Over the long view of American history, it was overconfidence in government in the 1950s and early 1960s, not low levels thereafter, that was the anomaly. American government and politics have always had problems, sometimes worse than today’s. In assessing political decline, one must beware of the golden glow of the past. It is easy to show decline if one compares the good in the past with the bad in the present.
In addition, we sometimes mistakenly idealize the efficiency of the political process in authoritarian countries like China. When it comes to infrastructure, for example, it is far easier to build high-speed rail lines where there are weak property rights and few lawyers. But if one looks at the important question of how Chinese leaders are struggling to implement their 12th five-year plan — reducing dependence on exports, shifting to internal demand, and reducing regional inequality by moving industry to the west — China is far from efficient. Although central bankers and economic planners know that revaluing the yuan would promote these goals and help head off inflation, a strong coalition of coastal export industries and associated local party bosses seeks to preserve the status quo.
Zakaria notes that one Asian country after another is learning the secrets of Western success, and he is right. In The Future of Power, I argue that one of the two great power shifts of this century is the recovery of Asia to what it represented before the Industrial Revolution led to the ascendance of the West: more than half the world’s population and its economic production. We should herald Asia’s recovery — it has brought millions out of dire poverty — but those with excessive fear of China should remember that Asia is not one entity. In his important book Rivals, Bill Emmott reminds us that Japan, India, and others that are concerned about the rise of China welcome an American presence. Can anyone similarly imagine Canada and Mexico seeking a Chinese alliance to balance American power in their neighborhood?
Nor is China likely to surpass America anytime soon. Yes, barring political uncertainties, China’s size and high rate of economic growth will almost certainly increase its strength relative to that of the United States. Still, China won’t necessarily become the world’s most powerful country as a result. Even if China suffers no major domestic political setback, many of the current projections based on GDP growth alone are too one-dimensional. They ignore what are likely to be enduring U.S. military and soft-power advantages, as well as China’s geopolitical disadvantages in the internal Asian balance of power.
Zakaria is correct that the United States faces serious problems. But issues that preoccupy us today, such as long-term debt, are not insoluble; see for example, the recommendations of the Simpson-Bowles commission, and remember that only a decade ago some people worried about the government surplus. Of course, such solutions may forever remain out of reach. But it is worth distinguishing situations for which there are no solutions from those that could, in principle, be solved.
The greatest danger to America is not debt, political paralysis, or China; it is parochialism, turning away from the openness that is the source of its strength and resting on its laurels. As Zakaria says, in the past, worrying about decline has helped avert it. Let us hope that his intelligent though darkly drawn picture will yet again start that healthy process.