Rotting from the Inside Out

The debate over American decline is missing the point. All this talk about projecting U.S. power abroad means nothing if we can't fix our severe problems at home.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Barack Obama and Mitt Romney don’t generally agree on much. But these days they appear to have one area of surprising consensus — they both believe that stories of American decline are greatly exaggerated. According to Foreign Policy‘s own Josh Rogin, Obama has been praising Robert Kagan’s recent article in the New Republic on the myth of American decline — a perhaps not unsurprising position to take for a candidate regularly accused of being insufficiently exceptionalist. Romney — author of No Apology: The Case for American Greatness also counts Kagan among his top foreign-policy advisors.

Kagan’s article, as well as his new book, The World America Made, is the most obvious recent example of pushback against the declinist meme, but others have also taken up the mantle. In the recent issue of International Security, Michael Beckley wrote a widely cited piece that argues "America’s Edge Will Endure" against potential rivals like China. FP’s Daniel Drezner has adopted a similar view. These anti-declinists largely base their arguments around the notion that U.S. economic and military power, compared to other countries, is unsurpassed — and will remain so for the foreseeable future.

Indeed, Kagan frames a good part of his argument around America’s "relative power" — factors such as "the size and the influence of its economy relative to that of other powers; the magnitude of military power compared with that of potential adversaries; the degree of political influence it wields in the international system."

By this notion, U.S. global power remains unparalleled and its hegemony is uncontested. There is much to sustain this argument. America today faces no great power rival, no existential threat, and an economy that — while currently in the doldrums — remains vibrant and adaptive.  Compared to other nations, the United States is not simply a great power, it is the greatest power. Even if its influence declines, it is likely to continue to enjoy an outsized role on the international stage, in part because there is a consensus among foreign-policy elites — like Romney and Obama, for instance — that the U.S. must do whatever it takes to remain, as Madeline Albright once put it,  "the world’s ‘indispensable nation.’"

There is, however, one serious problem with this analysis. Any discussion of American national security that focuses solely on the issue of U.S. power vis-à-vis other countries — and ignores domestic inputs — is decidedly incomplete.  In Kagan’s New Republic article, for example, he has little to say about the country’s domestic challenges except to obliquely argue that to focus on "nation-building" at home while ignoring the importance of maintaining U.S. power abroad would be a mistake. In fact, in a recent FP debate with the Financial Times’ Gideon Rachman on the issue of American decline, Kagan diagnoses what he, and many other political analysts, appear to believe is the country’s most serious problem: "enormous fiscal deficits driven by entitlements." Why is this bad? It makes it harder, says Kagan, for the United States to "continue playing its vital role in the world" and will lead to significant cutbacks in defense spending.

However, a focus on U.S. global dominance or suasion that doesn’t factor in those elements that constitute American power at home ignores substantial and worsening signs of decline. Indeed, by virtually any measure, a closer look at the state of the United States today tells a sobering tale of rapid and unchecked decay and deterioration in a host of areas. While not all of them are generally considered elements of national security, perhaps they should be.

Let’s start with education, which almost any observer would agree is a key factor in national competitiveness. The data is not good. According to the most recent OECD report on global education standards, the United States is an average country in how it educates its children — 12th in reading skills, 17th in science, and 26th in math.  The World Economic Forum ranks the United States 48th in the quality of its mathematics and science education, even though we spend more money per student than almost any country in the world.

America’s high school graduation rate is lower today that it was in the late 1960s and "kids are now less likely to graduate from high school than their parents," according to an analysis released last year by the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center. In fact, not only is the graduation rate worse than many Western countries, the United States is now the only developed country where a higher percentage of 55 to 64-year-olds have a high school diploma than 25 to 34-year-olds.

While the United States still maintains the world’s finest university system, college graduation rates are slipping. Among 25 to 34-year-olds, America trails Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Ireland, Israel, Japan, South Korea, Luxembourg, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, and the United Kingdom in its percentage of college graduates.  This speaks, in some measure, to the disparities that are endemic in the U.S. education system. If you are poor in America, chances are you attend a school that underperforms, are taught by teachers that are not as effective, and have test scores that lag far behind your more affluent counterparts (the same is true if you are black or Hispanic — you lag behind your white counterparts).  Can a country be a great global power if its education system is fundamentally unequal and is getting steadily worse?

What about national infrastructure — another key element of national economic power and global competitiveness?  First, the nation’s broadband penetration rates remain in the middle of the global pack and there is growing divide in the United States between digital haves and have nots. Overall, its transportation networks are mediocre compared to similarly wealthy countries and according to the World Economic Forum, the United States ranks 23rd in the OECD for infrastructure quality — a ranking that has steadily declined over the past decade. American commuters spend more time in traffic than Western Europeans, the country’s train system and high-speed rail lines in general pale next to that of other developed nations, and even the number of people killed on American highways is 60 percent higher than the OECD average. Part of the problem is that the amount of money the U.S. government spends on infrastructure has steadily declined for decades and now trails far behind other Western nations.  In time, such infrastructure disadvantages have the potential to undermine the U.S. economy, hamstring productivity and competitiveness, and put the lives of more Americans at risk — and this appears to be happening already.

Finally, a closer look at the U.S. health care system is enough to make one ill. Even after the passage of Obama’s 2010 health care reform bill (which every Republican presidential candidate wants to repeal) the United States is far from having a health care system that meets the needs of its citizens. According to a July 2011 report by the Commonwealth Fund, "the U.S. has fewer hospital beds and physicians, and sees fewer hospital and physician visits, than in most other countries" even though it spends far more on health care per capita than any other country in the world. In addition, "prescription drug utilization, prices, and spending all appear to be highest in the U.S., as does the supply, utilization, and price of diagnostic imaging." Long story short, the United States spends more for less on health care than pretty much any other developed nation in the world. That might also explain why life expectancy in America trails far behind most OECD countries.

The United States also has the unique distinction of having one of the highest rates of income inequality in the world, on par with such global powerhouses as Cameroon, Madagascar, Rwanda, Uganda, and Ecuador. It has the fourth worst child poverty rate and trails only Mexico and Turkey in overall poverty rate among OECD countries. And when it comes to infant mortality, the U.S. rate is one of the worst in the developing world.

But not to fear, the United States still maintains some advantages. For example, it is one of the fattest countries in the world, with approximately one-third of the country considered obese (including one out of every six children). In addition, the United States has, by far, the largest prison population — more than China, Iran, and Cuba —  one of the highest homicide rates in the world, and one of the highest rates of death from child abuse and neglect.

This steady stream of woe is certainly dispiriting, but the more optimistic might be inclined to respond that America had has problems before and has always found a way to right the ship. Certainly, this is a legitimate counter-point. The problem is that anyone looking to Washington today  would have a hard time imagining that Congress and the White House will lock arms anytime soon and fix these various national crises. And this political gridlock is the biggest reason to be concerned about decline.

Perhaps at no point in recent American history has the country’s politics been less capable of dealing with serious challenges. Certainly, when one party basically rejects any role for the federal government in providing health care, improving educational opportunity, or strengthening the social safety net, the chances for compromise appear even slimmer.

As Harold Pollack, a professor at the University of Chicago, said to me, "What future president, witnessing Barack Obama’s difficulties over health reform, will make an equivalent political investment regarding climate change or another great national concern? I fear that we are headed for a kind of legislative Vietnam syndrome in which our leaders will shy away from the large things that must be done."

Obama argued in his recent State of the Union speech that "innovation is what America has always been about." Indeed, the recent report of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation found that the United States is currently sixth in global innovation and competitiveness. Good news, right? Not so fast. The report also found that the country is dead last in "improvement in international competitiveness and innovation capacity over the last decade." Bottom line: dysfunction reaps an ill reward.

Kagan’s retort to this argument is that "on many big issues throughout their history, Americans have found a way of achieving and implementing a national consensus." True, but the philosophical divide between the two parties over the role of government offers little reason for optimism that such a new national consensus is in the offing.

The fact is, discussions of U.S. power that only take into account America’s global standing in relation to other countries are not only misleading — they’re largely irrelevant. Sure, America has a bigger and better military than practically every other nation combined. Sure, it has a better global image than Russia or China or any other potential global rival. Sure, America’s economy is bigger than any other nation’s (though this is a debatable point). But if its students aren’t being well educated, if huge disparities exist in technological adoption, if social mobility remains stagnant if the country’s health care system is poorly functioning, and if its government is hopelessly gridlocked, what good is all the global power that transfixes Kagan and others? The even more urgent question is how the United States can hope to maintain that power if it’s built on a shaky foundation at home.

Rather than talking about how great America is on the campaign trail — which surely both candidates will do throughout the 2012 election — the country would likely be better off having an honest discussion on the immense challenges that it faces at home. Even more helpful would be a recognition that education, health care, infrastructure, and overall national economic competitiveness is as essential to U.S. national security as, for example, the number of ships in the U.S. Navy. All this talk about the myth of American decline might make Americans feel better about themselves for a while, but it is a distraction from the real and declining elements of U.S. power.

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