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The Myth of America’s Decline

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Usually, Declinists just come back; they never repent. One did: Roger Altman, the former deputy treasury secretary turned business consultant. A prophet of decline in 2008, he celebrated America the Beautiful four years later. The U.S. banking system had recovered faster “than anyone could have imagined. Capital and liquidity have been rebuilt to levels unseen in decades.” The United States had made a “huge leap in industrial competitiveness” and could look forward to bringing back jobs from the rising rest. And the “breathtaking increase in oil and gas production” would “add more than one percentage point to annual GDP growth” within five years.

Four years after Rivals had given the nod to China and India, its author thought that the “American century was not over.” This might be the moment to “rethink all the fashionable assumptions about America’s decline.” Another reformed Declinist, who had cheered Japan, China, and India in succession, now bet against them: “We are told again and again how China has enjoyed three decades of economic growth in excess of 10 percent annually, and how India and now others” were scoring in similar ways. But remember all previous economic miracles in Europe and Asia. “The truth is” that they all became unsustainable.

The truth is, in fact, that only the United States can bring down the United States. If the burden becomes unbearable, the calamity will be homegrown. The country could lose its economic vigor, social cohesion, or competitive spirit. It might go on consuming more than it produces; this is the ugly warning uttered by intractable trade and federal deficits, the latter shooting skyward.

The United States might close the door to immigration, this inexhaustible wellspring of rejuvenation, and freeze up. It might lose its national ethos and its warrior culture. It might become more like the rest of the West, preferring equality to acquisition, and social safety to personal riches. Or it might lose both equality and “making it” in a system that cements privilege and blocks mobility. Whatever the poison, it will be brewed inside the United States.

In 2011, a Chinese scholar representing a think tank of the State Security Ministry delivered a remarkable assessment of American power at Washington’s Woodrow Wilson Center. Reporting on a study of his institute, he listed 15 components. Ten, he argued, were American advantages in the global contest:

  • 1. Population, geographic position, and natural resources.
  • 2. Military muscle.
  • 3. High technology and education.
  • 4. Cultural/soft power.
  • 5. Cyber power.
  • 6. Allies, the United States having more than any other state.
  • 7. Geopolitical strength, as embodied in global projection forces.
  • 8. Intelligence capabilities, as demonstrated by the killing of Osama bin Laden.
  • 9. Intellectual power, fed by a plethora of U.S. think tanks and the “revolving door” between research institutions and government.
  • 10. Strategic power, the United States being the world’s only country with a truly global strategy.

On the other hand, the United States has lost ground in terms of:

  • 1. Political power, as manifested by the breakdown of bipartisanship.
  • 2. Economic power, as illustrated by the post-2007 slowdown.
  • 3. Financial power, given intractable deficits and rising debt.
  • 4. Social power, as weakened by societal polarization.
  • 5. Institutional power, since the United States can no longer dominate global institutions.
  • This assessment–the good and the bad–is largely on target, with a sober sense of what matters in world politics. As four of the five loss leaders show, America’s future will be determined at home.

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