Will America overreach and fall by the wayside as ambitious newcomers overtake it, the way the Barbarians overcame a declining Rome, Bismarck’s Germany pulled up alongside Britain and France in the late 19th century, and a bumptious America in the early 20th century elbowed its way to the top table, dramatized with the world tour of the Great White Fleet? An American president leaving a G-20 summit empty-handed in late 2010 will confirm to many that the United States is losing its post-World War II position of global influence and leadership.
Yale historian Paul Kennedy, writing a couple of decades ago about the rise and fall of great powers, advanced the thesis of “imperial overstretch,” where one power after another fell under the weight of costly military adventures alongside mounting deficits at home. Twenty years later he is still what jargon-lovers call a declinist. The quarrel Harvard historian Niall Ferguson has with Kennedy is not his implication of American decline, but whether it would take place all of a sudden or in a leisurely fashion.
Historians are not the only ones with this gloomy perspective. According to a 2010 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, two-thirds of Americans polled see the US in decline, with a worse future for their children. What a contrast with the classic American view, summed up by anthropologist Clyde Kluckhohn, that “America’s Golden Age has always been in the future.”
There are no agreed metrics for deciding whether or not our nation is in decline. Those who boast that "we’re number one" have in mind our military power; the US is the only nation capable of conducting worldwide military operations, with a defense budget twice the size of the next ten largest national defense budgets combined. Or they may be comforted by the fact that the US remains the greatest economic power in terms of GDP, while also consuming a quarter of the world's petroleum (and outpolluting all other polluters).
The celebratory self-image lies deep in the American psyche. From its inception the US was defined by its leaders, poets, and clerics as morally singular, using phrases such as “God’s American Israel,” “the new Jerusalem,” “a city on a hill,” “the glorious renovator of the world,” and “the last solemn experiment of humanity.” Unsurprisingly, some other nations felt culturally and morally superior: Consider France with its mission civilizatrice, Iran with its 2,500 year-old Persian conquests, Britain’s songs about ruling the waves, and China’s mandate from heaven.
What is declining, aside from the self-confidence of Americans? Some data points help sketch the picture. The starting premise is that in a world increasingly interdependent, technology-based, and wired (or, more accurately, wirelessed), the nation with the best educated population is the nation best prepared for the complex challenges ahead. There should always be a place for the humanities and classics. But when it comes to competition for leadership and influence, science and math win the day. As the humorist Ring Lardner noted, the race is not always to the swift nor the battle to the strong – but that's the way to place your bets.
Where does the US stand on the educational scoreboard? A study by the National Academy of Sciences produced some devastating statistics that would startle the “we’re number one” trumpeters. Here are the US rankings:
· Global innovation-based competitiveness: 6
· Rate of change over the last decade: 40
· Percent of 25- to 30-year-olds who have graduated from high school: 11
· College completion rate: 16
· Broadband Internet access: 22
· Life expectancy at birth: 24
· Quality of K-12 science and math education: 48
In 2010, Newsweek magazine undertook an ambitious study in collaboration with research and academic institutions, aimed at identifying the “best” countries. Among populous nations, the US was ranked number 2 on quality of life and number 1 on economic dynamism. But it did not make the top ten in either education or overall ranking of high-income countries. The final US ranking was number 11.
The end of the recession may change our pessimistic mood, but it won’t change the fact of flagging competitiveness. Nevertheless, it’s worth considering declinist Paul Kennedy’s list of America’s tremendous advantages compared to other great powers, such as demographics, land-to-people ratio, raw materials, research universities, laboratories, and a flexible work force. I might add a steady though inadequate inflow of foreign brainpower. If our slump is temporary, the policy question is how to mobilize our assets to make America successful again.
In the late 1950's the Cold War was unfolding in a threatening fashion, and the atmosphere was darkened by Soviet successes in the race to outer space. Sputnik I had successfully achieved a low earth orbit, while early American attempts were producing humiliating misfires, U-turns, and flaming plunges back to earth. The malaise would be reversed only when President John F. Kennedy reinvigorated the national spirit with soaring rhetoric announcing the goal of a moon landing by the end of the decade, and its actual achievement in 1969.
In the same period I left the State Department to join the MIT Center for International Studies. One of my new colleagues at MIT was a lively and charismatic Russian émigré named Alexander Karol who was working on a study of Soviet education in science and technology. Alex Karol’s scholarly book on Soviet science and engineering education was headed for academic reviews, but suddenly appeared on the front page of the Sunday New York Times book review section. Schools everywhere took a fresh look at their teaching of science and math, as some are doing now, and the educational system was at least temporarily transformed.
It is certain that other powers – China, India, Brazil – will inevitably rise, generating a fierce competition. (As International Herald Tribune editor Fareed Zakaria wrote, the rise of the rest does not mean the US is necessarily through.) Yes, the US could remain stuck in political gridlock and declining growth, and essential federal support for research and innovation could fatally dry up. The squabbling political class is failing in its responsibilities, and some mass media only make things worse. For me, the bottom line is that, whatever its defects and problems, America has enormous latent assets, including its peoples’ unparalleled spirit of enterprise and independence, noted as long ago as 1831 by Alexis deToqueville. That spirit built a great nation that came from elsewhere to conquer a wilderness and make it thrive. It became a place where initiative, innovation, and education were synonymous with the word America; today, whatever our doldrums, foreigners of all stripes still compete for acceptance at American universities.
As in the 1950’s, it may again take a crisis or worse to shake us up sufficiently to strengthen American commercial, technological, and political innovation and drive. In the new Great Game of the 21st century, the US will need a fresh brand of imaginative and persuasive leadership to become a prime player. One possible scenario is a country that, in the words of New York Times columnist David Brooks, experiences national humiliation and diminished power. But another scenario is imaginable for a nation that once again mobilizes to remain a paramount power, and once again is uniquely placed to share the lead in the management of a safer and more cooperative world.