In his State of the Union address in January, President Obama challenged the conventional wisdom that America is in decline. “Anyone who tells you that America is in decline or that our influence has waned doesn’t know what they’re talking about,” he declared. “America remains the one indispensable nation in world affairs.”
That the majority of Americans disagree with him is not intrinsically a cause for concern. Indeed, as Robert Lieber documents, the fear of American decline has often reaped major dividends: wartime mobilization after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, the Manhattan Project, the Marshall Plan, the construction of the interstate highway system, the expansion of higher education after Sputnik, and the Apollo Program. What is concerning, however, is the possibility that our society will respond differently to today’s declinism than it did to prior waves-that instead of reacting with vigor, we will succumb to fatalism. While it may be premature to assess the current period of anxiety, which only began in earnest with the global financial crisis, consider some preliminary readings of our national mood:
• 69 percent of Americans think that the United States is “in decline” (The Hill, October 2011).
• 54 percent think that the U.S. is not simply “experiencing the kind of tough times the country faces from time to time,” but is at “the start of a longer-term decline where the U.S. is no longer the leading country in the world” (NBC News/Wall Street Journal, November 2011).
• 66 percent think that “U.S. power and influence in the world” have decreased since 9/11 (University of Maryland/Program on International Policy Attitudes, August 2011).
• 57 percent think that “America is no longer unique,” with 52 percent concluding that the world looks to China “to see where things are headed in the future” (Xavier University, March 2011).
• 39 percent think that “another nation will become as powerful” as the U.S. by 2060, and 25 percent expect “another nation [to] surpass” it (Chicago Council on Global Affairs, June 2010).
Here are some of the key perceptions that seem to be driving these judgments:
Perception 1: The declinists are right this time.
Declinism is hardly new. Josef Joffe argues that we are experiencing the fifth such wave. (Samuel Huntington claimed that the fifth wave actually peaked in 1988). Today, however, the judgment that America is in decline feels less like an analytic argument than an article of faith. No longer confined to print, radio, or television, declinist commentary appears on blog posts, comment threads, Facebook statuses, and YouTube videos, shaping not only the American psyche, but also global consciousness. The Christian Science Monitor describes it as a “new genre of American journalism,” and Foreign Policy even debuted a new feature on its website this past September, “Decline Watch,” to track the “emerging conventional wisdom on American decline in the foreign-policy media.”
Perception 2: China will replace the U.S. as the world’s preeminent power.
Forty-six percent of Americans think that China either will replace or already has replaced the U.S. as the world’s “leading superpower” (Pew Research Center, March/April 2011)-even though U.S. power exceeds that of China according to most measures. 53 percent of Americans think that China is the world’s “leading economic power” (Gallup, February 2012)-even though America’s GDP is twice as large. Despite concerns about how a rising China will use its power, though, Americans have nuanced views of how the U.S. should engage it. For example, while 53 percent think that it is “very important” for the U.S. to “get tougher with China on economic and trade issues,” 58 percent think that it is “very important” for the U.S. to “build a stronger relationship with China” (Pew Research Center, January 2011). Furthermore, only 22 percent view it as “an adversary”; a plurality, 43 percent, characterizes it as “a serious problem, but not an adversary.”
The Economist offers a few reasons for this classification: “globalization has bound the American and Chinese economies intimately together” (the U.S. absorbs more Chinese exports than any other country, and China holds more U.S. government debt than any country besides the U.S.); China “is a geopolitical competitor,” but “not a mortal enemy” (unlike the Soviet Union, which was territorially expansive and intent on spreading a competing ideology); and, perhaps most importantly, “Americans cannot agree on what to do about” their fear of China (given how important U.S.-China cooperation will be to making meaningful headway on virtually all of the world’s challenges, the U.S. would undermine its own foreign policy if it attempted to contain China). In short, an unequivocal nemesis is more effective at mobilizing citizens than a country that lies somewhere along the spectrum between ally and enemy.
Perception 3: The U.S. faces more challenges abroad than it can handle.
While China’s rise may be the most evident test of U.S. influence, other countries are also asserting themselves regionally and, increasingly, globally. Furthermore, thanks to increasing interconnectivity, non-state individuals, organizations, and networks are shaping the global agenda geopolitics in unprecedented ways, often more quickly and effectively than governments. Looming large above day-to-day geopolitics are threats such as climate change and nuclear proliferation.
Few of these challenges, however, are effective galvanizers. Most Americans would not oppose a given country’s pursuit of its national aspirations, even if that quest renders the U.S. relatively less powerful. Nor would they want to shut down Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube, even though those outlets can channel misinformation about American foreign policy and propaganda by terrorist organizations. While greenhouse gas emissions and loose nuclear materials are distressing, Americans are likely to worry more about domestic challenges such as reducing a U.S. unemployment rate that stands above 8 percent. Confronting Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, the U.S. could rally Americans around a clear imperative: meeting a direct threat to the country’s security and vital interests. None of today’s challenges seems as inimical.
Perception 4: U.S. debt is on a runaway train.
Although exploding debt is not unique to our times, growing numbers of observers wonder if it can be checked. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that the Obama administration’s budget request for Fiscal Year 2013 will add $6.4 trillion to cumulative deficits between 2013 and 2022. Under an alternative fiscal scenario whereby Congress extends all expiring tax provisions (except the payroll-tax deduction) and ignores the automatic spending reductions specified in the Budget Control Act of 2011, the figure would be more like $11 trillion. Seventy-three percent of Americans are “very worried” about the impact that “U.S. debt held by other countries” will have on the U.S. economy, compared to 51 percent who say so about “trade relations with China” and 44 percent who say so about “the financial situation in Europe” (Gallup, February 2012). Meanwhile, 39 percent think that the U.S. economy “is in permanent decline,” and 52 percent think that the “government should not spend money to create jobs and should instead focus on lowering the country’s debt” (CBS News/The New York Times, June 2011).
Amid intense speculation over the threshold beyond which a debt-to-GDP ratio begins to reduce real economic growth-90 percent and 77 percent are two oft-cited estimates-the head of the CBO warned that the U.S. would be at risk of a fiscal crisis “if debt grew substantially more relative to GDP.” The former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, has repeatedly called America’s debt the “most significant threat to [its] national security.”
Perception 5: The U.S. is politically paralyzed.
It is difficult to overstate Americans’ frustration with the country’s political dysfunction:
• 72 percent are “dissatisfied” with “the way things are going in the U.S. at this time” (Gallup, March 2012).
• 64 percent are somewhat or very “dissatisfied” with “our system of government and how well it works” (Gallup, January 2012).
• 77 percent think that “there is too much power in the hands of a few rich people and large corporations” (Pew Research Center, December 2011).
• Only 9 percent think that “people like [themselves]” have a “good deal” of say in what the government does (CBS News, May 2011).
The common explanation-polarization is worse today than ever before-is questionable. William Galston notes that “[p]arty polarization in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was as intense as it is today,” and Charles Kupchan and Peter Trubowitz observe that “today’s partisan wrangling over foreign policy is the historical norm; it is the bipartisanship of the Cold War that was the anomaly.”
There seems to be something deeper at work than polarization. Francis Fukuyama has concluded that America’s present political system, with its decentralized legislative process, “actually magnifies and exacerbates underlying conflicts … [making] consensual decision-making more difficult.” Indeed, it simply “hands entire parts of the [f]ederal budget” to “the financial sector.” In a detailed survey of Congressional polarization since the early 1980s, Ronald Brownstein observes that “legislators who deviate too often” from the party line face ever more “primary challenges bankrolled by powerful party interest groups.” As money plays a larger role in politics, the argument goes, politicians will have fewer incentives to forge the sorts of bipartisan compromises that are being essential to America’s continued economic health and global leadership.
A skeptical reader might ask: what if American decline is not a possibility, but a fact? In this case, “fatalism” may simply be the rational response; optimism, a delusional disposition.
In truth, while relative decline is inevitable, absolute decline is not. Fatalism obscures this choice. With prudent policy, America’s economic and military power can remain unsurpassed for a long time to come. We should take into account the role of the dollar in global markets, the innovativeness of the American people, the strength of the country’s higher-education system, and the favorability of its demographic outlook against that of its putative replacement, China. And we should remind ourselves that the U.S. remains the only country that can project military power globally.
Furthermore, consider the resilience of America’s core alliances; the residual appeal of its political-economic model; the centrality that the U.S. occupies in global networks of information, ideas, and innovation; and the absence of another country that is capable of and interested in shouldering responsibility for global governance. These realities mean that it can remain what Bruce Jones has called the world’s “largest minority shareholder.” It might not be an exalted status, but it is still an enviable position. We cannot ignore the serious challenges that confront the U.S.; nor, however, should we neglect this reality. We can sit by idly while the debate about U.S. decline intensifies; better yet, we can take a page from our old playbook and take steps to rebuild at home and recalibrate abroad.
Ali Wyne is a researcher at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.
*Photo courtesy of MelvinSchlubman.