America is no longer the world’s only pivotal power. Americans are adjusting—but can their leaders?
merica’s relative decline is inevitable–China and India are at much earlier stages of economic development and enjoy much higher growth rates. Eventually, because they each have about four times the population as America, their economies will probably become larger than ours. But there are also many reasons to think that, if America makes the right choices, it will remain an indispensable world leader, and its citizens will continue to lead safe, prosperous, and meaningful lives in a multipolar world. In an excellent article in The Atlantic Monthly
about whether and how America is declining, James Fallows noted that America has a penchant for deep self-doubt. “Pick a year over the past half century,” Fallows wrote
, “and I will supply an indicator of what at the time seemed a major turning point for the worse.” Yet he continued, “What is obvious from outside the country is how exceptional it is in its powers of renewal: America is always in decline, and is always about to bounce back.”
While the past isn’t replicable, success remains possible. In a time of flux, America retains key fundamentals: a tolerance for individual failure, which encourages productive risk-taking; a willingness to accept immigrants (so far); well-developed capital markets; excellent universities; an abundance of fertile land; rule of law; oceans on both coasts that deter attacks; diversity; and the ability to reinvent our society (we did just elect a black president). Compared to Russia, China, Brazil, and most of Europe, demographics are also on America’s side. Of the pivotal rising powers, only India can claim a better ratio of workers to retirees in the decades ahead (though, as Weber and Jentleson point out, the developing world as a whole is in the midst of a population explosion). This combination of attributes is, yes, still exceptional. It means that if we make sensible choices, most Americans will have the opportunity for safe, fulfilling lives.
Moreover, relative power is not the life or death issue it once was because the most acute threats Americans face do not come from other nations. Of course, countries will continue to compete, as their interests, priorities, and strategic plans won’t usually coincide. But they will also continue to cooperate, however imperfectly and slowly, because they need one another’s help in battling shared enemies, be they terrorists, viruses, or pirates. Even in a more multipolar world, therefore, America will retain great influence because its leadership in achieving this cooperation is vital. No other power has the same motivation to seek consensus or ability to do so–especially if the United States can adopt the mutuality mindset that Weber and Jentleson describe.
Yet America’s strides to preserve its capacity for global relevance must begin at home. Success hinges on a country’s ability to attract talent and foster innovation. The challenge for America is to empower workers, increase access to good primary education (especially in math and science), invest in basic research and development, shore up our infrastructure, bring the deficit under control, reverse income stratification, ensure a steady flow of immigrant talent, and develop clean-energy technology. I’ve called these policy challenges “formestic” because these issues of domestic policy have profound implications for America’s place in the world.
Mandelbaum shows a similar appreciation of the connection between our domestic policies and foreign affairs. His policy solution is a major gasoline tax that would become the new one-stop-shop “containment” doctrine of our time–a revenue generator, a planet-saver, an energy innovation booster, and an Iranian cash-depriver all at once. But while Mandelbaum paints a gas tax as an act of global leadership, it is a political non-starter.
For their part, Weber and Jentleson’s unusual constellation of policy recommendations seem even less politically tenable. It is hard to imagine our lawmakers offering up valuable future technology for carbon-capture sequestration for free to the global commons, permanently allocating 5 to 10 percent of the defense budget to post-disaster relief, or eliminating all farm subsidies.
Why should it be so difficult to enact perfectly worthy proposals such as these? And why is it so tough to reorient our posture to account for a changing international landscape?
It’s not because of public will. A majority of Americans (53 percent) believes that America’s role in the world economy in the next century will, in fact, be smaller, and a similar majority (55 percent) says that would be positive or “neither good nor bad,” according to a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll. Yet, according to Gallup, 63 percent of Americans describe their outlook for the United States during the next 20 years as “very optimistic” or “optimistic.” As a friend recently remarked, “We are in decline, but I feel fine.” But many policy-makers in Washington–especially neoconservative ones–do not feel so fine with an America that cannot or will not dominate.
More than ordinary Americans, our politicians are caught up in America’s status in the global pecking order when the pecking order of nations is no longer as relevant. As Fallows puts it: “The question that matters is not whether America is ‘falling behind’ but instead…whether it is falling short–or even falling apart.” Yet stubborn triumphalism is the twin of declinism and the high-fructose corn syrup of American politics–it’s cheap, sweet, and everywhere. Moreover, far too many politicians are clinging to our exceptional military might as the foundation of our national identity, which is an unhealthy option. As long as policy-makers refuse to absorb domestic and international realities, then we’ll continue to tread water, not making the changes needed to transition into our new role, where what is exceptional about America is not just its might, but the opportunities and protection that it provides to its own people and to those around the world.
ISSUE #19, WINTER 2011
Unlike America, Egypt must aim for true Democracy, allowing any and all people to form a Political Party.
American Democracy does not allow this.
The Moslem Brotherhood will not desire or need to copy Iranâ€™s Political system. The Egyptians are much more educated by the Cyber Democracy of the Internet.
Feb 11, 2011, 9:16 PM
Nina Hachigian is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.
Democracy: A Journal of Ideas:
Join us for a discussion of Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer’s “The ‘More What, Less How’ Government”
on March 9 at NDN. Liu and Hanauer will be joined by Michael Lind of the New America Foundation, Megan McArdle of The Atlantic, and E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post. Click here to RSVP
Democracy: A Journal of Ideas:
In our Winter 2010 issue, Shadi Hamid wrote
of the dilemma confronting the U.S. in Egypt. His closing lines: “Egyptians, along with Arabs and Muslims throughout the region, have demonstrated their desire for substantive political change. It is time we did the same.”
Democracy: A Journal of Ideas:
President Obama today announced the appointment of Gene Sperling as the new director of the National Economic Council. Readers who are wondering what to expect from Sperling can find their answer in the pages of this journal
Michael Tomasky: Progressives aren’t going to give up on government because of one election. A strong role for the federal government as incubator, nurturer, and watchdog is central to the progressive vision of society.
Rick Perlstein: Historically, nothing has terrified conservatives so much as efficient, effective, activist government.
Alan Wolfe: Rather than using government badly out of a conviction that it always fails, they now refuse to allow government to do its work at all.
Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer: What is government for? Over the last two years, this has been the dominant question of American politics. Yet so few leaders have offered coherent answers.