America May Truly Be In Decline

Call it America's Age of Angst. The buzz of negativity seems to be everywhere. DECLINE AND FALL: WHEN THE AMERICAN EMPIRE GOES, IT IS LIKELY TO GO QUICKLY reads the cover headline for British historian Niall Ferguson's article in the current issue of Foreign Affairs. Faced with an unemployment rate near 10 percent, a ballooning deficit, and a grueling partisan battle over health-care reform, both President Barack Obama and his Republican critics in Congress are complaining loudly about the government's inability to get things done. In the meantime, there's a growing sense that others—here, China is always first on the list—are steadily chipping away at America's leadership position in the world.

The messages from the White House are somewhat schizophrenic. In his State of the Union Message, Obama expressed frustration about the gridlock in Washington. "I have one simple question: How long should we wait? How long should America put its future on hold?" he asked. "You see, Washington has been telling us to wait for decades, even as the problems have grown worse. Meanwhile, China is not waiting to revamp its economy. Germany is not waiting. India is not waiting." While claiming that he will not accept second place for the United States, he made it sound like that's where the country is heading if it doesn't change course.

Vice President Joe Biden, who is dependably blunt, echoed that sentiment, charging that "Washington right now is broken." But in an interview with Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne, he also lashed out at the "ridiculous" talk of America's decline. "Give me a break," he complained. Alluding to historian Paul Kennedy's 1988 book The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers that argued the United States was next in line for a fall (in fact, it was the Soviet empire that crumbled the following year), Biden noted that such predictions have been wrong before and are likely to be wrong again. "So many people have bet on our demise that it absolutely drives me crazy."

Biden has a point. But this time, the anxiety seems like more than a feeling. It is more deeply rooted in concerns about long-term trends, and warning lights are flashing in several places. It's harder now to shrug off the America-in-decline theories than ever before.

In his Foreign Affairs article, Ferguson points to two of the most troubling trends. According to one projection by the Congressional Budget Office, America's public debt could skyrocket from 44 percent of GDP before the 2008 financial crisis to 716 percent in 2080. If legislative reforms don't expand the size of government, the CBO dials the projection back to 280 percent. Hardly reassuring either way. As are the projections Ferguson cites about China's GDP overtaking U.S. GDP by either 2027 or 2040, depending on which calculation you choose. And India, he notes, is projected to overtake the U.S. in 2050.

The opinion pages are full of self-flagellation and unflattering comparisons. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman described walking through Los Angeles International Airport and noticing how shoddy it looks, despite periodic attempts to cover up its aging. "In some ways LAX is us," he wrote. "We are the United States of Deferred Maintenance. China is the People's Republic of Deferred Gratification. They save, invest and build. We spend, borrow and patch."

Even in the high-tech fields where America has traditionally led the way things seem grim—especially regarding government institutions and infrastructure. "The United States is fighting a cyber-war today, and we are losing. It's that simple," warned Mike McConnell, President Bush's director of national intelligence, in The Washington Post. "As the most wired nation on Earth, we offer the most targets of significance, yet our cyber-defenses are woefully lacking."

There's plenty of anecdotal evidence of America's shortening shadow, too. The EastWest Institute, my current employer, holds a Worldwide Security Conference in Brussels every winter. In 2009, almost every session was dominated by speculation about what the Obama administration would do. This year, discussions on major topics like Afghanistan and cybersecurity included mentions of the United States, of course, but frequently the focus was on regional players with little reference to Washington at all. The group seemed simply to understand that Obama is too preoccupied with domestic problems to deliver on his earlier promises of intensive international engagement.

There's even something in the air. Malcolm Beith, a former NEWSWEEK colleague who holds dual British and American citizenship, dropped in on me recently. After a long stint in New York, he spent the last couple of years in Mexico City as the editor of a local English-language newspaper. "New York reminds me much more of London now," he observed. "It seems humbled." Humbled by the financial crisis and, perhaps, and by the sense that it no longer is quite as much the center of the universe as most New Yorkers like to imagine. Despite all the talk of Obama's popularity abroad, a new Democracy Corps–Third Way poll shows that 51 percent of Americans believe their country's standing in the world has declined during his brief presidency.

In Washington, this is all grist for fury. Obama and other Democrats routinely lambasted former president George W. Bush for his "arrogance"; Republicans today say Obama apologizes for America rather than defending its interests. In both cases, the accusers blame the other party's leader for the decline in America's standing.

The reality is that everyone—here and abroad—worries when the United States appears too arrogant, and when it appears indecisive or weak. Striking the right balance has never been easy. In the 1960s, Arkansas Sen. William Fulbright, the Democratic chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, published The Arrogance of Power, a book castigating his own party leaders for the Vietnam War. The title of his book became a catchphrase for the country's critics, particularly antiwar protesters in the United States and abroad.

But by in the late 1970s, government had swung in the opposite direction. President Jimmy Carter's reaction to the energy crisis demonstrated the perils of hand-wringing in public. In what was dubbed his "malaise" speech, he warned of a crisis of confidence "that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will." The cause of this psychological crisis, he intoned, was a breakdown in values. "In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption," he declared, admonishing people to conserve more and spend less. But such pronouncements about America's alleged sins won him few friends at home or abroad, and he was dismissed as a weak leader. Carter lost his bid for reelection in 1980 to a very different kind of politician, Ronald Reagan.

Just because we've been through these debates, prophesies, and recriminations about America's alleged decline before isn't a reason to simply shrug all of this off, as Biden wants to do. As many commentators have pointed out, the Greek economic crisis is symptomatic of underlying problems that are evident across Europe and in the United States. Obviously, the U.S. system is considerably more stable: Washington's current budget deficit may be only a little smaller than that of Greece—9.9 percent of GDP, compared with Greece's 12.7 percent—but other indicators suggest the relative balance, strength, and innovative power of the American economy.

Yet the key word here is "relative"—as in relative to whom. One American Sinologist recently returned from a conference in Beijing where the Chinese participants discussed the theories about U.S. decline. "The Chinese said, yes, the United States is in decline as compared to China, but not in relation to the EU. And certainly not in relation to Russia, which is in a much steeper decline," he reported.

What does all this say about America's latest bout of angst? Yes, there are good reasons to be worried about the country's status if it cannot exert more fiscal discipline, stimulate investment, and remember its place in the world around it. But many of those problems are shared by others, too. If Americans are smart—and there's every reason to think they are—angst can be productive, generating new determination and new solutions. Don't blow off the problems, but don't count America out yet.

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