Our northern neighbors are concerned. Perhaps buoyed by hosting the Winter Olympics, a Canadian TV interviewer asked me about a “touchy” subject recently: Has America lost its mojo? How are Americans feeling these days? Are we going to be OK again?
I had to be honest that Americans are in the dumps. Many of us are experiencing the hardest times of our lives, and meanwhile China, India, and others seem to have bounced right back. Our national gloom explains why the ruminations on America’s decline are coming fast and furious. Book titles tell the story: The Post American World, The End of Influence, When China Rules the World, Freefall.
It is bleak now, but America should step back from the ledge because the future is looking up. Here are 10 things to remember about America and decline.
1. America’s fate is in its own control
This is cold comfort given the dysfunction in Washington, but it is nonetheless important to remember that the decisions Americans make at home determine our fate far more than anything China or any other pivotal power does—including keeping its currency undervalued, as destructive as that is. America can put itself in a position to thrive in a world with stronger powers by investing in its own future, and first and foremost in the innovation that drives economic growth. This includes funding basic research and development, improving education, reforming health care, and renewing infrastructure. America also needs to trim and refocus the defense budget, rein in the budget deficit, and shift to renewable energy sources. All of these steps are easier said than done, but let’s put the onus for our fate where it belongs.
2. We are still number one
We shouldn’t forget that America is still far ahead of all other emerging and established powers by nearly every important measure. And we have demographics on our side. Because we welcome immigrants and because many parents are bravely choosing to have three kids or more, America’s population is set to grow over the coming decades. Of the other major pivotal powers, only India can say the same. The rest are either already shrinking—Japan, Russia, much of Europe, and Brazil—or looking at a huge baby boom problem within 20 years—China.
3. Our relative decline is inevitable
Relative to other pivotal powers such as China and India, we are declining—the huge gap between the United States and the others is shrinking. That is a function of two factors completely out of American control: the size of their populations being many times larger than ours, and the fact that they are at earlier stages of their economic growth, still climbing out of poverty and moving people off subsistence farming.
There isn’t a causal connection—they are not growing because of our decline. One day, they will likely have economies larger than ours. But we can’t go around hoping that poor countries will stay poor. Moreover, their growth will lift us, too, if we make smart investments (see number 1) because their new middle-class consumers will buy quality American products.
4. Primacy isn’t what it used to be
It is not as important as it used to be for a power to remain on top by a huge margin. Countries used to acquire power by conquering each other, and in that world, primacy is a life or death matter. The contest today is to see who can grow and lure more innovative talent, and become energy independent first. Land grabs are a waste of time and money.
Sheer military power is also not enough anymore for America—or any other country—to keep its own population safe. Terrorist attacks, freakish weather events, and lethal flu viruses are harming Americans—not other big countries. The United States will need to work with other nations to address those border-crossing evils whether we are on top or not.
5. Americans have it really good and will for generations
Here’s another key point to remember: China and India’s growth will not change living standards for the vast majority of Americans if we make the right choices at home. Even if China’s economy does grow to be larger than ours one day, there is no reason to think Americans will be worse off. We could even be better off. Look at the British—they enjoy very comfortable lives and take a lot more vacations since they gave up their empire.
The fact that the American middle class did not gain during the last expansion was as much the result of domestic policy favoring the wealthiest as it was new wage competition from abroad. A strong China or India will make our lives different, and America will not always get its way, but American standards of living will remain high if we deal with our demons at home.
6. Americans are safe
Americans enjoy an unimaginably high degree of safety from outside threats compared to most other peoples. We are protected by oceans, a strong military deterrent, and a stable society based on the rule of law. The growing strength of other powers will not change that fact.
7. The trajectories of future powers is unknowable
It seems that China, Brazil, and India are rising inexorably, and maybe they are. But maybe they aren’t. The Soviet Union looked like it would be around forever in 1988, and in 1990, Japan was seen as the undefeatable hegemon. We just don’t know, and can’t control, the futures of other big powers—which is yet another reason to focus on getting our own act together.
8. American leadership is vital, and everyone knows it
Even after eight years of stomach-churning foreign policy under the Bush administration, most countries acknowledge that American leadership is vital to solving major global problems and keeping order. If China could snap its fingers and halve America’s power, it is not clear it would—who would protect its oil tankers? No other power has the same credibility, capacity, and inclination to step into our shoes. China doesn’t want to lead, and other powers trust Beijing even less than they do Washington. America will thus continue to be influential even as its relative power declines.
9. Previous bouts of self-doubt have proven unjustified
As Atlantic correspondent James Fallows recently explained, Americans are prone to cyclical periods of self-doubt. Our worries have been part of American culture since the days of our founders. We have beaten ourselves up and written ourselves off on many past occasions including Sputnik in the 1950s, culture wars of the 1960s, oil crises of the 1970s, and Japan paranoia in the 1980s. The only difference now is a 24-hour news cycle that makes a profit by probing and sensationalizing our malaise.
10. We have still have fundamental strengths
America doesn’t have nationwide broadband, consistent cell coverage, high-speed rail, or large-scale solar, though we need them. But it does have a high tolerance for failure, which encourages zany and sometimes very profitable ideas. We also have deep and broad capital markets that reward risk, although hopefully no longer in crazy financial instruments; great universities; creativity; diversity; and a willingness to embrace anyone who works hard.
So don’t count America out just yet. Instead, contact your senator. You know what to say.
Nina Hachigian is a Senior Fellow at American Progress and is a co-author of The Next American Century: How the U.S. Can Thrive As Other Powers Rise.