Day By Day

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Are Things Really That Bad?

With the exception of a few decades toward the end of the Nineteenth Century, American elites have lived in fear of foreign domination. From the "Founding Fathers'" fears of British, Spanish or French domination to today's worries about China and the emerging Muslim world, those who shape American policy and popular consciousness have fretted about foreign threats to our independence, our way of life, or even our existence. Joseph Nye confronts the most recent of these declinist fantasies, those regarding China's ascendency, and argues that things are not nearly so bad as our leadership suggests:
Americans have a long history of incorrectly estimating their power. In the 1950’s and 1960’s, after Sputnik, many thought that the Soviets might get the better of America; in the 1980’s, it was the Japanese. Now it is the Chinese. But, with America’s debt on a path to equaling its national income in a decade, and a fumbling political system that cannot seem to address the country’s fundamental challenges, are the “declinists” finally right?

Much will depend on the uncertainties – often underestimated – brought about by future political change in China. Economic growth will bring China closer to the US in power resources, but that doesn't necessarily mean that China will surpass the US as the most powerful country.

[E]ven if China suffers no major domestic political setback, many current projections are based simply on GDP growth. They ignore US military and soft-power advantages, as well as China’s geopolitical disadvantages....

[T]he US has very real problems, but the American economy remains highly productive. America remains first in total R&D expenditure, first in university rankings, first in Nobel prizes, and first on indices of entrepreneurship. According to the World Economic Forum, which released its annual report on economic competitiveness last month, the US is the fifth most competitive economy in the world (behind the small economies of Switzerland, Sweden, Finland, and Singapore). China ranks only 26th.

Moreover, the US remains at the forefront of such cutting-edge technologies as biotech and nanotechnology. This is hardly a picture of absolute economic decline.
Read the whole thing here.

Declinism is just part of a more general phenomenon -- a persistent apocalyptic sensibility on the part of America's elites. The republic, it seems, has always been in peril. This sensibility has good aspects -- it has informed important reform movements [Horace Mann's insistence that "we must educate or we shall perish", for instance] -- but it has also led the country into some foolish and destructive ventures, such as our entry into the "war to make the world safe for democracy." Where will today's apocalyptic delusions take us? Who knows, but I personally find much more to fear in our own technocratic leadership than I do in any foreign threat.

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