ascf news review - october 2012
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AMERICAN SECURITY COUNCIL FOUNDATION
National Security Report
Promoting Peace through Strength
In This Issue:
Is America in Decline? By Alan W. Dowd
ASCF Senior Fellow
Volume 1III, Issue X October 2012 Page 2
President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney dont agree on much, but one
thing they do agree on is this: Both men reject the growing consensus that America is
doomed to an irreversible spiral of decline. The greatest days of America are ahead,
Romney emphatically declares. Obama puts it this way: If anyone tries to tell you that
our greatness has passed, that America is in decline, you tell them this: Just like the
20th century, the 21st is going to be another great American Century.
Yet despite what Obama and Romney say, the worrisome signs of decline are seem-
ingly all around. The U.S. lost its AAA bond rating in 2011. Nine Signs of America in
Decline blared a recent U.S. News & World Report headline. A Superpower in De-
cline declared a Der Spiegel article. A New York Times columnist called America an
empire enthralled with its own power and unaware that it is fading a society that has
turned its back on any notion of cultural openness.
Its no wonder that 70 percent of Americans believe the country is in decline. But are
Today and Yesterday
Of the many ways to address that question, two seem especially helpful: 1) comparing Americas global status today with earlier
junctures in history and 2) considering American power in relation to that of other nations. Lets start with the U.S.-versus-U.S.
While we tend to think of decline as a modern phenomenonsomething that emerged after the fall of Saigon in 1975, Iranian
hostage crisis in 1979 or market meltdown in 2008early examples can be found in the 18th century.
The United States entered the world stage with a bang, defeating the greatest empire on earth. Yet less than 30 years later, the
War of 1812 saw U.S. forces routed and the capital set ablaze. When measured against its own position just a generation earlier,
the United States had declined in drastic terms.
The country endured another period of decline in the Civil War era. Upon entering office, Lincoln described America as a nation
exposed to disrespect abroad, a land on the verge of ruin. After Lincolns murder, General Sherman openly feared America
slipping into anarchy, wondering who was left on this continent to give order and shape to the now disjointed elements of the
government. Pointing to the great debt that has been contracted in preserving the Union, Grant concluded that American
industry and commerce were destroyed. A prostrate commerce is to be rebuilt, he sighed in 1869.
The American people did just that, as the country rebounded and emerged as a global power at the beginning of the 20th cen-
tury. By the end of the Great War, American ideals were embraced around the globe.
Yet the postwar period saw American power plummet on the world stage. In 1933, FDR called America a stricken nation in the
midst of a stricken world. Perhaps worse than the economic collapse, which merely destroyed Americas wealth, was the
evaporation of Americas global clout and strength, which jeopardized Americas independence. America had fallen so far from
the heights it held in 1918, FDR warned, that its destiny was no longer in its own hands. I find it, unhappily, necessary to report
that the future and the safety of our country and of our democracy are overwhelmingly involved in events far beyond our bor-
ders, he said as America limped through the 1930s. As long as the aggressor nations maintain the offensive, theynot we
will choose the time and the place and the method of their attack.
Page 3 Peace through Strength
In short, American power had declined to where it was a century earlier.
Although Americas military, industrial and economic power was unrivaled by the end
of World War II, it pays to recall that the 1950s began with debates over Who lost
China? and ended with debates over Who lost Cuba? In between, Americans won
dered how they lost the space race.
Writing in 1960, Norman Mailer dourly concluded that America was in danger of drift
ing into a profound decline. Indeed, the 1960s began and ended with humbling set
backs (the Bay of Pigs and Vietnam), opening the way to a period of profound self-
doubt in the 1970s. Weve become fearful to compete with the Soviet Union, then-
Governor Carter concluded in 1976. I want to see our nation return to a posture and
an image and a standard to make us proud once again.
In 1984, Reagan declared that the American people had stopped a long decline that
had drained this nations spirit and eroded its health. Yet by 1992, the elder Bush con
ceded, Theres a mood among usTheres been talk of decline.
The tide turned again in the early days of this century. One historian even declared in
2002 that America had too much power for anyones good, including its own. That all changedand the declinist chorus
returnedas the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan took their toll. Then came the mortgage meltdown, which devastated Wall
Street and Main Street alike.
This jaunt through history reminds us that there is an ebb and flow to Americaand that while the declinists and doomsay-
ers may frustrate us, they are not completely unhelpful. Declinism performs a useful historical function, as Samuel Hunt-
ington once observed. It provides a warning and a goad to action in order to head off and reverse the decline that it says is
America and the World
America has certainly seen better days. But before we replace Old Glory with a white flag, consider American power in rela-
tion to that of other nations. Even amid todays retrenchment, the U.S. economy remains a remarkable force. At $16 trillion
and growing (albeit anemically), Americas GDP dwarfs that of every other country. Only when the European Union cobbles
together its 27 economies can it claim to rival U.S. economic output. U.S. GDP is about 50-percent larger than Chinas and
three times bigger than Indias. Yet the U.S. labor force is two-thirds the size of the EUs, one-third the size of Indias and one
-fifth the size of Chinas.
To be sure, Chinas economy is booming, but its important to recognize the immense gap in per capita income$47,200 in
the U.S. versus $7,600 in Chinaand Chinas systemic problems. Although China has an ocean of cheap labor and a swelling
treasury, it doesnt have a stable middle-class, a social safety net, a political system that embraces the rule of law and re-
sponds to the will of the people, or a government that breeds confidence in its neighbors or subjects. (Witness the secret
selection of Xi Jinping to succeed Hu Jintao and Xis inexplicable absence from public view in the weeks leading up to his tak-
ing power). Thats not a formula for long-term success.
As for Americas current health, the recession exposed serious problems. Entitlement spending is unsustainable. Borrowing
from tomorrow to pay for today is unsound. And the countrys public debt, bulging from 38 percent of GDP in 2008 to 63
percent in 2010 to more than 90 percent today, has entered a danger zone.
However, these are solvable problems that policymakers have the tools, if not the will, to tackle. The problems facing much of Asia and
Europe put Americas problems in perspective. For instance, many countries would be thrilled to have Americas debt-to-GDP ratio: Japans
public debt is 211 percent of GDP; Britainsexternal debt is 451 percent of GDP, Frances 254 percent, Germanys 183 percent, Australias
Despite its economic challenges, the U.S. remains the engine of the global economy, boasting 18 of the 50 largest companies on earth
three times as many as the closest challenger. America is home to the worlds largest aerospace (Boeing), biotech (Amgen), pharmaceutical
(Pfizer), retail (WalMart), petroleum (ExxonMobil), software (Microsoft), technology hardware (HP), computer services (IBM), communica-
tions equipment (Cisco) and heavy equipment (Caterpillar) firms, as well as the worlds highest-valued firm (Apple). Rather than simply
mass-producing, reverse-engineering or pirating what others createlike Chinas state-controlled industriesthese corporations are shap-
ing the future and propelling globalization. That brings us to Americas enormous cultural power. Some have argued that globalization is
just another word for Americanization, and they may be right. Indeed, it is in the wake of globalization that we begin to glimpse the full
breadth of American power:
Baghdad is teeming with Burger King, Chilis and KFC knock-offs. In fact, American-style fried chicken is so popular that Iraqis call all forms
of fried chicken Kentucky.
Seventy percent of Cokes drinkers reside outside North America. Half of McDonalds restaurants are located somewhere other than
the U.S. Retail juggernaut WalMart has 4,500 stores outside the U.S.
Cubans and Iranians are erecting illegal satellite dishes to catch a glimpse of American TV.
Even amid the deadly violence in pockets of Libya, the Libyan people are clamoring for iPhones, Nikes, Ford Mustangs and Eminem CDs.