At some point, unfashionable though it is to do so, the United States will have to take stock of its position as a great power. Despite the globalization of a great range of issues, from the environment to terrorism, the world is still substantially directed by the applied influence of its principal countries. And however down-at-the-heel and -mouth it may be, or at least feel sometimes, the U.S. is incomparably the world’s most important country.
It has by far the largest economy and most productive work force, and the greatest military capability. And, though this is not especially an incitement to Americophilia, it has a preponderant pop-cultural influence as well. It also benefits from the retention of a level of collective optimism and national purpose that is comparatively greater than existed when Japan was mounting its great industrial challenge, the Soviet Union was a superpower, and Europe was intoxicated with the mirage of a renascence of its worldwide influence in a flush of Eurofederalist euphoria. This was all less than 25 years ago.
American strategic history evolved quite coherently for 240 years, from agitation (mainly by Benjamin Franklin) for removal of the French in Canada in the Seven Years’ War; to removal of the British from America, by Washington with the vital assistance of the French (induced by Franklin) and propagandized by Jefferson as the triumph of self-evident truths and inalienable rights; to the setting up of a new country with Madison’s Constitution and Hamilton’s Treasury; to maintaining slavery in the South but not tolerating secession (Jackson’s formula); to crushing secession and abolishing slavery under Lincoln; to laissez faire industrial and demographic growth; to tipping the balance for the democracies in the world wars under Wilson and Roosevelt; to the containment of international Communism until it quietly expired.
Since the Berlin Wall came down and the U.S. was left alone at the summit of the world, the country has inexplicably lost its strategic compass and stoked up annual $800 billion current-account deficits, suffered a terrible fiasco in public finances and an alarming self-inflicted debacle in corporate debt; the political class and Wall Street have failed badly, as have many whole industries. The education and justice systems have deteriorated alarmingly. Yet the U.S. has been an overachieving super-nationality compared with the stagnation, dyspepsia, and outright disintegration of, respectively, Japan, Europe, and Russia.
George Washington, in taking leave of the Continental Army in 1783, charged the Continental Congress, which he rightly despised, with the task of defending the new nation and building a strong currency (with no expectation that it would do so). He urged a constitutional convention four years later to establish an “indissoluble union” that would achieve the same ends. Lincoln resolved the question of indissolubility and the republic has been defended, but the recent and current leadership are undermining the currency.
But we would do a huge disservice to America not to realize that nothing has been lost, in strategic terms, that could not be relatively easily recovered, and that America’s position has declined only in relative terms — among its principal natural rivals, in the case of China, and not as starkly as the annoying Chinese ululations of imminent world preeminence would indicate.
The world awaits signs that U.S. deficit reduction is going to be taken seriously, including the projections for Social Security, the nightmare of student loans (over $1 trillion), and the fiscal hecatomb of the states and municipalities. It would not be so difficult: Incentives to increase domestic oil production and rational alternative-energy sources would reduce the current-account deficit and the bankrolls of terrorism-sponsoring states. Consumption and transaction taxes, tax simplification, and fair entitlement reform would reduce the deficit; income-tax cuts would spur a real economic recovery; genuine health care, education, judicial, tort, and penal reform will be produced by real leadership, which always turns up in America eventually.