We are in a fresh round of declinism — understandably, after borrowing nearly $5 trillion in less than three years and having very little to show for it. Pundit strives with op-ed writer to find the latest angle on America’s descent: We are broke; we are poorly educated; we are uncompetitive; we have gone soft; our political institutions are broken; and on and on. The Obama administration does its part, with sloganeering like “reset,” “lead from behind,” “post-American world,” and America as exceptional only to the degree that all nations feel exceptional.
This is not new. In the late 1930s, the New Germany and its autobahns were supposed to show Depression-plagued America how national will could unite a people to do great things. After all, they had Triumph of the Will Nuremberg rallies; we still had Hoovervilles. They flew sleek Me-109s; we flew lumbering cloth-covered Brewster Buffaloes. We, the victors of a world war, were determined never to repeat it; they, the losers, were eager to try it again.
In the 1950s, Sputnik and the vast spread of Communism through the postcolonial world were supposed proof of the efficiency and social justice of Communism and the rot of capitalism — the inevitable denouement of the 20th century. Sputnik soared, even as our ex-Nazi scientists could not seem to make our rockets work. They had Uncle Ho and Che; we had Diem and the Shah. Their guys wore peasant garb and long hair; ours, sunglasses and gold braid.
By the 1970s and 1980s, Japan Inc. was the next new paradigm of the post-American world. Even American “experts” lectured us on the need to adopt Japanese-like partnerships between corporations and government. They made Accords and Camrys; we made Pintos and Gremlins. We played golf at Pebble Beach; they owned it.
As Japan faded, the next great hope followed in the 1990s when the EU captivated the American Left. The Europeans’ loud moral declarations, their pacifism, cradle-to-grave entitlements, trains à grande vitesse — all of that was what a backward America should strive for. They crafted the Kyoto Agreement; we drove gas-guzzling Tahoes and Yukons. Their strong Euros bought in New York what our weak dollars could not in Paris.
Where are all those supposedly post-American systems now? Fascism was crushed; Communism imploded; Japan is aging and shrinking; the European Union is cracking apart. But, of course, there is China, which, we are told, is the next new replacement for America — a country with enormous demographic problems, a reputation for crude diplomacy and an outlaw approach to international commercial agreements, censored media and a complete lack of transparency, vast inequality, environmental catastrophes, and no stable political system to transition a rural peasantry into a postindustrial affluent citizenry. No matter — our jet-setting elites still whine that they have shiny new airports; we have grungy LAX and JFK. They have sleek bullet trains; we, creaking Amtrak.
In this era of American debt, rancor, pessimism, and declinism, we should reflect on what the United States still does far better than anyone else — and why that is.
Recently, the British magazine Times Higher Education rated the world’s top 400 universities. Seven of the top ten — Cal Tech, Harvard, Stanford, Princeton, MIT, Chicago, Berkeley — are American. Even a nearly insolvent California hosts four of the top 13 — more than any nation except the U.S. itself. While American K–12 education cannot turn out students who achieve top rankings in math, science, and language, our university system still remains by far the best in the world, training a global elite in the American way of engineering, math, science, business, and medicine. In fact, the world’s diplomatic corps is beginning to look like an American college reunion. This week, the Greeks appointed a new prime minister, Lucas Papademos, a former Harvard professor. And the newly appointed Libyan prime minister, Abdurrahim el-Keib, is a former electrical-engineering professor from the University of Alabama.