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.
American petroleum engineers over the last decade have discovered radical new methods of recovering previously unknown or unreachable reserves of oil and gas. Contrary to all conventional wisdom, America’s natural-gas and petroleum reserves just keep growing. Suddenly, we have enough known natural gas to supply 100 percent of our domestic needs for the next 90 years — a huge window of opportunity in which to transition to competitive renewable energy. That is on top of trillions of dollars’ worth of new oil finds offshore and in Alaska, the Dakotas, and the West, which will create millions of new jobs and help pay down the deficit — if we have the will to extract such energy resources. The real story is not the pathetic machinations surrounding Solyndra, a statist, corrupt model that will never produce competitive power, but a quiet revolution in North Dakota, which is emerging as the new Texas. Within 15 years, North America could reinvent itself as completely independent from Middle Eastern gas and oil. Indeed, from Calgary to Argentina and Brazil, new petroleum and natural-gas finds may soon make the Western Hemisphere the world’s new Persian Gulf. That fact will change the entire global geostrategic and financial landscape in ways that are scarcely imaginable.
We are worried that China may soon deploy one aircraft carrier. Yet the United States now has eleven enormous carrier groups, each one more powerful than all the other aircraft carriers in the world combined. In areas as diverse as drone and space technology, counterinsurgency, battlefield experience, air power, armor, and ship design, the American military is the best-armed, best-trained, and most lethal armed force around — and will be so for decades hence. The American soldier remains the most innovative, disciplined, and adaptive in the world — and surely after Iraq and Afghanistan the most veteran.
We forget sometimes that there are a host of small, vulnerable nations that apparently still assume that the United States, alone, can and will come to their aid. Without America, it is hard to see how Israel can survive, or that Kurdistan would ever have become autonomous, or that bankrupt and vulnerable Greece will have independence of action in a tough neighborhood, or that Taiwan will continue as we have known it. No one is talking about the defense of Europe as it implodes — apparently on the supposition that NATO is de facto American and will continue to protect the continent from outside threats and discourage historical tensions from within. The truth is that in the decades ahead, weak and vulnerable states will look to the U.S. military as never before.
A billion adolescents worldwide are growing up with Apple iPhones, iPods, and iPads; with Facebook accounts, Amazon online ordering, Google searches, and Walmart discount purchasing. These are not Russian, French, Chinese, or Japanese companies, but American inventions that uniquely appeal to the human desire for economy, ease of use, wide choice, informality, and transparency. No other country could have invented them — or the next generation to come. The idea of a Chinese-invented Google is a paradox, a Russian Facebook a joke, a Japanese-inspired Walmart impossible.
Race, tribe, and religion tear many countries apart, notably in the Middle East and the Balkans. Yet at the other extreme, racially uniform nations like Japan and China seem clumsy when dealing with even tiny minorities, since they define their citizens not just by national allegiance, language, and locale, but by the way they look. America alone –albeit often in rancorous and messy fashion — has no particular national ethnic or racial profile. Even in postmodern Europe, the idea of a Barack Obama as president of France, or a Condoleezza Rice as foreign minister of Germany, is the stuff of fantasy. We will see no prime minister of China or Russia who does not look like the majority of Chinese and Russians — much less a Colin Powell. Most of the world will continue to have some sort of practical or romantic claim on America because of the fact that anyone can be not just an American, but a very successful American.
In one of the most amazing transformations in the history of civilization, a tiny East Coast community of predominantly white European Christian settlers developed a system whose natural logic of reform, self-critique, and reinvention over two centuries became the present melting pot of whites, blacks, Hispanics, Asians, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, agnostics, and atheists. As the world is becoming more interconnected through globalization and high tech, it is following the model of a meritocratic America, which remains light years ahead of most nations in defining its citizens by their values and allegiance, not how they worship or the color of their skin.
To walk down University Avenue in Palo Alto is to see the world’s engineering talent united by a shared desire for career advancement and upward mobility, and the spirit of inquiry — on the assumption that the American “system” will reward talent and forget about most else. A European might inquire about these immigrants’ accent or background, a Chinese about their racial ancestry, an Indian about their class, a Middle Easterner about their religion. An American will inquire to what degree they can solve a problem, do business, and make a profit.
Statism the world over is crumbling. The Communist Soviet Empire is a distant memory. The redistributionist European Union is neither democratic nor economically sustainable. It will disappear soon, wrecked by the idea that utopians could unite vastly different nations from on high without constitutional democracy. China succeeds to the degree that its Communist rulers abandons their Maoist legacy. Massive redistributive bureaucracies have impoverished much of Africa and the Middle East. America alone values individual freedom and limited government under the rule of law.
The Obama experiment of the last three years did not bring prosperity, and is likely soon to prompt a sharp reaction and a return to the American devotion to individualism and choice that made us the wealthiest nation in history. The American model is the antithesis of the socialism, Communism, theocracy, and statism that have impoverished so much of the world — and the 21st century has brought that fact home in a way few imagined.
Why does the United States continue to reinvent itself, generation after generation, to adapt to a radically changing world? Our ancestral Constitution checks the abuse of power and guarantees the freedom of the individual — all in transparent fashion. And our habits and customs that have evolved over two centuries are grounded in the human desire to be judged by what we do rather than what we look like, or under what circumstances we were born — a fact that explains our vibrant and sometime crass popular culture. The essence of our culture is constant self-critique and reexamination — a messy self-audit that so often fools both ourselves and our critics into thinking that our loud paranoia about decline, rather than our far quieter effort to arrest it, is the real story of America
In short, the 21st century will remain American.