There has been a good deal of discussion lately about the decline of the United States. Paul Kennedy has been a declinist for decades, and wrote The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers about the U.S. nearly 30 years ago; it proved to be accurate about the USSR, not the U.S. Yet he has now dusted off essentially the same arguments again.
More persuasively, Leslie Gelb — a recent, rather than reflexive, declinist and formerly long-serving head of the Council on Foreign Relations — has written an essay on this subject in the Council’s journal, Foreign Affairs. He points out the enfeeblement of American commerce, government, education, and public discourse, and laments the posturing of both political parties — the Republicans for their advocacy of unaffordable and impractical policies of “strength,” and the Democrats for largely abdicating from the foreign-policy debate.
He notes that no president since Nixon has focused on the increasing dependence on foreign oil — at immense cost to the country, and with increasing reliance on unstable and hostile countries such as Kuwait and Venezuela. He decries a general spirit of “mediocrity” and evasion. There is some truth to this, and as I wrote here a couple of weeks ago, there has been a lamentable absence of real strategy in geopolitical policy since the end of the Cold War.
The Clinton and George W. Bush years were most conspicuously marked by staggering current-account deficits, as the cost of oil imports skyrocketed and simple manufacturing fled the country, and China flooded America with cheap manufactures. And for most of the Bush years, the entire conventional ground-forces military capability was tied up in what for several years seemed to be the quagmire of Iraq.
Gelb sees the U.S. slipping from being the preeminent power to being another of the important powers, a little as Britain did. This need not happen. The U.S. will be strong and respected as long as it is successful. At the time of the Normandy landings, whose 65th anniversary has just been celebrated, there were only eight functioning democracies in the world (the U.S., the U.K., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Switzerland, Sweden, and Ireland). Now there are ten times as many, and they represent the majority of the world’s population. The U.S. is chiefly responsible for these advances, and Gelb is correct to credit the Roosevelt, Truman, and Nixon administrations for strategic genius. I would credit Eisenhower for beginning the de-escalation of the Cold War and Reagan for winning it, despite some errors of both presidents in other areas.
But the sequel to Reagan’s immense and almost bloodless strategic victory, the greatest of one Great Power over another in the history of the nation state — not excluding Germany’s over France in 1940 — was to let the good times roll. The American people continued to work hard, but were egged on by their government to become addicted to borrowing and consumption. The leadership of the private and public sectors sat like suet puddings as a terrible financial reckoning was stoked up.
I have serious reservations about some of the remedies to be applied by this administration; but President Obama has a clear mandate to reduce energy imports, reverse the outward flow of manufacturing capacity, be more environmentally responsible, improve education and health care, and rebuild America’s alliances. He does appear to be moving in these areas — except for education.
The U.S. could shrink its school-dropout rate and recover the lead it has lost in academic sciences and technology; cycle the 45 million people who are effectively welfare-addicted passengers, not real participants, into the productive system; rebuild the country’s decayed physical plant; resume manufacturing growth; and reimpose the rights guaranteed by the Constitution on the corrupt prosecutocracy of the justice system — all without strangling the enterprise ethic, and by merely doing the sensible thing. There would be no more talk of decline, and Paul Kennedy would have to go back to his ivory tower for another 20 years.
This can all be done, but radical measures will be necessary: privatizing almost the entire school system and decertifying the Luddite teachers’ unions; increasing gasoline taxes and making a massive shift to nuclear power; capping medical-malpractice awards and bringing down the cost of health insurance; imposing proper disciplines on the terribly abused plea-bargain system and relaxing draconian sentencing practices; incentivizing advanced scientific education; taking the plunge on tort reform and reducing the legal cartel that has been running up over a trillion dollars of legal bills annually, and co-opting too many talented young people; and abandoning the War on Drugs. (Also: We should stop calling every foreign and domestic policy a war.)
As I have written here before, the attack on poverty should be led by a self-eliminating wealth tax on large fortunes, with which the taxpayers could administer their own anti-poverty schemes. The tax itself would shrink to nothing as defined poverty declined.
Instead of such a program, all indications are that we are going to get another turn to the social-democratic Left that the president applauded in Europe, which leads to economic stagnation and public indolence. If the U.S. regenerates itself, it will continue to lead the world. America’s geopolitical position remains excellent. It is not under direct challenge from any other country, as it was by Nazi Germany, the USSR, and, commercially, Japan. The armed forces are in superb condition. George W. Bush’s shortcomings are notorious, but he was bequeathed by the Clinton administration the hostility of Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, and India, and made allies out of three of them. Now the Pakistani army can take its eyes off India and is assaulting the terrorist sanctuaries on the Afghan frontier, as the augmented U.S. and NATO forces attack from Afghanistan. The approximately 20,000 terrorists in the camps and caves will flee or die.
This is one war the U.S. can win, just as it can avoid decline, with leadership. It is all to play for, and democracies get the government they deserve.