American Enterprise Online
February 6, 2006
By Alan W. Dowd

In an otherwise conventional, even predictable, State of the Union address, President George W. Bush did something rather unconventional by pointedly answering those who say America’s best days are now behind it. “We must never give in to the belief that America is in decline,” he intoned. “The American people know better than that.”  

But American newspapers, think tanks and universities apparently do not. Just consider a small sampling of Bush-era commentary from across the political spectrum: 

-New York Times critic Nicolai Ouroussoff calls America “a society that has turned its back on any notion of cultural openness…an empire enthralled with its own power and unaware that it is fading.”

-Cato Institute’s Ivan Eland warns that a drift toward empire could trigger “the decline of the United States as a superpower.”

-Harvard’s Joseph Nye concludes that America’s “soft power—its ability to attract others by the legitimacy of US policies and the values that underlie them—is in decline.”

-Former Clinton administration official Charles Kupchan laments, “The end of the American era.”

-Even the usually upbeat Peggy Noonan has expressed her sense “that in some deep fundamental way things have broken down and can’t be fixed”—this from someone who worked for Ronald Reagan, the most optimistic of US presidents.

-Overseas, where prophecies of American decline are often motivated by wishful thinking rather than careful analysis, Matthew Parris of The London SundayTimes has handed down his verdict: The US is “overstretched” and “in relentless relative decline as an economic power in the world.” After Hurricane Katrina, The Guardian’s Polly Toynbee dismissed America as “a hollow superpower.” 

The United States is many things—shortsighted, impatient, acquisitive, intrusive—but it is not any closer to some supposed predestined period of decline now than it was a decade or two ago. And while US primacy is neither inevitable nor a birthright, it certainly is a reality today.  

Consider US military power. As Johns Hopkins’ Fouad Ajami has noted, “The world rails against the United States, yet embraces its protection, its gossip and its hipness.” Especially its protection: Some 60 countries enjoy overt defense and security treaties with the United States. Why? A major factor is that America is a benign power. Unlike previous world powers, it is welcomed by host governments into all of its far-flung outposts. Their neighbors, of course, don’t always roll out the welcome mat: North Korea, China, Russia, Syria and Iran would prefer that US troops were somewhere else than South Korea, Central Asia, or Iraq. (By the way, those who slur America’s global network of bases as evidence of “imperialism” forget that there were far more US troops based on foreign shores in decades past. For example, in 1963, the US had a million troops based overseas—close to three times as many as today. They were sprinkled across 200 overseas bases.) 

Another factor contributing to America’s magnetic personality when it comes to security is America’s unmatched and unrivaled military power. For instance, in the span of about 23 months, the US military overthrew two enemy regimes located on the other side of the planet and replaced them with friendly, popularly supported governments. Simultaneously, the US military guarded the 38th parallel, monitored Russian and Chinese nukes, kept the sea lanes open, and honored commitments to NATO and Europe.  

No other military could attempt such a feat of global multitasking, let alone achieve it. And the Pentagon’s methods are nothing short of stunning: tank columns that move as fast as cars on a freeway; seaborne warplanes that strike at night, or in the snow, or in sandstorms; satellite-guided bombs and precision missiles that are equally accurate when fired by an unmanned drone loitering overhead, or a prowling fighter-jet cruising above the clouds, or a far-away submarine gliding through the sea; invisible bombers that fly not transcontinental or transoceanic missions, but trans-global missions; Special Forces on horseback armed with laptop computers; and “regular” forces that are more motivated, more intelligent, more professional, more lethal, and yet more restrained than any in history.  

As British historian Niall Ferguson explains, “The rest of the world has nothing that can compete.” Not even the British Empire, he adds, “dominated the full spectrum of military capabilities the way the United States does today.” 

And while the declinists say that this next-generation military is too expensive, they never note that the current defense budget accounts for just 3.5 percent of GDP. That’s less than the US spent on defense (as a percentage of GDP) at any time during the Cold War—and far less than the 30 to 40 percent spent during World War II.  

Speaking of spending, consider the US economy. At around $12 trillion, the US GDP is larger than the combined GDPs of the other four permanent members of the UN Security Council. After 9/11, the US economy lost the equivalent of Taiwan’s entire economy. As to the declinists’ charge of relative decline, Ferguson notes that between 1980 and 2002, the US GDP climbed from “a low point of just 10 percent of world output to 31 percent.” 

Consider America’s soft power. We see it in Libya’s preemptive surrender of its WMD arsenal; in the joint US-French effort to force Bashar Asaad’s thugs out of Lebanon; in Washington’s successful use of “good cop-bad cop” strategies to guide and prod the EU and Iran into the Security Council; in the Proliferation Security Initiative; in the US response to a tsunami or an earthquake and how that response changes what people think about America; and even in North Korea’s grudging promise to give up its nukes.  

Whether or not that promise will be kept is actually beside the point when it comes to soft power. What is relevant here is the fact that Washington used diplomatic leverage and suasion to pursue a major policy objective and to convince all of the regional powers of that objective’s importance to them. In the 1990s, that was hailed by many in the foreign-policy establishment as something to applaud. In the 2000s, it was something the declinists said Washington could no longer do.    

Other expressions of US soft power are evident in the globalization of US culture. Think about the Apple iPod’s dominance even in Sony’s backyard of Japan; McDonald’s presence in 120 countries; the fact that 70 percent of Coke’s drinkers reside outside North America;[1] or the fact that communist China honored Yao Ming—a multi-millionaire who lives in Texas and plays basketball for a decidedly capitalist organization known as the Houston Rockets—as its 2005 “vanguard worker.”  

Even as America exports its culture, it imports people who desire to be part of that culture. When they arrive, these would-be Americans find a nation where a refugee from Czechoslovakia could be entrusted to oversee US foreign policy as secretary of state, where an Austrian bodybuilder could become governor of the most populous state, where a survivor of Castro’s Cuba could rise to senator, where a Taiwanese immigrant girl could grow up to serve in the president’s cabinet, where a Polish immigrant could be asked to command the Joint Chiefs of Staff or restore what 9/11 maimed. So much for the cynical view of an America “that has turned its back on any notion of cultural openness.” 

In short, just as it would be foolish to think that US power won’t some day recede, it seems just as foolish to accept the diagnosis of decline and to conclude that “some day” has arrived. As Bush put it during his State of the Union, “We have proven the pessimists wrong before, and we will do it again.”

[1] Ferguson, p.18-19.