Fareed Zakaria is one of our most perceptive analysts of America's role in the world, and I generally agree with him. But in the case of his new special essay for Time, "Are America's Best Days Behind Us?," I think he paints too gloomy a picture of American decline.
Americans are prone to cycles of belief in decline, and the term itself confuses various dimensions of changing power relations. Some see the American problem as imperial overstretch (though as a percentage of GDP, the United States spends half as much on defense as it did during the Cold War); some see the problem as relative decline caused by the rise of others (though that process could still leave the United States more powerful than any other country); and still others see it as a process of absolute decline or decay such as occurred in the fall of ancient Rome (though Rome was an agrarian society with stagnant economic growth and internecine strife).
Such projections are not new. As Zakaria notes, America's Founding Fathers worried about comparisons to the decline of the Roman Republic. A strand of cultural pessimism is simply very American, extending back to the country's Puritan roots. English novelist Charles Dickens observed a century and a half ago: "[I]f its individual citizens, to a man, are to be believed, [America] always is depressed, and always is stagnated, and always is at an alarming crisis, and never was otherwise."
In the last half-century, polls showed Americans believed in their decline after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957, after Richard Nixon's devaluation of the dollar and the oil shocks in the 1970s, and after the closing of Rust Belt industries and the budget deficits of Ronald Reagan's administration in the 1980s. At the end of that decade, a majority of Americans believed their country was in decline; yet within the next 10 years they believed that America was the sole superpower. And now, after the 2008 financial crisis and recession, polls show a majority believes in decline again. These cycles of declinism tell us more about Americans' collective psychology than underlying shifts in power resources, but as British journalist Gideon Rachman argued in these pages recently, maybe this time decline is real. After all, as the Congressional Budget Office warns, on current trends the U.S. national debt will be equal to its GDP in a decade, and that will undermine confidence in the dollar.
Zakaria lists other worrying indicators related to education and infrastructure. According to the OECD, American 15-year-olds rank 17th in the world in science and 25th in math. The United States is 12th in college graduation rates, 23rd in infrastructure, and 27th in life expectancy. On the other side of the ledger, America ranks first among rich countries in guns, crime, and debt.
All these are very real problems, but one could also note that the United States is still first in total R&D expenditures, first in university rankings, first in Nobel prizes, first on indices of entrepreneurship, and according to the World Economic Forum, the fourth-most competitive economy in the world (behind the small states of Switzerland, Sweden, and Singapore). The United States remains at the forefront of technologies of the future like biotechnology and nanotechnology. This is hardly a picture of absolute economic decay, ancient Rome style. The truth is that one can draw a picture of the United States today that emphasizes either dark or bright colors without being wrong. No one can be sure which shade better portrays the future because the number of potential futures is vast, and which one comes to pass will depend in part on decisions not yet made.
Drawing on the thinking of Mancur Olson, the late great political economist, Zakaria believes that America's very success has made its decision processes sclerotic, like that of industrial Britain. But American culture is far more entrepreneurial and decentralized than that of Britain, where the sons of industrial entrepreneurs sought aristocratic titles and honors in London. If Olson is right, Zakaria says, the solution is to "stay flexible." And despite recurrent historical bouts of concern about it, immigration helps keep America flexible. In 2005, according to Forbes, foreign-born immigrants had participated in one of every four technology start-ups in the previous decade. As Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew once put it, China can draw on a talent pool of 1.3 billion people, but the United States not only draws on a talent pool of 7 billion, but can recombine them in a diverse culture that enhances creativity in a way that ethnic Han nationalism cannot.