Zakaria also worries about the inefficient American political system. But the Founding Fathers created a system of checks and balances precisely to preserve liberties at the price of efficiency. Moreover, just because we are now going through a period of excessively partisan politics and mistrust of government doesn't mean the American political system is in decline. Some aspects of the current mood are probably cyclical and related to unemployment, while others represent discontent with the bickering and deadlock in today's political process. Compared with the recent past, party politics has indeed become more polarized, but nasty politics is nothing new and goes all the way back to the Founding Fathers. Supporters of John Adams reputedly once called Thomas Jefferson "a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father."
Part of the problem of accurate assessment is that faith in government became abnormally high among the generation that survived the Great Depression and won World War II. Over the long view of American history, it was overconfidence in government in the 1950s and early 1960s, not low levels thereafter, that was the anomaly. American government and politics have always had problems, sometimes worse than today's. In assessing political decline, one must beware of the golden glow of the past. It is easy to show decline if one compares the good in the past with the bad in the present.
In addition, we sometimes mistakenly idealize the efficiency of the political process in authoritarian countries like China. When it comes to infrastructure, for example, it is far easier to build high-speed rail lines where there are weak property rights and few lawyers. But if one looks at the important question of how Chinese leaders are struggling to implement their 12th five-year plan -- reducing dependence on exports, shifting to internal demand, and reducing regional inequality by moving industry to the west -- China is far from efficient. Although central bankers and economic planners know that revaluing the yuan would promote these goals and help head off inflation, a strong coalition of coastal export industries and associated local party bosses seeks to preserve the status quo.
Zakaria notes that one Asian country after another is learning the secrets of Western success, and he is right. In The Future of Power, I argue that one of the two great power shifts of this century is the recovery of Asia to what it represented before the Industrial Revolution led to the ascendance of the West: more than half the world's population and its economic production. We should herald Asia's recovery -- it has brought millions out of dire poverty -- but those with excessive fear of China should remember that Asia is not one entity. In his important book Rivals, Bill Emmott reminds us that Japan, India, and others that are concerned about the rise of China welcome an American presence. Can anyone similarly imagine Canada and Mexico seeking a Chinese alliance to balance American power in their neighborhood?
Nor is China likely to surpass America anytime soon. Yes, barring political uncertainties, China's size and high rate of economic growth will almost certainly increase its strength relative to that of the United States. Still, China won't necessarily become the world's most powerful country as a result. Even if China suffers no major domestic political setback, many of the current projections based on GDP growth alone are too one-dimensional. They ignore what are likely to be enduring U.S. military and soft-power advantages, as well as China's geopolitical disadvantages in the internal Asian balance of power.
Zakaria is correct that the United States faces serious problems. But issues that preoccupy us today, such as long-term debt, are not insoluble; see for example, the recommendations of the Simpson-Bowles commission, and remember that only a decade ago some people worried about the government surplus. Of course, such solutions may forever remain out of reach. But it is worth distinguishing situations for which there are no solutions from those that could, in principle, be solved.
The greatest danger to America is not debt, political paralysis, or China; it is parochialism, turning away from the openness that is the source of its strength and resting on its laurels. As Zakaria says, in the past, worrying about decline has helped avert it. Let us hope that his intelligent though darkly drawn picture will yet again start that healthy process.