Zakaria's World

Are America's best days really behind us?

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.

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.



Palestinians Must Be Free

Ignore the smoke screen thrown up by Israel and its apologists. The real reason for the lack of an enduring Mideast peace deal is the Israeli occupation.

Israeli Vice Premier Moshe Ya'alon recently penned an article for Foreign Policy that perniciously distorts the Palestinian commitment to a lasting peace, and misrepresents our sincere efforts to find a diplomatic solution to this conflict. Let me correct the record.

Ya'alon's inflammatory rhetoric is designed to disguise the simple truth that the conflict between Israel and the Arab and Muslim worlds is the result of Israel's occupation of Palestinian and Arab territory, and the subsequent denial of equality and liberty to the people of our region.

The simple and overriding truth is this: Palestinians must be free. This overriding moral prerogative remains the driving force for every aspect of Palestinian political, social, cultural, and artistic expression. It is why the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was created, and it remains the raison d'etre for every one of our efforts.

There is nothing peculiar or unique about the Palestinian drive for liberty in our own land -- the land of our fathers, grandfathers, and their grandfathers -- living side by side with a secure Israel. The basic human impulse for freedom is shared by every man, woman, and child around the globe. This is why the Palestinian struggle for freedom has become so iconic throughout the world for those concerned with justice and civil rights. From Brazil to Turkey, from Indonesia to South Africa, from Bosnia and Herzegovina to the United Kingdom, Palestinians stand as an icon for the responsibility of each of us to work for the freedom of any who remain oppressed.

This is true here in the United States as well -- a nation founded on the ethos of freedom and liberty. In this respect alone, Palestinians and Americans share an often unspoken but unbreakable bond.

The technocratic language of negotiations can make even a policy wonk yawn. But this jargon of the peace process does more than bore readers -- it obfuscates the most salient facts about our drive for independence. The Palestinian goal is to be free; free to live in our own country, free to build where we want, free to travel wherever and whenever we want, free to only pay taxes to a government chosen by us and that represents us and our interests, free to not worry every day and every minute about our security and the security of our children. This week's report by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel documenting Israel's detention of over 1,000 Palestinian children from East Jerusalem this year alone cannot but break the heart of any parent, and reinforces the urgency of our struggle.

Perhaps because our cause is so universal, those opposing our freedom have concentrated their efforts on misdirection -- especially in the United States, whose role remains critical in ensuring a speedy and peaceful end to the occupation. Americans are told by Israeli officials and their apologists that Israel would be happy to provide Palestinians their freedom but that Palestinians themselves have rejected "generous" offers for their own liberty.

The truth is not quite so remarkable.

At Camp David in 2000, then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak made an unwritten offer that would have kept Palestinian airspace, the electromagnetic sphere, international crossing points, and water resources under Israeli control. The "Barak Offer" called for a land swap that would have traded land on a 9 to 1 ratio in favor of Israel and failed to provide an acceptable solution to the Palestinian refugee problem and Jerusalem, two fundamental issues for Palestinians. It also would have allowed Israel to keep a military presence in the future Palestinian state. The only written proposal at Camp David was submitted by the Palestinians, regarding the refugee issue; the Israelis never responded.

At Camp David, Palestinians were offered a state with no sovereignty, no capital in Jerusalem, and no just solution to the refugee problem. This is the reason that talks failed -- not because of Palestinian intransigence or rejectionism, as has become the standard narrative in mainstream American political and media discourse.

The next round of serious talks, between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in 2008, did not produce an "Olmert Offer," although the two leaders discussed all permanent status issues extensively.

Toward the end of their meetings, Olmert showed President Abbas a map of proposed land swaps to compensate for land that Israel wanted to annex -- about 6.8 percent of the West Bank -- as part of an agreement. The Palestinians requested that Olmert put forth a written proposal, and also submitted 14 questions to the Israelis seeking clarifications on important issues on questions pertaining to the permanent status issues. Again, the Israelis never responded to either request. Contacts then broke down after Israel's savage attack on the Gaza Strip in December 2008, and Olmert subsequently resigned after being implicated in a corruption scandal.

Over the past 10 months, Palestinians have, either directly or, through the United States, made offers and submitted ideas to the Israelis on every one of the permanent status issues. The Palestinians did not sit around and wait for the so-called moratorium to lapse, as some claim. Over the past four months of indirect talks and the one month of direct negotiations -- all hosted by the Obama administration -- Israel has refused to respond to Palestinian and U.S. urging to engage on the core issues, such as the future of Jerusalem, refugees, settlements, security and water issues. This has been the sad reality since Benjamin Netanyahu became prime minister 20 months ago.

The topic of settlement construction is also rife with misunderstanding and deliberate distortion. Israeli leaders have recently argued that settlements only occupy 1.7 percent of Palestinian territory, yet the military infrastructure for supporting these settlers, which includes walls, checkpoints, and "Israeli-only" roads, keeps over 82 percent of the West Bank out of Palestinian hands.

Even the question of recognition has become a red herring. The PLO recognized Israel's right to exist within its 1967 borders in 1988, and has repeatedly restated its position on this matter ever since. The PLO even convened its parliament in exile in 1998 to reiterate this acceptance in the presence of former U.S. President Bill Clinton. To this day, our recognition of Israel remains unreciprocated by the Israeli Knesset or the ruling Likud party.

Palestinians, however, are not passive victims. Our rights are not subject to or conditional on Israeli recognition or acceptance of them. Our rights to be free and to live in equality in our own homeland and our own state are inalienable. We appreciate the United States' continued efforts to end the occupation that began in 1967, but we are not sitting still waiting for freedom to be delivered to us.

To achieve our aims, we are entitled to resort to all peaceful, nonviolent, and legal means. This includes, but is not limited to, taking our case to the United Nations and other international forums, calling on other countries to recognize a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders, and working with the international community to realize Palestinian national rights of self-determination and statehood.

The irony for Israel is that its best guarantee for security and survival is not the continued humiliation and subjugation of the Palestinian people, but rather our freedom and independence. Israel's blinkered policies will never convince Palestinians to give up their legitimate right to liberty, and it is only true freedom that can ultimately make for the best neighbors.