Could the United States go down the same track toward contented (well, most of the time), pretty-good-power status? The British experience suggests that the first step is to accept you have a problem. The simple fact that Britain couldn't afford to keep its empire together after World War II helped forge that acceptance -- and it might resonate in the United States at the moment.
Perhaps Washington could take a baby step or two toward scaling back its global commitments by returning the defense budget to its Reagan-era average, a move that would save about $250 billion a year. Surely what was good enough for a world riven by the Cold War, when the Warsaw Pact had 249 combat divisions and we lived in constant threat of global thermonuclear Armageddon, is also good enough for the United States today -- at a time when al Qaeda apparently has fewer than 100 fighters left in Afghanistan. And it really would be a baby step: Even with a $250 billion cut, the United States would still outspend China about four times over.
Defense cuts would allow the United States to tend to a few other priorities, which just might take Americans' minds off the fact that their country is no longer No. 1. Perhaps the United States could focus on constructing a high-speed rail line or two, or maybe even finish the job on extending health care. After all, of the large economies that enjoyed a AAA rating from Standard & Poor's last week, the United States ranked at the bottom of the list in terms of life expectancy, and it was the only country without universal health care. Perhaps America could also spend a little more on basic education; the United States was at the tail end of the AAA club when it came to believing basic scientific truths like evolution, and it scored lowest out of all those countries on international tests of students' math skills.
The end of Britain's imperial ambitions allowed the country to abandon national service and just relax a little. Similarly, with less need to flag the martial spirit through adrenaline-pumping threat alerts and wars on terror, the United States could find a moment to reform its criminal justice system; another international indicator where the United States remains in the lead, after all, is in percentage of its population behind bars. And once America accepts it doesn't need to work every waking hour to keep up with the Soviets, Japanese, or Chinese, perhaps it could take time for a vacation. At the moment, there is no statutory minimum for paid leave in the United States. Even Singapore provides seven days, and the rest of the AAA club gives employees minimums ranging from 18 to 30 days.
As to foreign relations, the United States couldn't -- and wouldn't -- follow Britain's example and join the European Union, but here too, there could be scope for baby steps. What about signing up for the International Criminal Court or taking a less obstructive line during climate negotiations? In fact, a decline from hyperpower status will doubtless help prolong the upward trend in international opinion of the United States. It's even possible that the U.S. government could get more done in the world by playing nice than barging around on its own.
Whatever happens to the United States in the global economic rankings, it will remain a great country. Accepting -- even embracing -- decline will serve as a reminder that American exceptionalism is built on a set of values, not stock indices. If the S&P downgrade helps the United States foster a shift toward prioritizing the good life over great-power status, perhaps it will be seen as a blessing in disguise. What's more, the United States starts out its decline with many advantages over 1950s Britain. Not least, in large parts of the country, it is already possible to find a good restaurant -- something that took the Brits 30-plus years of not-so-bad power status to achieve.