Barack Obama and Mitt Romney don't generally agree on much. But these days they appear to have one area of surprising consensus -- they both believe that stories of American decline are greatly exaggerated. According to Foreign Policy's own Josh Rogin, Obama has been praising Robert Kagan's recent article in the New Republic on the myth of American decline -- a perhaps not unsurprising position to take for a candidate regularly accused of being insufficiently exceptionalist. Romney -- author of No Apology: The Case for American Greatness -- also counts Kagan among his top foreign-policy advisors.
Kagan's article, as well as his new book, The World America Made, is the most obvious recent example of pushback against the declinist meme, but others have also taken up the mantle. In the recent issue of International Security, Michael Beckley wrote a widely cited piece that argues "America's Edge Will Endure" against potential rivals like China. FP's Daniel Drezner has adopted a similar view. These anti-declinists largely base their arguments around the notion that U.S. economic and military power, compared to other countries, is unsurpassed -- and will remain so for the foreseeable future.
Indeed, Kagan frames a good part of his argument around America's "relative power" -- factors such as "the size and the influence of its economy relative to that of other powers; the magnitude of military power compared with that of potential adversaries; the degree of political influence it wields in the international system."
By this notion, U.S. global power remains unparalleled and its hegemony is uncontested. There is much to sustain this argument. America today faces no great power rival, no existential threat, and an economy that -- while currently in the doldrums -- remains vibrant and adaptive. Compared to other nations, the United States is not simply a great power, it is the greatest power. Even if its influence declines, it is likely to continue to enjoy an outsized role on the international stage, in part because there is a consensus among foreign-policy elites -- like Romney and Obama, for instance -- that the U.S. must do whatever it takes to remain, as Madeline Albright once put it, "the world's 'indispensable nation.'"
There is, however, one serious problem with this analysis. Any discussion of American national security that focuses solely on the issue of U.S. power vis-à-vis other countries -- and ignores domestic inputs -- is decidedly incomplete. In Kagan's New Republic article, for example, he has little to say about the country's domestic challenges except to obliquely argue that to focus on "nation-building" at home while ignoring the importance of maintaining U.S. power abroad would be a mistake. In fact, in a recent FP debate with the Financial Times' Gideon Rachman on the issue of American decline, Kagan diagnoses what he, and many other political analysts, appear to believe is the country's most serious problem: "enormous fiscal deficits driven by entitlements." Why is this bad? It makes it harder, says Kagan, for the United States to "continue playing its vital role in the world" and will lead to significant cutbacks in defense spending.
However, a focus on U.S. global dominance or suasion that doesn't factor in those elements that constitute American power at home ignores substantial and worsening signs of decline. Indeed, by virtually any measure, a closer look at the state of the United States today tells a sobering tale of rapid and unchecked decay and deterioration in a host of areas. While not all of them are generally considered elements of national security, perhaps they should be.
Let's start with education, which almost any observer would agree is a key factor in national competitiveness. The data is not good. According to the most recent OECD report on global education standards, the United States is an average country in how it educates its children -- 12th in reading skills, 17th in science, and 26th in math. The World Economic Forum ranks the United States 48th in the quality of its mathematics and science education, even though we spend more money per student than almost any country in the world.
America's high school graduation rate is lower today that it was in the late 1960s and "kids are now less likely to graduate from high school than their parents," according to an analysis released last year by the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center. In fact, not only is the graduation rate worse than many Western countries, the United States is now the only developed country where a higher percentage of 55 to 64-year-olds have a high school diploma than 25 to 34-year-olds.