America in Decline? Think Again

By Edward Lawrence

The chorus of declinists has returned. Imperial overstretch in Afghanistan and Iraq, we are told, has imposed impossible burdens upon our military, while over-consumption and a mountain of debt has ravaged our economy. Meanwhile, a specter lurks in the East, as China's GDP grows ever larger, and its army and navy grow ever stronger. Beijing's star rises as Washington's falls. The unipolar moment is over, and Americans must learn to live within their means and adapt to a new international pecking order where theirs is one voice among many, instead of the loudest and most important. Or so say a bevy of our most learned academics and political leaders-including President Barack Obama, who boldly declared to the United Nations in September that "no one nation . . . can dominate another." America, it seems, has had its fatted calf and found it lacking.

If all this seems vaguely familiar, that's because it is. In the 1970s, the United States was supposed to be finished as a superpower. Our disastrous anti-Communist adventure in Vietnam had broken our armed forces, and stagflation seemed to have sapped our economic might. The Soviet Union, our great rival in geopolitics, was on a roll, supporting Communist insurgencies and uprisings in Africa, and invading Afghanistan in 1979. In that same year, Iran erupted in flames as the friendly government of the shah was deposed, and Islamist fanatics held hundreds of American citizens in captivity. The prestige of the United States had never sunk so low. Washington seemed powerless to stop these indignities, and looked to be a wounded dinosaur flailing about in a new environment it could not fathom.

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Our economic well being was in danger too. Japan, another rising power in the East, was purchasing great quantities of American debt and had purportedly found an economic model that was more efficient and productive than our own. Given these sobering realities, President Jimmy Carter asked Americans to recognize that our day in the sun had ended, and that it was time to adapt to a new world where the power and influence of the United States was dramatically reduced.

Fortunately, the American people didn't acquiesce to his demands. In 1980, they elected Ronald Reagan, who refused to believe that America's day was over, and encouraged its citizens to share in his optimism. Over the course of the next decade, many of the nightmare scenarios of the gloomy declinists proved to be completely wrong. Instead of inaugurating a new era of Communist hegemony, the 1970s proved to be the apotheosis of the Soviet Empire, which imploded in domestic and economic turmoil only a decade later-leaving the United States unchallenged as the world's superpower.

On the financial front, Reagan's pro-growth policies and Paul Volcker's work at the Federal Reserve tamed stagflation, making America fiscally healthy once again. And although Japan enjoyed a booming economy throughout the 1980s, it hardly eclipsed the United States as the world's premier economic power. The next decade would prove to be a "lost" one for Japan, while America embarked on one of the largest economic booms in history. In 1999, the United States stood astride the world as a noble colossus-and it hardly seemed possible that just twenty years before some had predicted its impending doom.

So perhaps, in our moment of alleged decline, we find ourselves in a time similar to 1979 - for although history never repeats itself exactly, it does occasionally sound a few familiar notes. The challenges America faces - Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and the economy, to name a few - are daunting. It would be incredibly foolish to assume that just because the country has endured rough patches in the past that it can do the same again. But the knowledge that we have been in a similar position should provide some comfort. In the early 1980s, our elected leaders weren't afraid to try out unorthodox strategies to solve the nation's problems: tax cuts, deregulation, increased military spending, and a harder stance toward the Soviet Union. New ideas- some untested - proved to work, and our country emerged stronger for it. We need the same sort of policy innovation from our leaders today.

For now, however, declinism will continue to be a popular meme. It should be, as, in this time of economic calamity, it is a good career choice: many of those arguing that America is in decline now are the same ones who did so thirty years ago. They have made a livelihood out of telling America's misfortune. Let's give them a few more decades.

Edward Lawrence is an assistant editor at The National Interest.

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