Countering the Narrative of American Decline

On the eve of a monumental presidential election, the United States ought to do a bit of soul-searching. Discontent pervades the nation: about two-thirds of Americans believe the country is on the ‘wrong track.’ In fact, many seem to believe that the country is already in perilous decline. A presidential candidate has galvanized his base, appealed to the disaffected, and cemented his brand of change by peddling the sentiment that our best days are well behind us unless he is elected.

The metric that many pundits and critics use to promote the idea of American decline is our country’s standing in the world—or at least their perception of it. They cite decreasing economic robustness, weakening military strength, and waning political influence vis-a-vis other important global actors.

Vladimir Putin rolled his tanks into Crimea and is still meddling in Ukraine. Bashar al-Assad has continued to cross President Obama’s “red line.” China is dredging up islands to create military installments in the South China Sea. In the face of aggressive posturing by adversaries abroad, the current U.S. grand strategy is written off as timid and feckless. Slashes to defense spending and a new doctrine of prudence evoke images of an impotent U.S. military carrying its tail between its legs as it trudges into the 2020s.

In 2001, a Goldman Sachs report coined the term BRIC—Brazil, Russia, India, and China—and touted these newly industrialized countries’ meteoric rise to global economic and political prominence. This cohort was seen as a rival to the Western order. Its economic leader, China, will soon eclipse the West’s, the U.S., as the world’s biggest economy.

Once we disentangle reality from the political rhetoric and pull the honest facts from the hysteria, there is a very different story. The American people must be disabused of this narrative of American decline that so often inundates our airwaves and spews from the media and politicians alike. Consider the following:

There has never been a safer and stronger power in modern history. The U.S. spends more on defense than the next seven countries combined. With the permanent positioning of expeditionary forces and nuclear weapons around the world, the U.S. dominates every physical terrain of warfare—land, sea, air, and space—and has a military presence on every continent. The provocations and posture plays of foreign adversaries are mere saber-rattling, and could provoke proxy conflicts at worst.

Reluctance to engage should not be perceived as impotence. Instead, this strategy should be understood as what it is: a cost-averse approach willing to risk boots on the ground, and American lives, only when absolutely necessary. The protracted quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan serve as cautionary tales of risky intervention and have surely informed America’s current foreign policy.

The lack of certainty or control over the Middle East justifiably provokes anxiety and angst among Americans and the rest of the world. The region is embroiled in internecine conflict. Failed states across the region serve as breeding grounds for jihadi terrorist groups that have metastasized beyond their territories. Saudi Arabia, an ally and bulwark of defense against Iran, is occupied with the nearby Yemeni Civil War and the threats of internal extremism. Despite all this, the truth is simple: no Middle Eastern entity, state or non-state, poses any sort of existential threat.

Though the economic consequences of the 2008 financial crisis continue to reverberate around the world, the U.S. economy has made a relatively robust comeback. Compare this to BRIC’s, which have experienced dismal economic records to date. Putin presides over a deep recession, driven by plunging oil prices and international sanctions. Brazil has stumbled into a recession of record severity. China, too, is witnessing a slowdown in economic growth. BRIC, so-called challengers to the American era, aren’t the powerhouses that they were in the 2000s.

There are great 21st-century dilemmas, but they do not stem from nations. They do not start and stop within borders but are global in nature: large-scale refugee and diaspora movements, a booming illicit global trade, the unchecked catastrophic consequences of climate change, and the unpredictable threat of terrorism. The proliferation of these problems cannot be blamed exclusively on America, nor can she be exclusively expected to solve them. However, the onus is on the U.S. to lead, which it does, leading the airstrike coalition targeting ISIS, showing leadership and initiative at the COP21 Climate Accords, and providing the largest amount of foreign aid, by a large margin.

Alas, America is not a monolithic block within the global framework. There are pressing domestic issues. We’ve fallen behind many other first-world countries in intergenerational economic mobility. The Culture Wars, with battles over LGBTQ rights and race relations, are a front-burner issue again. Bloated and mounting entitlement costs threaten to hollow out the national budget. These issues threaten the unity of the country, but none of them will topple it.

Ultimately, no other state can pick up America’s mantle of global leadership. Despite countless contentions otherwise, the military and economy are in good shape. As the world’s most capable and responsible country—and its only superpower—the U.S. has the burden and privilege of keeping order. With domestic issues, regional adversaries, zones of perpetual unresolved strife, and problems of global scale and scope, it is easy to be pessimistic and prognosticate doom and gloom in America. To the contrary, as outlined above, the country has many reasons to be optimistic about its fate.

It is important to differentiate what we know from what we hear every day.

The country’s immense strengths won’t be touted on the campaign trail, nor will they capture the stories of the nightly news. The “right track, wrong track” polls are no barometer of our country’s direction—according to the polling results, we’ve been on the wrong track since 1972. The zeitgeist of much of America in 2016 is nostalgia and romanticizing the past (hint: Make America Great Again). Unfortunately, the U.S. cannot be what it was in the years following World War II, or after the fall of the Berlin Wall. So what? We live in a different time and a changing world. There is absolutely no reason to believe—nor is there any proof—that the country has lost its role as global leader and superpower.

Featured Image by Patrick Semansky / AP Photo