Foreign Affairs

Examining Declinism

Writing from his perch at the New York Times (2/8/10) Paul Krugman notes “We’ve always known that America’s reign as the world’s greatest nation would eventually end. But most of us imagined that our downfall, when it came, would be something grand and tragic.”

It isn’t clear who the “we” is in this paragraph, nor is “downfall” as obvious as Mr. Krugman infers. But the position is part of a declinist stance that has insinuated itself into elitist positions. And there is some justification for it.

After all, the Obama administration acts as if the U.S. should engage in withdrawal from all international obligations except those channeled through the United Nations or other international organizations.

With Obama’s 2010 budget, 42 cents of every dollar the federal government spends will have to be borrowed. In the last decade, foreign investors wound up lending the U.S. about half of the federal debt — with China and Japan providing about 50 percent of that sum through the purchase of U.S. Treasury securities. In fact, China is the largest holder of U.S. dollars in the world, a position that might compromise U.S. foreign policy decisions in the Pacific and elsewhere.

It is also evident that U.S. educational institutions have failed to keep American students competitive with foreign rivals in science, engineering and technology – the drivers in the global economy. With the exception of one or two nations, the U.S. students score near the bottom on international math and science tests.

These conditions are wrapped into a culture of debasement as American “bread and circuses” become a national preoccupation. Most young people are more likely to know the name of the “American Idol” winner than the name of the Secretary of Defense.

Clearly these arguments are salient, but what they overlook is just as salient. Americans are conspicuously resilient. The liberties built into the national founding may be dormant for a time, but they have not evanesced.

President Obama may act as if the U.S. must engage in preemptive conciliation. So too did President Jimmy Carter, but his successor, Ronald Reagan, saw the world differently and restored U.S. power and prestige. My guess it could happen again.

The financial obligations we have with China are worrisome. However, China is as dependent on the U.S. as we on it. Americans buy Chinese imports and help to stir China’s remarkable growth. China’s trade policy is dependent on keeping the American consumer buying its products in Wal-Mart stores.

While American students score unfavorably on international tests, the best and brightest can take advantage of the nation’s openness to start new businesses and engage in technical breakthroughs. America’s advantage in relatively free and open markets has not been duplicated by any of our economic rivals.

It might appear that the nation is amusing itself to death with debased television programming like “Jersey Shore,” but the United States remains a complex nation with evidence of a resurgence in historical matters and even signs of resistance to the insidious influence of political correctness.

It wasn’t so long ago when former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger reportedly told Admiral Elmo Zumwalt that “The day of the United States is past and today is the day of the Soviet Union. My job as Secretary of State is to negotiate the most acceptable second — best position available.”

We now know that President Reagan contended that claims of America’s second best position were greatly exaggerated.

There was a time in the 1980’s when it was widely believed by many economists that the Japanese economy would bypass the United States as the world’s leading economic force. I doubt anyone would make that argument today.

Needless to say, there are areas of concern in the national culture, political system and the economy. But, as I see it, decline is a choice elitists like Paul Krugman have chosen to adopt. Most Americans would prefer to fight rather than decline and it would be a grave mistake to underestimate their strength and determination.

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