Since the Great Recession of 2008, many have said that America's time as the leading power of the globe is past.
Mark Steyn's best-selling After America: Get Ready for Armageddon offers the bracing budgetary fact that "we need $15 trillion just to be flat broke." Thomas Friedman of the New York Times regularly suggests that China's high-speed trains and other modern accoutrements provide a stark contrast between the ever-progressing People's Republic and the physically and intellectually decaying American one. To underscore the reality of our decline, President Obama, who more than any past leader has spoken of America's many failings (real and imagined), tells us that we've "gotten a little soft" and that we lack "that same competitive edge that we needed over the last couple of decades."
But before conceding defeat, remember that this is not the first time critics have proclaimed an end to the American era.
In 1814, invading British troops burned the White House and almost took our president hostage. Less than a decade later (1823), the nation had grown strong enough to proclaim to the world's powers that the Americas were off-limits to further colonization (the Monroe Doctrine). Then followed a Civil War in which more than 625,000 Americans died - nearly a quarter of all men between 18 and 30. But two years after the war's end, with a postwar inflation rate of 180 percent in the North and more than 9,000 percent in the beleaguered South, the United States grew by 596,412 square miles with the purchase of Alaska. (The Russian sale of the territory was making a virtue of necessity; the Russians were certain we were strong and confident enough to take it from them.)
From the end of the Civil War to the end of the century, the United States endured a six-year depression (1873-79), two economic panics, and four recessions. Instead of retreating from the world stage, the country routed Spain in the war of 1898 and became a world power with holdings in the Pacific and the Caribbean. Three more recessions and two economic panics later, the United States was saving Europe from the ruinous First World War. And after four more recessions, including a severe depression from 1920-21 and a Great Depression from 1929-33, America entered World War II as a large portion of its Navy lay in smoldering ruins at Pearl Harbor. Three years, eight months, and eight days later, the American-led Allies were victorious over Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and militarist Japan. And for another half-century, the nation defended its former adversaries and other vulnerable peoples from the tender mercies of Moscow's embrace until the Soviet system toppled. America's critics would not have predicted the victory.
Lincoln Steffens proclaimed Soviet communism superior to Western capitalism ("I have seen the future and it works"), Time extolled the efficiencies of Mussolini's Fascism and Hitler's National Socialism, and Walter Duranty won a Pulitzer Prize whitewashing Stalinism in the New York Times. Leftist and multilateralist "useful idiots" of all stripes tried but could not deny the truth that American personal, economic, and political freedom defeated the statist totalitarian model, and freed hundreds of millions around the globe in the process. Today's variations on the theme will fare no better in supplanting American leadership.
The European Union's socialist facade is collapsing from within. Unable to pay its bills, the EU faces the real prospect of disintegration and decades without growth (like the 1970s Japanese miracle). Putin's Russia, though rich in natural resources, is corrupt, kleptocratic, and unhappy. And China is a growing demographic and ecological disaster that will become old and sick before it can spend the money we owe it. (A 115-males-to-100-females demographic ratio, wholesale pollution of the interior, and increasing political and economic inequality will determine the question.)
That leaves the United States - the only nation that has both the capacity and inclination to respond to international emergencies, and the place to which more people flock (legally and illegally) than the rest of the world combined. In 2012, America will have a choice between defeatist notions of class warfare and dynamic free-market American capitalism. If history is any guide, Americans will opt for creative development of our natural wealth (more gas and new oil supplies than the Middle East combined), supported by the best higher-education system in the world, and an entrepreneurial culture where the Bill of Rights enshrines private property and rewards private initiative. Go with history; bet on the American era to continue.