The American Apocalypse: A Premature Obituary

America’s rule of the globe is coming to an end. Destroyed, we’re told, by China. Fear is a terrific motivator—at least in the short term. So plenty of economists and business people go about earning their stripes with apocalyptic warnings about our soon demise. But, actually, that notion and its underpinnings are all nonsense.

Fear gets to us even when reason suggests otherwise. A few decades ago, the alarmism was all about the Japanese and their booming economy. And you know what happened there. Still the fear is a great vote-getter for some opportunistic politicians.

But Harvard’s Joseph Nye has put a dagger in the hearts of those who like to propagandize about our soon demise. You may not know Nye, but “all roads to understanding American foreign policy run through Nye.”  He’s the one who pioneered the notions of soft power and smart power. Nye, an elder statesman, illuminates the issues in his monograph “Is the American Century Over?”

Here’s his rationale for assessing political opportunism and for sleeping well at night.

“Americans have a long history of worrying about their decline.” It dates from the Puritans who fretted about fall from earlier virtue. The Founding Fathers also lamented that our republic might fall apart at the seams, like Rome.

Today the right fears the encroaching role of government will be the culprit. Great stuff for getting Conservative votes. Typical of the left wing response is that of Michael Lind of the New America Foundation, who has written that “with America’s foreign policy in a state of collapse, its economy ailing and its democracy broken, the American century ended last year.” Great stuff for book sales.

Joseph Nye disagrees strongly—and wisely. A veteran of long experience with superb education, he’s a lot more optimistic. Indeed, he argues that the US will still be leader of the globe in the 2040s.

Who else can provide an alternative?

Not Europe. Its economy and population are larger than the US. But dig down into the demographics and you’ll find that Europe is stagnating. In 1900 a quarter of the world’s population were Europeans.  But by 2060 that figure might just be 6%. And they’ve got a fertility problem. In 2060 a third of the population will be over 65 years of age.

–Not India. The demographics differ here too. By 2025, India will be the most populous nation on earth. Its diaspora, exemplified by Indian-Americans, has a lot of soft power. But only 63% of Indians are literate, and literacy development is a long, tough slough. And none of its universities are in the global 100. The Economist suggests that India could only eclipse American if it formed an American alliance with China. That’s highly unlikely, since Indians are “well-disposed toward America and highly suspicious of Beijing.”

–Not China. Certainly she’s the likeliest contender. Its military is the largest. And so is its economy—or at least it soon will be. But it will be decades before China will be as rich or as technically sophisticated as the States. And the demographics aren’t pretty. By 2030 it will have more of the elderly than children. And what will that do for vitality? Furthermore, China has no strong friends—unless you count North Korea and Zimbabwe.

Yeah, I know. Nothing is more dangerous than the tendency to extrapolate from a recent trend. But that applies to business and economics. Not so certain for nations.

The real threat
It may well be that the greatest threats to our dominance are at home. Our kids are pretty bad at science,math and statistics. And in many places, our infrastructure is in the shitter. And a huge proportion of Americans are disillusioned—frustrated—with government. But even here, Prof Nye sees hope: 82% of Americans say America is the best place to live. And you’d have to blind not to recognize that much of the world population sees America as the magnet. Furthermore, in spite of hate crimes and bias, we’re far, far more welcoming of immigrants than the rest of the world.

One comment from Thomas Jefferson has a long history of relevance: “we should not worry too much about the level of confidence in government.”

Furthermore, world leadership is not the same as world domination. One is about the power of the military and the other is about influence. On the basis of influence, our status is unimpeachable.


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