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January 27, 2011 4:01 pm

Is America really in decline?

avatar by David Bratslavsky

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Has American power, influence, and economic strength reached it's apex? Photo: Atlantic Council.

Has American power, influence, and economic strength reached it’s apex?  James Fallows says no.  Gideon Rachman says yes.  Tom Friedman says maybe.

It would seem that America is in relative decline.  The GDPs of other countries (i.e. Russia, India, China, Brazil) are catching up more quickly than we’re advancing.  But emerging economies are not necessarily bad for the US.  Global economic growth, so long as it does not strain available energy resources and create unsustainable trade imbalances, can increase trade and result in a win-win growth scenario for both America and emerging economies.

On the other hand, economic growth is the new barometer of power and influence.  And it usually funds an increase in military strength.  While America’s military is overstretched, emerging countries are increasing their defense budgets and becoming more assertive in advancing their geopolitical interests. Their interests often come at the expense of our interests.  Think Iran’s nuclear program or China’s policy vis-a-vis Taiwan.

Still, the economic and military growth of emerging countries should be put in perspective. Other countries are growing more quickly because they have much more room to grow. India doubled its GDP in the last six years while ours grew 30%. But India’s GDP is still only 1/10th of the United States even though India has four times as many people. China has grown at staggering rates since the 1970s and recently overtook Japan as the world’s second biggest economy. But its GDP, to be shared by 1.3 billion people, is 1/3 of the US.

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In terms of military strength, our defense expenditure’s account for 46% of the world’s total. The next biggest country is China, which accounts for 6.6% of the world’s total. We are in the middle of a war and our military is more expensive to maintain, but this explains only a portion of why we spend so much in military expenditures. Mostly, these statistics reflect the fact that we are well ahead of any other country in our military capabilities.

So we may be losing relative power, but we are still better off than most in terms of absolute economic and military strength. The question is how long and to what degree we can maintain this edge.

Another consideration when assessing relative strength is ‘relative to what?’ Americans generally do not measure personal progress relative to other countries. We measure our quality of life relative to ourselves, our neighbors, and our expectations. We’re keeping up with the Joneses, not the Changs of Shanghai or the Singhs of New Delhi.  Likewise, those in the developing world, while no doubt coveting American style comfort, are judging their progress on where they were yesterday, where their neighbors are today, and where they hope to be tomorrow. Since we’re in an economic slump relative to where we were and major developing countries are in an economic boom relative to where they were, it would explain why Americans (and Western countries generally) are overtaken by a spell of pessimism, while many in the developing world are optimistic. Here’s an interesting observation in a recent issue of The Economist:

According to the Pew Research Centre, some 87% of Chinese, 50% of Brazilians and 45% of Indians think their country is going in the right direction, whereas 31% of Britons, 30% of Americans and 26% of the French do. Companies, meanwhile, are investing in “emerging markets” and sidelining the developed world. “Go east, young man” looks set to become the rallying cry of the 21st century.

This raises another question – To what degree will our future success be a self-fulfilled prophecy? Optimism fuels investment, which fuels progress.  While our strength relative to other countries is important to consider, it may be that we need to start worrying less about China overtaking the US and focus more on what we can do to solve our problems and create real hope for our future. If we do that successfully, we can stay ahead of the pack.

David Bratslavsky analyzes US foreign policy and the Middle East. He studied politics, language and religion in Washington, D.C., Tel Aviv, Cairo and Jerusalem. Become a Facebook fan of Street Smart Politics.  Follow on Twitter.

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