Thanks to an upcoming UMBC student seminar focused on American decline, I've been thinking a lot about what ails our great country. So much is being written lately on this subject. In my own travels and discussions with fellow Americans, I've noticed a disconcerting unease about the nation's future.
In fact, there is growing evidence that for the first time in United States history, our best days may be behind us. Some of the reasons are external and largely beyond our control, such as the rising competition from fast-developing nations. For example, just six countries — Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Russia and South Korea — are projected to account for half the globe's economic growth between now and 2025.
Although American political decisions can affect global economic patterns, for the most part we can do little to alter the planet's deepest currents. So let's instead address factors within our control — for doing so is both a solution and, as I shall argue, a worthy outcome in its own right.
The accumulated list of domestic problems is long. Some believe American decline arises from loose borders, a surge in illegal immigrants and what they fear is an inevitable disappearance of good-paying, industrial-sector jobs, not to mention the fading of our cultural values and hard-work ethic. Others believe working hard in America is rewarded less today because of a national failure to make the types of long-term investments in infrastructure — in education at both the primary and secondary levels, roads, bridges, technology — that are vital to staying competitive in a post-industrial economy, not to mention the crippling costs of health care.
And almost everyone agrees that myopic politicians in Washington and our equally dysfunctional state governments can produce little more than incremental adjustments at a time when courageous, broad-based reforms are needed.
My own view is that the United States is heading into a period of gradual, self-removal from our role as lone superpower. It will be gradual because, even though we now account for less than 5 percent of the world's population, we remain the world's largest economy (almost a fourth of global GDP) and boast the by-far largest military (almost half of global defense spending). Short of annexing Canada and Mexico into a new United States of North America, why should we expect — and frankly, why would we want — to run the world when 19 of every 20 people on the planet aren't American?
As important, relinquishing this burden can and should be self-determined. Indeed, a close look back over the past quarter century reveals a growing preference for withdrawing from the heavy-is-the-crown burdens of serving as the post-war global hegemon. If not an America-first sensibility, what other possible thread can connect the otherwise disparate politics of George H.W. Bush's "kinder, gentler" nation, to Ross Perot's insistence on internal fiscal discipline, to Bill Clinton's post-Cold War call for domestic public investments, to Pat Buchanan's protectionism, to Ralph Nader's rants against the offshoring of personal and corporate wealth?
Notice, too, that the most notable exception to this inward-looking tendency — the neoconservative-inspired pre-emptive invasion of Iraq — was an unparalleled disaster that only reinforced the underlying, pre-Sept. 11 urge to disengage and re-dedicate ourselves back home. A growing number of Americans want to scale back defense spending, and large majorities want to reduce foreign aid; the public wants these monies kept here.
When George Washington voluntarily yielded the presidency to John Adams, it signaled neither personal weakness nor the failure of America's new constitutional system. No: It testified to the world the strength of a confident governing model based on the novel idea that true power is ceded, not hoarded. Given that all empires prior to ours relinquished power reluctantly via defeat or internal decline, why shouldn't America set a similar, global precedent by opting not to run the world forever?
Chest-thumping nationalists may scream that American power is vital in a dangerous world. But the United States will never recede from the global scene entirely, nor shrink from future threats. Besides, a nation weak at home is doomed for weakness abroad. To lead the world anew we must lead ourselves first.
Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears every other Wednesday. His email is email@example.com. Twitter: @schaller67.