Mitt Romney, the likely challenger to President Obama this fall, has had a few public-speaking gaffes. There is one theme, however, that Romney has hit on -- and will likely many more times -- that should be taken much more seriously. It is the conservative contention about American decline. Beyond outright denial, the spin has fast become Manichaean. It's become un-American to talk about national decline. Even Obama has bought into this, saying in this year's State of the Union speech: "Anyone who tells you that America is in decline or that our influence has waned doesn't know what they're talking about." In other words, anyone who thinks America is in decline is not, to use the Merrill Lynch tag, "bullish on America."
The American decline argument is a false one, and not because American decline is false. The complete denial, while understandable, is dangerous. It not only presents the greatest danger to achieving the collective wisdom to rise above the pointless bickering and move on; ironically, it contributes to it.
Fareed Zakaria, in last week's GPS, albeit somewhat apologetic about a word that appears in the title of his latest book, explained it well. In addition to his well-known "rise of the rest" mantra, to put American decline in perspective, he noted what we were witnessing was not American decline as much as the end of American dominance.
Fair enough, even for the staunchest of conservatives, who may recall that President Reagan, in the 1987 National Security Strategy, remarked that "The United States no longer ha[s] an overwhelming economic position vis-a-vis Western Europe and the East Asia rimland." In 1990, his successor similarly observed: "It was inevitable that our overwhelming economic predominance after the war would be reduced."
Of course: When you start off, in 1945, owning 50,000 combat aircraft, 5,000 naval ships, 96 divisions, the world's only atomic weapon, and possessing the only intact economy in the world comprising nearly half its gross national product, there's nowhere to go but down -- in relative terms. We've been dominant for so long that now we think we're entitled to it.
The "rise of the rest," which has been going for more than a half a century, is the product of how successful a job the United States has done as Chairman of the Board of Planetary Management. We are victims of our own success, having globalized everything but ourselves.
But something even larger than that is afoot. What we're witnessing now is a grand sweep of history that will ultimately force us to change our individual as well as national behavior. Consider this: Since the war of 1812, Americans did not have to care much about the rest of the world -- we could afford our ignorance and "splendid isolationism"; since the Civil War, the U.S. looked to win its wars, deter its adversaries, and assure its allies through overwhelming industrial and technological superiority predicated on an abundance of cheap resources, cheap labor, cheap energy, and cheap capital -- we could afford a wasteful, surplus mentality; and because of our dominance since 1945, we could afford our unilateral freedom of action and archaic view of sovereignty while everyone else was internationalizing.
Now we have to say goodbye to all that.
In all walks of life, Americans have to learn to look at things more globally and with a longer view. In other words, more strategically. Strategy is fundamentally about making choices about the future, and a strategic mindset is driven, more than anything, by scarcity. Because Americans once had everything, like adolescents, we didn't have to make choices. Now, as aging adults, we had to choose more in advance, set priorities, and make tradeoffs. Not such a bad thing, because in many ways it means we'll be able to do more with less, and still live very well if not better than before.
The real danger is not from those who say our place in the world is diminished and that we should somehow better manage it, but those who interpret this as weakness, looking rather to fill us with happy talk about restoring American greatness and glory. It's living in the past and not the future (where Americans have traditionally looked toward). It also detracts from a sober confrontation with those things that threaten real decline -- our dysfunctional government, especially our national security system, fiscal insolvency, inferior education and infrastructure, etc. Among the greatest threats to the long-term national security of the United States is widening socioeconomic inequality, to the point of national instability, and the decline of the middle class.
America cannot be restored; it can only be re-invented. Which is why the Obama re-election committee would be wise to transcend the whole issue of American decline by focusing on American reinvention.
Among America's greatest strengths is its ability to re-invent itself and spare itself from a fate shared by others. Want some good examples of has-been powers that can't seem to move on? Just take a look at Putin's Russia. Or Japan. Even, perhaps, to some extent, Europe.
America has yet again arrived at a time that it must re-invent itself, wholesale and not retail. We can remain in denial about the transformed global landscape and our changed abilities, and fail to heed Tom Friedman's 2011 warning that we need to choose between a "bad decade" of painful reforms or face a "bad century" of real decline and loss of control of our destiny. Or, like Rip Van Winkle, we will awake to discover ourselves in a world we can neither comprehend nor live well in, the reality eviscerating our over-inflated self-image of American omnipotence and entitlement to greatness -- and fueling a public anger and frustration that will make the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street look like walks in the park.
From individuals from coast to coast who have lost their careers and found new livelihoods, to sports teams that rise from mediocrity to become champions, automakers once left for dead, and governments at local, state, and federal levels, we are called to re-invent ourselves. Because change is a constant, reinvention is a process as natural as rise and decline, in both senses.
The difference between decline and reinvention is this: What we refuse to experience positively we will most assuredly experience negatively.