An unjustified sense of doom preoccupies the mind of almost every American. Military overstretch, debt, political corruption and the rise of rival global powers are often cited as indicators.
America's anxiety is unjustified. Predictions are wrong. The United States will remain a superpower.
America's prowess was never about its currently unmatched military might. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union commanded the world's biggest army with advanced technology. Today China, the presumably rising superpower, can certainly muster more boots than America. Beijing military spending is catching up with Washington too. It is very conceivable China's military will soon stand ahead of its American counterpart, just like Russia in the past.
America's power has not been about its economic prosperity either. While a cornerstone of the nation's supremacy, the economy has always had its upturns and downturns. None of the downturns was, or will be, as debilitating as some might suggest.
On the contrary, economic slowdowns have always served as wake up calls to cut excesses and correct the market through regulation or deregulation. An economy is like a human nervous system, if exposed to long stretches of either happiness or sadness, it will break down.
Political corruption, also, will not lead to America's downfall. Political jockeying has been a staple of all democracies, America included. America's political system has proven to be one of the most resilient in the world. Since 1789, the nation has elected 44 presidents and 111 Congresses. Freedom of expression, a precious element of democracy enshrined in the constitution, is as sacred as it can get.
Rotation of power, checks and balances, freedom of expression, equality for all - native and immigrants -- have always helped pump new blood and new ideas into the American system. The election of an African-American president remains the best proof that America is still improving. According to an old wisdom, things that change don't die.
American fear of world competition is inflated too. China, the expected superpower, is the world's biggest sweatshop. Its budgetary surpluses are not enough to turn the country into a superpower. Only democracy, a system the Chinese regime rejects, might turn Beijing into such a power.
In an essay in Foreign Affairs in June, Richard Levin, President of Yale University, argued that China realizes that it cannot depend on cheap labor forever, that in a decade or so it will lose this competitive edge, and will eventually need skilled workers, who in turn require competitive universities with faculty promotion based on merit and peer review. This means that China will have to scrap the powerful position of Communist Party Secretary General at its colleges.
Beijing knows that if it loosens its grip on universities, academics might become independent and critical. This would jeopardize China's non-democratic system. Therefore universities in China will not produce skilled workers, competitive at a world level, until China democratizes.
So, when China loses its cheap labor, it will have to either democratize in order to compete in research and development, or its economy will overheat, lose its edge and hit a ceiling. If China democratizes, its already aging population, just like their peers in Western democracies, will demand life luxuries.
A consumer middle class is a threat to China's surpluses. Such consumers might also grow a taste for democracy and give the regime a headache. And, while the Chinese middle class is expanding, China's sweatshops will be contracting.
For China, it is either democracy and normal economic growth, or an unsustainable super growth.
Over the past century, America has been the world's superpower because it has endorsed and defended a system of values that was the product of the European Age of Enlightenment.
Democracy, equality, freedom of expression and human rights - among other invaluable concepts - have been the source of America's power. America's system of governance is not perfect, but certainly the best humanity has so far produced. Such a system is a prerequisite for the emergence and preservation of any superpower. Without it, the Soviets, the Chinese and many other growing countries might shine for a while, only to see their glow later dimming.
Europe was the cradle of enlightenment. But its nations, at times, strayed away by either conquering and enslaving other peoples, going to war with each other, or decimating their own populations, like during the Holocaust.
Despite strokes of imperial behavior, like in Vietnam in the past or staying pointlessly in Afghanistan in the present, America has genuinely tried to play the role of liberator, rather than conqueror. The United States has always been the world's beacon of democracy and freedom to the extent that the world's autocrats cry foul and accuse America of intervening in their affairs.
A few centuries after its inception, America has been powerful because of observing its values. America will stop being a superpower only when humanity invents a new system of government that beats the values of enlightenment. In such case, America will either have to endorse the new values, or lose its supremacy to whoever does.
The downfall of the once great Roman Empire, an example often drawn when talking about the end of American power, did not happen because of Rome's military expeditions -- the source of its supremacy in the first place.
Rome died because humanity had discovered a better system that called for equality between Roman citizens and non-citizens. A new Christian Constantinople, more adaptable to the changing human needs, replaced the old polytheistic Rome that was going against history by refusing to adapt.
America is not Rome. As long as the United States preserves its values and constantly improves them, it will remain the world's only superpower.
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