Why the Future Will Be American

Asia owns America and outworks America. India outsmarts America. The future is being assembled in Chinese factories. Barring a miracle, the American Age cannot be resuscitated or resurrected. This is conventional wisdom.

Yet none of this wisdom is true today, and quite possibly none of this will ever be true.

China is indeed a major creditor nation to overspending Westerners, and it will be home to the world's largest economy by the end of this decade. And rising giant India has urban technology centers that any nation could envy. But the recent growth of these nations and other Asian tigers does not mean that the United States is falling behind.

Per capita, China's gross domestic product ranks 94th globally, according to the International Monetary Fund. Botswana and Bosnia rank higher.

India has been growing even more rapidly than China in some recent years. But it ranks no higher than 120th in most rankings of GDP per capita, placing it below Honduras.

Large numbers do not tell whole stories. For instance, China and India have more paved roads than any other nation except the U.S.; but when ranked for the percentage of roads they have paved, they both sit around the 80th spot, in the company of Malawi and Djibouti. That puts them in a poor position to address the difficult lives of many hundreds of millions of their citizens. India may have the technological miracle of some 600 million cell phones, but most of its 1.2 billion population lacks access to flushing toilets.

China and India look better in the World Economic Forum's 2011-2012 global competitiveness index, ranking 26th and 56th overall, respectively, and 31st and 40th in innovation. But even here, they are more in the company of Tunisia than America.

The healthcare system for China's aging population is a catastrophe, and its college graduates find more opportunities in manual labor than in white-collar work. India's infrastructure is a nightmare, with most citizens soldiering on without paved roads or sanitary conditions. Both nations face massive environmental and political challenges within the next decade, in addition to corruption that chokes their ability to address such challenges.

China needs about 40 years of unbroken momentum just to catch up to American living standards; given political unrest and a cooling economy there, that seems far-fetched. And the two other so-called emerging "BRIC" nations, Russia and Brazil, face extraordinary challenges.

One could argue that the globalization game is in fact rigged in America's favor -- with other nations not being able or even willing to play it.

America was the key force in popping open the Pandoran box of globalization, with all its attendant anxieties and unintended consequences. But the globalization game is an inherently American game, and it will take a great deal of luck, strategy and determination for someone else to play the game better than Americans are able to play it.

Many societies in East and South Asia are confronting ambivalence and resistance to developments which we might see as progress, but which their traditionalists see as moral and social decline. Iran and Pakistan are just two examples of nations whose rapid modernization was undercut by underlying reactionary cultural forces. For related reasons, the various proud Asian tigers are not on an unbendable upward trajectory.

Current trends are not destiny; it is more accurate to say that culture is destiny. Western academics may deride the "unoriginal" thinking of Chinese or Indian students, but this critique is based on a narrowly Western (some would say culturally imperialistic) worldview.

Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching, still proudly full of wisdom today, stands as a reminder that disruption, individualism and innovation are heretical in many traditional societies. If they rise up in one area of a traditional society, a backlash typically follows in another. And Gandhi's spirit, so suspicious of consumer capitalism, is hardly extinct.

Meanwhile, America is the best at being America, because America is the closest thing to a society that fully relishes Americanness.

The United States has unique cultural and demographic traits -- for better and for worse: American culture is tilted toward valuing disruptive new ideas and welcoming the immigrant who brings such ideas into its society. An individualistic, heterogeneous, novelty-seeking American culture, strengthened by a critical mass of interdisciplinary American research universities that draw the world's best minds, represents a considerable edge in social and economic innovation.

For today's emerging economies to become long-term giants, rather than variations of pre-revolution Iran and the Soviet Union, they must become more economically and socially integrated. To become economically integrated, they must become culturally integrated, which means a host of conflicts are on the horizon regarding varying societal views on change, tradition, materialism, social mobility, openness, patronage and so on.

But there is a pernicious aspect to the contrived panic about America's supposed relative decline. Democrats and Republicans theatrically blame the other for wrecking the American experiment. Rather than coolly adjusting course, they unleash factions who decry compromise. And they release themselves from any short-term incentive to improve the common lot.

Americans may slow their own path if political dysfunction continues. But with even a little adjustment, a resilient, forward-thinking and forward-moving economy will result.

Is America "over" on the world stage? Hardly. The reality is that America might not be able to lose the mantle and burden of global primacy even if it wanted to.