20080205

American "Decline"

is the foreign-policy equivalent of homelessness: The media only take note of it when a Republican is in the White House. Broadly speaking, declinists divide between those who merely accept America's supposed diminishment as a fact of life, and those who celebrate it as long overdue. As for the causes of decline, however, they tend to agree: declining (relative) economic muscle, due in large part to the rise of China; an overextended military bogged down needlessly in Iraq and endlessly in Afghanistan; the declining value of America's "brand" on account of Bush administration policies on detention, pre-emption, terrorism, global warming -- you name it.

Yet each of these assumptions collapses on a moment's inspection. In his 2006 book "Ɯberpower," German writer Josef Joffe makes the following back-of-the-envelope calculation: "Assume that the Chinese economy keeps growing indefinitely at a rate of seven percent, the average of the past decade (for which history knows of no example). . . . At that rate, China's GDP would double every decade, reaching parity with today's United States ($12 trillion) in thirty years. But the U.S. economy is not frozen into immobility. By then, the United States, growing at its long-term rate of 2.5 percent, would stand at $25 trillion."

Now take military expenditures. Yesterday, the administration released its budget proposal for 2009, which includes $515.4 billion for the regular defense budget. In inflation-adjusted dollars, this would be the largest defense appropriation since World War II. Yet it amounts to about 4% of GDP, as compared to 14% during the Korean War, 9.5% during the Vietnam War and 6% in the Reagan administration. Throw in the Iraq and Afghanistan supplementals, and total projected defense spending is still only 4.5% of GDP -- an easily afforded sum even by Prof. Kennedy's terms.

Finally there is the issue of our allegedly squandered prestige in the world. There is no doubt America's "popularity," as measured by various global opinion surveys, has fallen in recent years. What's striking, however, is how little of this has mattered in terms of the domestic political choices of other countries or the consequences for the U.S.

In the immediate aftermath of the Iraq War, nearly every government that joined President Bush's "coalition of the willing" -- Australia, Great Britain, Denmark and Japan -- was returned to power. France's Jacques Chirac and Germany's Gerhard Schroeder, the war's two most vocal opponents, were cashiered for two candidates who campaigned explicitly on a pro-American agenda. The same happened in South Korea, where the unapologetically anti-American President Roh Moo-hyun has been replaced by the unapologetically pro-American Lee Myung-bak. Italy's equally unapologetic pro-American Silvio Berlusconi seems set to return to office after a brief holiday.


From today's WSJ . As always, there is the hype and there is the truth. In medicine, one is always cognizant of this distinction with different emphasis on subjective complaints and objective findings. Too bad the media isn't so honest about the difference.

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