Stock tickers flash prices past a U.S. flag at the New York Stock Exchange, Feb. 10, 2011. Germany's Deutsche Boerse AG may take over the NYSE. NYSE Euronext Inc. may merge with Deutsche Boerse, owner of the Frankfurt stock exchange.
Magazine or Newspaper Article, Foreign Policy
March 8, 2011
Author: Joseph S. Nye, Harvard University Distinguished Service Professor
Belfer Center Programs or Projects: International Security
"Zakaria is one of our most perceptive analysts of America's role in the world, and I generally agree with him. But in the case of his new special essay for Time, "Are America's Best Days Behind Us?," I think he paints too gloomy a picture of American decline.
Americans are prone to cycles of belief in decline, and the term itself confuses various dimensions of changing power relations. Some see the American problem as imperial overstretch (though as a percentage of GDP, the United States spends half as much on defense as it did during the Cold War); some see the problem as relative decline caused by the rise of others (though that process could still leave the United States more powerful than any other country); and still others see it as a process of absolute decline or decay such as occurred in the fall of ancient Rome (though Rome was an agrarian society with stagnant economic growth and internecine strife).
Such projections are not new. As Zakaria notes, America's Founding Fathers worried about comparisons to the decline of the Roman Republic. A strand of cultural pessimism is simply very American, extending back to the country's Puritan roots. English novelist Charles Dickens observed a century and a half ago: "[I]f its individual citizens, to a man, are to be believed, [America] always is depressed, and always is stagnated, and always is at an alarming crisis, and never was otherwise."
In the last half-century, polls showed Americans believed in their decline after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957, after Richard Nixon's devaluation of the dollar and the oil shocks in the 1970s, and after the closing of Rust Belt industries and the budget deficits of Ronald Reagan's administration in the 1980s. At the end of that decade, a majority of Americans believed their country was in decline; yet within the next 10 years they believed that America was the sole superpower. And now, after the 2008 financial crisis and recession, polls show a majority believes in decline again. These cycles of declinism tell us more about Americans' collective psychology than underlying shifts in power resources...."
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