Is U.S. in decline? Probably, but a rebound is possible.

By Robert McCartney
Sunday, July 4, 2010

This most patriotic of holidays prompts me to ask a decidedly unpatriotic question: Is America in decline?

I'm not alone in wondering. It'd take a week to read all the books and articles on the subject in recent years.

Many compare our society today to that of the Roman Empire as the barbarians closed in. One book title posed the issue concisely as, "Are We Rome?"

It's an unusual situation for Americans. The nation's history has generally been one of extraordinary expansion and ascent. First we spread across the continent. When World War II ended, we were a superpower. When the Soviet Union collapsed, we became the only superpower.

Three developments explain the worry that we're slipping. One is the rise of China, seen as a realistic contender to replace us at the top. Another is the 2008 financial crisis, which undermined confidence in America's free-market economic model. Third is the perception that the nation is incapable of dealing effectively with obvious major challenges -- the budget deficit, unemployment, oil addiction, illegal immigration, deteriorating infrastructure.

To answer the question, it's necessary to break it into two parts. Are we in decline relative to other countries? And are we in decline in some absolute sense?

When comparing the United States with other countries, the answer depends on the area of competition.

In military strength, for instance, the United States is still unquestionably on top. Our defense spending exceeds the combined total of the next 10 highest-spending countries, and our technology is unmatched.

We're striking our most despised enemy, the al-Qaeda leadership, with drones piloted by operators sitting comfortably far from the scene. Generals fret that "combat" has become so safe for some that it's hard to justify medals honoring the traditional military virtues of valor and personal sacrifice.

Think about that. It's the kind of problem you want to have.

The picture is mixed when it comes to the "soft power" combination of diplomatic clout and all-around international influence.

George W. Bush's presidency cost us goodwill abroad. I was overseas for nearly three years of it and saw the damage caused by his rest-of-the-world-be-damned approach. It also hurt when an American institution, Wall Street, was the main culprit in the worst global business slump in seven decades.

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