The prevailing narrative about America is that its best days are over. We are becoming a third world country with antiquated infrastructure, a lousy primary education system, and an industrial base that produces fewer and fewer world class products. Yes, we still have the largest and best equipped military in the world but after fighting wars for the past nine years, the military is tired and over-worked, and the equipment is in need of a massive overhaul. This will have to be paid for with borrowed money. The United States is sinking deeper and deeper into debt. Sooner or later interest rates will soar and the dollar will plunge. In the meantime, the Asian giants plus Brazil and Turkey are all on the rise and are increasingly pulling their weight in international affairs. America’s recent “unipolar moment” after the fall of communism has long gone and we better get used to it.
All of the above is true but those of us with long memories will recall that things have been very bad in the past and then, once again, we have witnessed “morning in America.” My first years in the United States in the late 1960s were times of chaos and confusion. The passions and violence associated with the Vietnam War were far worse than anything we have seen since, including the protests over George Bush’s invasion of Iraq. Entire campuses were disrupted with bombings, sit-ins and the cancellation of classes, sometimes for weeks on end.
By late 1968, American cities were battle grounds, with Washington, DC and New York being particularly awful places to live. Race relations were terrible. The New York subways were violent, dirty, and covered with graffiti. You couldn’t walk on the streets and feel safe. There were endless strikes and a general sense that the city was ungovernable. Washington DC was in many ways worse because of the riots that followed Martin Luther King’s assassination and the subsequent fires that burnt down most of the old downtown. Washington, outside Georgetown and parts of Capitol Hill, was essentially a “dead zone.” In the 1970s things got even worse. Aside from the appalling clothes people wore, particularly the bell bottoms and polyester double-knits, the United States experienced its first major energy crisis. Long lines for gasoline reminded Americans that the cars they were driving were totally unsuitable for the modern age. Watergate and the loss of confidence in government were followed by the Carter years when rampant inflation, humiliation, and malaise spread over the land. It was not until the mid-1980s that things began to improve with twenty years of prosperity and the end of the Cold War.
This country has extraordinary recuperative powers with a multiethnic, multicultural population that is growing and can, in theory, compete with any country in the world and does not face the horrendous challenges that China, India, and Brazil have to manage with their high levels of per capita poverty. Furthermore, as America’s power diminishes, it becomes a more attractive partner to many countries. We are seen as less overbearing and arrogant. Recent events in Asia, including China’s petulance over the Nobel peace prize, its bullying of Japan, and its strident claims to offshore islands in the South China Seas, have worried its neighbors. Its unwillingness to reign in North Korea is perhaps the most irresponsible example of its foreign policy. Japan, South Korea and Vietnam, together with India and Indonesia all now regard the United States as a key partner and are most anxious that we not abandon the region.
What America must do is resolve its financial crisis and get on track to resolving the long-term debt problem. Such action, together with reform of the education system, and tax systems, are the best routes to meaningful job creation. There is no reason why America cannot rebound and once again be a beacon to the rest of the world. But this will require cooperation between the Republicans and the Obama administration and it may be that things will have to get worse before they get better.