Opinion

Reports of America's decline are greatly exaggerated

Here are six reasons why US economic clout will endure.

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Is America really in serious decline?

Hardly a day goes by that I don't hear someone say so. Even President Obama captured this anxiety in his inaugural speech, pointing to a "nagging fear" that America's "decline is inevitable."

Of course, America's problems – from banking and debt crises to foreign security threats – are very serious. But, as bad as things are, here are six reasons why America's starring role on the world stage isn't over.

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1.The United States still has the most competitive economy in the world. Despite the recession, the US still has the greatest potential for cutting-edge economic growth. It ranks atop the World Economic Forum's latest global competitiveness study. And its companies remain the best.

According to the most recent Fortune Global 500 report, the US hosts more of the world's major companies (153, to be exact) than any other country. Even Japan lags way behind with just 64, while China is home to a meager 29.

The percentage of US companies in the Global 500 has averaged about 30 percent for most of the years from 1992 to 2008. That doesn’t suggest decline. [Editor's note: The original version included an inaccurate percentage of US companies that make up the 2008 Fortune Global 500 report. Accidentally, the author's revision was not implemented.]

2. The US is still a major international power broker. It continues to lead organizations that it spearheaded at the end of World War II: the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization. And that critical role enables it to capitalize on globalization better than can most major countries.

3. The US military is without parallel. To be sure, it has been stretched thin by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But it remains the strongest fighting force in the world.

As just one indicator of its high-tech advantage, it has mastered stealth flight, while the Russians and Chinese are still in the theoretical planning stages for such technology – far behind America.

4. America's competitors lack good allies. Russia and China are suspicious of each other. Iran is at odds with key Arab countries. North Korea is a pariah. Libya is still in political rehab. Syria is trying to find itself in a globalized world. Meanwhile, the US has cautious but real allies in NATO, the European Union, the G-7 industrialized countries, and elsewhere that help it meet its national and international goals.

5. American ideals are becoming universal. Slowly but surely, self-government, free enterprise, and individual liberty are gaining ground around the world.

Take democracy. A century ago, just 2 of every 10 countries scored a 6 or higher in Freedom House's democracy scale – which ranges from 10 (completely democratic) to minus 10 (completely autocratic). In 2007, nearly 6 in 10 did.

6. The US attracts the world's best workforce. With global birthrates down, competition for the most educated workers has become more important. Many of the globe's best and brightest still seek to learn, work, and live here, creating a wellspring of American renewal.

Of course, America's economic growth has been overtaken by India and China in recent years. If China's economy maintains its torrid pace, it will eclipse America's in size by 2035, according to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Yet, China has enormous domestic problems, and no country in history has been able to grow at double-digit rates for so long.

Economic output, in any case, is just one sign of power – America has multiple sources. And if America and its big market really decline, China and the rest of the world will suffer, too. Witness the current global crisis. China needs to cooperate with, rather than supplant, America to secure a better future for the world.

We've heard predictions of US decline before. Recall that Japan was widely heralded as the new power in the 1980s, with some wanting to write America's epitaph. Then Japan faced massive economic crisis in the 1990s, and America reasserted itself, as the Soviet Union fell.

At bottom, America's remarkable – and remarkably diverse – capabilities will ensure that today's crises are merely temporary setbacks. To paraphrase Mark Twain's joke about his own reported death, news of America's inevitable decline is greatly exaggerated.

Steve Yetiv is a professor of political science at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va. His latest book is called "The Absence of Grand Strategy."

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