Some recent polls show that between 60 and 70 percent of Americans believe that the United States is in decline. And who can blame them? High unemployment. Crushing debt. Political gridlock. And students who think that Plato created the first plate.
The picture looks bad. Even the famous magazine Foreign Affairs has gone so far as to ask on its cover: "Is America Over?"
Well, here's an answer: "No." For all the unrelenting gloom that has descended upon Americans like an ever-present Addams Family cloud, the country still remains very strong in key areas of global vitality. It is unlikely to be superseded by another country anytime soon.
The stakes in the debate on American decline are big. Exaggerated views of demise can create a self-fulfilling prophecy at home, encourage global troublemakers, and produce world economic and strategic instability.
But let's just consider these facts about the US:
•It has had the most competitive major economy in the world over the past several years, according to the World Economic Forum. Only the small states of Switzerland, Sweden, Finland, and Singapore sometimes eclipse it. Even the European Union countries are now looking to America to help them out of their debt crisis, as ironic as that may sound.
•It has the world's best entrepreneurs and by far the highest number of Fortune 500 companies. It remains at the forefront of the technologies of the future, such as biotechnology and nanotechnology, and has the advantage in cyberspace, even though it has fallen behind in some other areas, like green technologies.
•It remains by far the world's leading magnet for immigrants, allowing it to draw on millions of bright, hardworking people. It's hard to exaggerate such brain power, which constantly helps renew the country.
•It has trustworthy allies in NATO, the EU, the Group of 20 industrialized countries, and elsewhere that usually help it meet national and international goals. Contrast that with, let's say, China and Russia. They suspect each other and often lack such global support.
•It benefits because most of its adversaries are largely constrained and less threatening than they used to be. North Korea is a pariah. Syria is on the ropes. Hugo Chávez is not well liked and is ailing. Fidel Castro is a has-been. Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden are dead. The Soviet Union is gone. Those are tectonic shifts in world politics that we rarely appreciate in full.•It possesses a military that is far ahead of its rivals, allowing the US to operate at great distances in unique ways. Difficulties in Iraq and Afghanistan are not a commentary on its military capability, but on strategy and the challenges of nation-building.
•It lacks a comprehensive energy policy, but it has more energy resources than any major country, except Russia. The US is also less dependent on oil than most great powers. That's important in a world where energy is becoming increasingly central.
•It has spearheaded the global move toward democracy, which has been on the march in the past 100 years – not communism, fascism, Nazism, autocracy, radical Islamism, or any other forms of governance. According to sophisticated rankings, America ranks third in soft power – the ability to attract others due to culture and policies, marginally behind France and Britain (China clocked in at No. 17).
•It trails badly in K-12 education – a huge problem – but its universities, especially at the graduate level, dominate the global rankings.
Views of American decline are not new. For example, Americans thought the US was in decline after the 1973 Arab oil embargo, which sent it into recession. They felt similarly in the face of Japan's economic rise in the 1980s – when many thought quite prematurely that Japan would supplant America as the global leader.
Are Americans wrong again? Probably.
While a methodical study is needed to compare the US with its chal-lengers over time, and while America faces truly severe challenges at home and abroad, which it will have to surmount to prevent decline, it remains far stronger than our national pessimism suggests.
We should appreciate that fact, even while also developing serious, bipartisan, and longer-term solutions to America's energy, educational, budgetary and economic challenges – and seeing how we can prevent rivalries from worsening with rising powers like China.
Steve Yetiv is a professor of political science at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va. He is the author of "The Petroleum Triangle" and "The Absence of Grand Strategy" and is working on a book on US decline.