Historians will remember the first decade of the new millennium as a cautionary tale about the hubris of great powers. The United States entered the decade at the peak of its influence, convinced (as the Bush Administration’s first national security strategy put it) that there was only one true formula for lasting national success — America’s. What followed was ten years of continuous setbacks, from the terrorist attacks of 9-11 to the dot.com bust to the doubling of the national debt to the near defeat in Iraq to the doubling of the trade deficit to the sub-prime meltdown. At decade’s end, the nation’s share of global output had fallen by a quarter, the government was borrowing four billion dollars per day, and many Americans believed China was emerging as the world’s most powerful nation.
America’s fortunes have fallen so far so fast that it is easy to forget we have been here before many times. During the Great Depression, the collapse of the economy was so profound that fewer than a hundred millionaires were left in America, and prominent Americans toyed with the idea that fascism might work better than democracy. In the 1950s, Russian scientific and military achievements made even the most sober policymakers fear for the nation’s survival. In the 1980s, Japan’s trade juggernaut seemed so irresistible that experts seriously predicted it would surpass the economic power of America. Today, it is China’s turn to be the latest symbol of American decline.
Clearly, power and influence are often fleeting things in the history of nations: Hitler’s Germany is distant memory, the Soviet Union is gone, and Japan’s economic miracle has been receding for a generation. But the important lesson for Americans to learn from this chronicle of fast rises and hard falls is that their nation is far more resilient than most. It has the capacity to suffer devastating blows to its society and psyche without being permanently damaged. It always comes back, and when it does Americans look back at their receding fears and realize they underestimated what they were capable of. This time will be no different from the trials and traumas of the past — America will rise again in the coming decade, and much faster than many experts imagine.
I have penned an essay at www.forbes.com this week suggesting some of the near-term steps that Washington could take to get America back on track. All of the ideas I cite would be popular and inexpensive, underscoring the fact that the challenges we face are not as imposing as we sometimes imagine. Many of us may be aging baby boomers, but our nation is not: it has the same boundless potential today it did at the beginning of the decade, and maybe a little more wisdom too. If the nation’s capital sometimes seems like it is in a state of disarray these days, that isn’t because America is declining, it’s because the tide is turning. We are getting ready to make the tough choices that must be made to recover what we have lost. It may be hard to understand right now how we managed to feel so good about ourselves only ten years ago, but ten years into the future it will be hard to remember why we felt so bad today.
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