The Myth of America's Decline

America’s current condition is bad, and the long-term prognosis is worse. But don’t take my word for it.

A well-known diplomat fears that the country has “passed its high point like so many other civilizations.” An eminent scholar warns that military spending and overseas commitments are pushing the United States toward “imperial overstretch.” Another says that “the engines of economic growth have shut down.” According to a respected pundit, “Europeans and Asians are already finding confirmation of their suspicion that the United States is in decline.”

A leading presidential candidate concludes that the United States has fallen from “a position of undisputed power … to the brink of possible disaster.” Another politician says that America is “in the midst of unprecedented political troubles.”

A popular governor laments how America has become a nation of “idle industries and small dreams.” Another grimly concludes, “Our country is not strong anymore.” Yet another warns that America may “become a second-rate power.”

Even the president concedes, “The state of the union is not good.”

One caveat: each of these assessments about America’s decline was made decades ago – some as far back as the 1860s.

So if fears about U.S. decline were wrong in decades past, why should we believe them today? Maybe we shouldn’t.

Downers. Amid budget crises, stalemated wars and rising global challengers, the America-in-decline diagnosis is not only fashionable but seems reasonable. After all, the United States lost its AAA bond rating. A European official deemed it likely that “the U.S. will lose its status as the superpower of the global financial system.” Even the slow-witted boss on NBC’s “The Office” noticed. “My whole life I believed that America was No. 1,” he sighed. “That was the saying, not ‘America is No. 2.’”

No wonder that 70 percent of Americans believe the country is “in decline.” But are they right?

Of the many ways to address that question, two seem especially helpful: comparing America’s global status today with earlier junctures in history, and considering American power in relation to that of other nations.
Let’s start with the U.S.-vs.-U.S. comparison.

The United States entered the world stage with a bang, defeating the greatest empire on earth. Yet less than 30 years later, the young republic was swatted back into place. The War of 1812 saw U.S. forces routed and the capital set ablaze. When measured against its own position just a generation earlier, the United States had declined in drastic terms.

The country endured another period of decline during the Civil War. After Lincoln’s murder, Gen. William Sherman openly feared America slipping into anarchy, wondering “who was left on this continent to give order and shape to the now-disjointed elements of the government.”

But the country rebounded and emerged as a global power at the beginning of the 20th century. By the end of the Great War, American ideals were embraced around the globe. Indeed, some historians argue that the world was never as receptive to American leadership as it was when President Woodrow Wilson arrived in Paris.

Yet the postwar period saw U.S. power and prestige plummet on the world stage. In 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt called America “a stricken nation in the midst of a stricken world.”

“The future and the safety of our country … are overwhelmingly involved in events far beyond our borders,” he conceded in early 1941. “As long as the aggressor nations maintain the offensive, they – not we – will choose the time and the place and the method of their attack.”

In short, U.S. power had declined to where it was a century earlier, when other countries held sway over the world and America’s fortunes.

Historian Derek Leebaert captures this rapid reversal in his book “The Fifty-Year Wound.” In November 1941, the program for the Army-Navy football game included a picture of USS Arizona and a caption boasting, “No battleship has ever been sunk by air attack.” Japan made a mockery of that false bravado less than a fortnight later.

Although U.S. military, industrial and economic power was unrivaled at the end of World War II, it pays to recall that the 1950s began with debates over who lost China and ended with debates over who lost Cuba. In between, Americans wondered how they lost the space race.

Similarly, the 1960s began and ended with humbling setbacks (the Bay of Pigs and Vietnam), opening the way to a period of self-doubt in the 1970s. By the late 1980s, experts predicted that Japan and Germany would dislodge a beleaguered America from its economic perch.

Yet in the 1990s, the United States was promoted from superpower to “hyperpower.” One historian even declared that America had “too much power for anyone’s good, including its own.”

Power Play. Even amid today’s post-recession retrenchment, the U.S. economy remains a remarkable force. At $15 trillion, America’s GDP dwarfs every other country’s. Only when the European Union cobbles together its 27 economies can it claim to rival U.S. economic output. U.S. GDP is about 50 percent larger than China’s, and three times bigger than India’s. Yet the U.S. labor force is two-thirds the size of the EU’s, one-third the size of India’s and one-fifth the size of China’s.

China’s economy is booming, but it’s important to recognize the immense gap in per-capita income – $47,200 in the United States vs. $4,260 in China – and the country’s systemic problems. Although it does have an ocean of cheap labor and a swelling treasury, it doesn’t have a stable middle class, a social safety net, a government that breeds confidence in its trading partners, or a political system that embraces the rule of law and responds to the will of the people. That’s not exactly a formula for long-term success.

In addition, China faces serious demographic problems. “By 2050,” as Jonathan Last reports, “China will be losing, on net, 20 million people every five years.” 

Similarly, Russia’s population will shrink by 15 million in the next 20 years. Japan and Europe are rapidly aging, lacking the immigration levels and birth rates to reverse the trend. But America’s population growth rate outpaces Europe’s, Japan’s and China’s, boding well for our long-term health.

As for America’s current economic health, the recession exposed serious problems. Entitlement spending is unsustainable. And the country’s debt, bulging from 38 percent of GDP in 2008 to 63 percent in 2010 to 85 percent today, has entered a danger zone. But these are solvable problems that policymakers have the tools, if not the will, to tackle.

The systemic and demographic problems facing much of Asia and Europe may not be solvable. Many countries would be thrilled to have our debt-to-GDP ratio: Japan’s public debt is 199 percent of GDP; Britain’s external debt is 413 percent of GDP, France’s 250 percent, Germany’s 185 percent, Australia’s 138 percent. 

Despite its economic challenges, the United States remains the engine of the global economy. It boasts 18 of the 50 largest companies on earth – three times as many as the closest challenger. The United States is home to the world’s largest aerospace (Boeing), biotech (Amgen), pharmaceutical (Pfizer), retail (Walmart), petroleum (ExxonMobil), software (Microsoft), technology hardware (HP), computer services (IBM), communications equipment (Cisco) and heavy equipment (Caterpillar) firms.

Rather than simply mass-producing, reverse-engineering or pirating what others create – like China’s state-controlled industries – these corporations are shaping the future and propelling globalization.
Some argue that globalization is just another word for Americanization, and they may be right. Indeed, it is in the wake of globalization that we begin to glimpse the full breadth of U.S. power:

  • The Libyan people are clamoring for iPhones, Nikes, Ford Mustangs and Eminem CDs. 
  • Cubans and Iranians are erecting illegal satellite dishes to catch a glimpse of U.S. television. 
  • Thanks to Yao Ming, some of the NBA’s biggest fans are in China. Beijing honored the now-retired basketball star as its 2005 “vanguard worker,” an award once reserved for Maoist revolutionaries.
  • Seventy percent of Coke drinkers live outside North America. Half of all McDonald’s restaurants are somewhere other than the United States. Walmart has 2,700 stores outside the United States.
  • Ninety percent of all PCs run Microsoft software.
  • The United States claims six of the world’s top 10 universities.
  • The United States accounts for more than one-third of all international patent filings.

The converse simply does not hold. Americans are not buying Afri-Cola, watching Chinese basketball, tuning in to Castro’s state-run TV, surfing the Web with Chinese software or European PCs, or opening research labs in foreign lands.

Speaking of foreign lands, the U.S. military provides a security umbrella to about half the world’s landmass, polices the world’s toughest neighborhoods, and serves as the world’s first responder and last line of defense. No other military could attempt such a feat of global multitasking. 

Because of the U.S. military’s restraint, foreign governments invite it onto their territory: Kosovo, Korea and Kuwait want U.S. troops to maintain regional stability. From Germany to Georgia, those who remember a Europe of concrete walls and iron curtains want U.S. forces on their soil as a hedge against Russia. And those who fear China’s rise are strengthening their U.S. ties.

As to the charge that America is “overstretched,” consider that in the 1950s, the United States had 3.4 million troops on active duty, a sizable 2.1 percent of the country’s 160 million population at the time. In the 1960s, the country had a million troops stationed overseas. During the Cold War, America spent 6 to 10 percent of its GDP on defense. Today, the United States has 1.4 million troops on active duty (out of a population of 313 million); 70 percent of U.S. forces are based in the United States and its territories; and America spends 4 percent of its GDP on defense. 

Without question, the United States faces challenges that could erode its global position: its fiscal situation is a mess, China is ascending, and the world abounds with asymmetric threats that could undermine the liberal order Americans have built for generations.

But America overcame worse economic times in the 1930s and 1970s. America has coped with rising powers before. And today’s asymmetric threats pale in comparison to the existential threats posed by the madmen of the 20th century. Moreover, no country enfolds the full spectrum of geopolitical power (economic, military, cultural) and embraces universally appealing attributes (political pluralism, economic opportunity, cultural openness) like the United States. This confluence of strengths gives the United States a decisive edge.

So perhaps it’s premature to replace Old Glory with a white flag just yet. 

Alan W. Dowd is a contributing editor for The American Legion Magazine.


  1. This is not the same country that my grandparents were born into. It is a country that I spent 23 yrs in uniform, only to have most of what I served for taken away from me by corrupt politicians and corporate officials. The reason whay I wasted 23 years is that most politicians and CEOs know that very few military members bother to vote. Many feel that wearing a uniform is enough. WELL IT IS NOT!!!!! I have never missed on exercising my responsibility from the time I enlisted in 1980 through 2003 and then into retirement. If given the chance to do it again with what I know now I WOULD NOT BOTHER!!! This country has gone down into the deepest depths of ruin and most likely will not recover. It has become a country of lazy and illegal people. We have allowed an individual who refuses to answer in person the question of his citizenship to become President. We have a Supreme Court that allows people to disrespect and desecrate our fallen military members. We have allowed corporate officers to lie about weapons of mass destruction so that they could get rich off the blood of best. The biggest money grubber being Dick Cheney. Cheney, Rumsfeld(sic) and Rice are traitors and murders and should be tried for their crimes. Obama is a Socialist and is destroying this country and should be removed from office and charged with treason.
    Bottom line is that current and past military members needs to step up and fight for our benefits that WE PAID FOR WITH OUR BLOOD AND SWEAT!!!!

  2. my best friend's sister made $19668 the prior week. she has been making cash on the laptop and got a $424600 house. All she did was get fortunate and set to work the directions explained on this site >>>>

  3. All the mega corporations referred to in Dowd's article manufacture primarily outside of the US. This is most evident when shopping at the evil Wal*Mart Stores where it's nearly impossible to find an item not made in China. I do my best to buy American made products, it isn't easy but I refuse to buy made in China. Doing my part for the America I love and have given 25 years of service for.

  4. You're doing your job as expected. Painting the glass as half full, and I applaud you for that. With that said, it almost seems feeble or moot at this point. We are 15,000,000,000,000 dollars in debt. We are completely controlled by the whims of those in control of our Fed Reserve. We are not focusing on China's military build up because too much $ is at stake (to be made). All the while I'm tripping over more homeless in my depressed area than ever. All the while CA 33 prisons are at maximum capacity. (free-est country is 5% of world's pop but has 25% of incarcerated?) Okay though because our strongest lobbying power in CA is the Correctional Officers Union. Our local law enforcement has turned into predators where they eagerly tow every car and impound it for 30 days, forcing people to auction, which goes hand in hand with the courts here in CA that are assessing 5 times the "recommended penalty" for infractions. That means if my ticket is 250 dollars in the State penalty amounts listed each year the local courts are making people, often making 7 dollars an hour, pay 1250 dollars.. We let the Jeannie out of the bottle. We are a sick nation without the moral footing we had once and we continue to slaughter people with 3rd grade educations abroad for reasons that are totally "foreign" to me. I miss my country. I miss the pride we once had. We're in a sad state. Regards, Rob

  5. Free Trade sponsored by Big Business has gutted the American dream of middle class employment in manufacturing industry. Outsourcing overseas and to Mexico and bringing in the products now made there at low or no tarrifs has resulted in big profits for Big Business and empty factories for US workers.

    We can't have it both ways. Cheap quality goods and components made overseas and in Mexico paying no or low tarrifs means fewer jobs and people able to buy them.

    Free Trade has impacted SSA contributions, State's and US tax revenue, and future jobs for those entering the job force.

    All in all, we have been screwed by Big Bsiness and Free Trade.

    Wake UP people, before it is too late.

  6. I sense that this article does give history of which America had very little control of the causes or events that occurred. We now have America under control of a government religious movement which our Country was not founded nor the people has no control of the mis-use of political power. The people had no control of the financial institutions de-regulation which caused the financial collapse or the "greed" of those involved. Our Constitution has been manipulated to suit our elected officials to their own benefit when in past history it was a honor and privilege to serve America. The elected officials when leaving office now are considerable richer and receive benefits for the rest of their life after one term. It has been said that 1% of the population controls the economy of this Country and the power of the people's vote does not change the outcome because these same financial related appointments end up in office.

  7. Civil War Veteran and Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan (1833-1911) dedicated a Bible to the Supreme Court of the United States in 1906. The flyleaf pages of that Bible have been signed by every justice since that date. The story of the "Harlan Bible" as it has become to be known, may be read at Interestingly, in that same year that Harlan gave the Supreme Court that Bible, (1906) he is quoted as saying:

    "I fully believe in both the Bible and the Constitution.... I believe that the Bible is the inspired Word of God. Nothing which it commands can be safely or properly disregarded; nothing that it condemns can be justified. No civilization is worth preserving which is not based on the doctrines or teachings of the Bible. No nation that habitually ignores or violates the rules prescribed by it for the conduct and government of the human race, can long last.  This country is, in a large sense, a Christian country, and its adherence to the fundamental doctrines of Christianity is becoming more and more every year a marked feature in American civilization."

  8. It is truly unfortunate that the primary difference from previous periods of decline and their respective recoveries is the current lack of faith and moral fortitude. Entitlement mentality and a fear of becoming "plitically incorrect" have created a void of meaningful values which we hold dear.

    Anyone who believes that Justice Harlan was correct in his statement above should consider reading a book "Radical" by David Platt. It is a truly convicting piece about selling out our faith to the American dream. Too many people are far more concerned with personal gain and maintaining personal freedom than we are with God's principles of Christin love and sacrifice that were the founding principles of this great nation.

  9. We need to pull out of Afganistan, bring our troops home, protect our own borders. Keep our "big stick" and do not disarm as we did after WW I and WW II. Tell the world to not pick on us or we will strike back with awsome force!!!

  10. Legion Members, including Sons and Auxiliary Members and Riders, have GOT to put down the sports page, turn off the "game of the day", take some time off the hunting and fishing, or the golf course, or whatever distracts us....and PAY ATTENTION! Why is our gasoline (oil) supply so low that the price is over double what it was 3 years ago? Why is our food so expensive? Why can't I build a small house without having to beg the Federal EPA, the State EPA, some County permit officer, and a local Tree Commission for their OK for me to start ... on my own acre of land? Why do so many of my neighbors get so much of my reward for working so hard (welfare, food stamps, tax-paid rent, tax-paid college, 2 years of unemployment checks, etc.)? Who (really) is Eric Holder? Who (really) is Steven Chu? Why is it so hard to get business investors to try their business ideas HERE... in America in 2012?????

  11. I just had an additional to the initial comment...just a couple of basic "truisms.
    Isn't it ironic:
    The food stamp program, part of the Dept. of Agriculture, was pleased to be distributing the greatest amount of food stamps ever....
    Meanwhile, the Park Service, also part of the Dept. of Agriculture, asks up to "please not feed the animals" because the animals may grow dependent and not learn to take care of themselves.
    "Though no one can go back and make a brand new start...anyone can start from now and create a brand new ending."

  12. Absolutely correct. For the whole 50 + year history of how America's policy makers, judges, "educators", and social engineers with OPM (other people's money) have brought us to a crisis point, see Charles Murray's book - Losing Ground. We need to dump the government teat and go back to private charity for our needy neighbors (we have coddled them into dependency, ruined them and their families and communities).

  13. All seems to be true looking at both perspectives....except our population.
    The citizens (legal and illegal) have a totally different attitude and work ethic than those in the past. Everything is at their even park themselves now. Work...real being done by others and getting our hands dirty can be left to others. We have become odese and lazy...look around. Less than 1% are in the military and the other 90% uless they are attached to somkeone in the military could "really" care less. Our Govt. is spending a billion every eight hours on the average with no end in sight. Gas prices are 'predicted' to go up to $5 @ gallon...Where is the "hope" left for the population ???

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