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America in Decline: Through the Looking Glass

BY Larry O'Bryon, Master of Global Policy Studies student
This article originally appeared in National Intelligence Council's blog "Global Trends 2030" on July 25, 2012.

No patriotic American would like to admit that our country is in decline, but how does the evidence stack up? Time for a quick look in the mirror America, to assess what we see.

Economically, we are a society conditioned on too much debt and financial leverage. This conditioning, or addiction even, exists in Americans’ exposure to real estate and credit card debt, Wall Street’s excesses and now an increasingly untenable fiscal situation with our federal government.

Socially, we are concerned with the American middle class struggling with stagnant real wage growth during the past decade. Poverty levels of the population are approaching levels last seen in the 1960s. Images of the suffering in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina still reside in our collective memory, proof that our safety net isn’t what it should be. In education, the US struggles to break the top 20 nations in high school math and science scores.

Our military is the world’s finest fighting force, and our defense budget dwarfs those of other nations. However, we have been working through an intractable conflict in Afghanistan with our NATO allies, with ambiguous prospects for the longer-term results of our nation-building efforts. We look tentative in our steps to support resolution of conflict in Syria and contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

In the political realm, we are demonstrating the limitations of democracy, as our two-party system grinds to a halt under divided and partisan leadership focused on campaigning, rather than governing and results-oriented action. Through contentious and inconsistent foreign and domestic policies, recent administrations have impaired our respectability abroad, and weakened our unity and strength at home.

Indeed, at first glance, American exceptionalism and global influence seem to be on the wane.

However, further reflection is necessary. The US has significant geographic advantages, including a bounty of natural resources. Our country continues to have the highest per capita GDP on a PPP basis of the world’s major economies. In addition, many of our challenges are within our own ability to control. For example, the year-end 2012 fiscal cliff, driving concerns of renewed recession, is avoidable through politicians’ taking responsible actions to reform our tax code and address our twin deficit and debt challenges. The US remains the destination that millions of productive immigrants aspire to emigrate to enjoy our meritocratic, freedom-loving society, a continuing source of strength for our nation. Our universities and higher education opportunities remain the model for the rest of the world. From a global perspective, the EU, China and the other BRICs have economic, political and societal challenges that exceed our own.

The risk of America’s decline is real, but with these strengths and our comparative advantages, it is by no means inevitable. Left unchecked, however, the above noted issues will contribute to a diminishing of the United States’ power and influence in the evolving world order. Mitigating this risk requires the nation to come together under united leadership to achieve goals and objectives consistent with our national interests, domestic needs, and international responsibilities. Our leaders need to look beyond elections to confront these challenges, and embrace opportunities available to us to renew America’s strength and character. We have some work to do, and we better get to it.

Larry O’Bryon is a Graduate Fellow at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas-Austin, and previously worked for two decades in international engineering & construction and investment banking in Asia, Europe and the Middle East.