In one important way, the jeremiads I have heard since childhood are not part of the great American tradition. Starting with Sputnik, when I was in grade school, they have involved comparisons with an external rival or enemy. “Whether you like it or not, history is on our side,” Nikita Khrushchev said to Western diplomats in 1956. “We will bury you.” After the Soviet Union came the Japanese and the Germans; and now China, or occasionally India, as the standard whose achievements dramatize what America has not done.
This is new. Only with America’s emergence as a global power after World War II did the idea of American “decline” routinely involve falling behind someone else. Before that, it meant falling short of expectations—God’s, the Founders’, posterity’s—or of the previous virtues of America in its lost, great days. “The new element in the ’50s was the constant comparison with the Soviets,” Michael Kazin told me. Since then, external falling-behind comparisons have become not just a staple of American self-assessment but often a crutch. If we are concerned about our schools, it is because children are learning more in Singapore or India; about the development of clean-tech jobs, because it’s happening faster in China.
Having often lived outside the United States since the 1970s, I have offered my share of falling-behind analyses, including a book-length comparison of Japanese and American strengths (More Like Us) 20 years ago. But at this point in America’s national life cycle, I think the exercise is largely a distraction, and that Americans should concentrate on what are, finally, our own internal issues to resolve or ignore.
Naturally there are lessons to draw from other countries’ practices and innovations; the more we know about the outside world the better, as long as we’re collecting information calmly rather than glancing nervously at our reflected foreign image. For instance, if you have spent any time in places where tipping is frowned on or rare, like Japan or Australia, you view the American model of day-long small bribes, rather than one built-in full price, as something similar to baksheesh, undignified for all concerned.
Naturally, too, it’s easier to draw attention to a domestic problem and build support for a solution if you cast the issue in us-versus-them terms, as a response to an outside threat. In If We Can Put a Man on the Moon …, their new book about making government programs more effective, William Eggers and John O’Leary emphasize the military and Cold War imperatives behind America’s space program. “The race to the moon was a contest between two systems of government,” they wrote, “and the question would be settled not by debate but by who could best execute on this endeavor.” Falling-behind arguments have proved convenient and powerful in other countries, too.
But whatever their popularity or utility in other places at other times, falling-behind concerns seem too common in America now. As I have thought about why overreliance on this device increasingly bothers me, I have realized that it’s because my latest stretch out of the country has left me less and less interested in whether China or some other country is “overtaking” America. The question that matters is not whether America is “falling behind” but instead something like John Winthrop’s original question of whether it is falling short—or even falling apart. This is not the mainstream American position now, so let me explain.
First is the simple reality that one kind of “decline” is inevitable and therefore not worth worrying about. China has about four times as many people as America does. Someday its economy will be larger than ours. Fine! A generation ago, its people produced, on average, about one-sixteenth as much as Americans did; now they produce about one‑sixth. That change is a huge achievement for China—and a plus rather than a minus for everyone else, because a business-minded China is more benign than a miserable or rebellious one. When the Chinese produce one-quarter as much as Americans per capita, as will happen barring catastrophe, their economy will become the world’s largest. This will be good for them but will not mean “falling behind” for us. We know that for more than a century, the consciousness of decline has been a blight on British politics, though it has inspired some memorable, melancholy literature. There is no reason for America to feel depressed about the natural emergence of China, India, and others as world powers. But second, and more important, America may have reasons to feel actively optimistic about its prospects in purely relative terms.