The 14 3/4 Biggest Ideas of the Year July/August 2010

America is No. 2

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America is at its best when feeling confident—and when feeling challenged. From confidence comes the bearing that has most won friends for America through its century of global strength: calm-tempered, thick-skinned, slow to be riled on small matters, quick to offer others a hand. The outlook is personified in film by Gary Cooper or Jimmy Stewart; in diplomacy by George Marshall; and in politics, according to their respective supporters, by presidents as different as Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, and Barack Obama.

From an awareness of challenge comes a determination to continually reinvent the American model and re-earn America’s prominence, rather than just coasting on its endowment, spoiled-brat style. The threat of falling behind or falling short powered the post-Sputnik race to the moon in the 1960s as well as the reinvigoration of the American tech industry in the years after Japan posed a challenge.

“We’re No. 1—and have to keep deserving it” has been both an attractive and a useful attitude for America. The current rise of “We’re No. 2” thinking threatens to be the reverse. It can highlight the resentful and self-pitying side of our character, while sapping the will to make changes that are clearly within the country’s reach.

The famous Pew poll last year, in which 44 percent of Americans said that the world’s “leading economic power” was China, said less about economic realities—hundreds of millions subsist on China’s farms, where heating and indoor plumbing are luxuries—than about America’s downcast self-image. As more people prosper around the world, power of all sorts will be more dispersed—which a Marshall, an Ike, a Reagan would view as motivation to keep trying rather than to give up.


14 3/4. Reefer Sanity
by Joshua Green
7. Information Wants to Be Paid For
by Walter Isaacson
14. It’s Too Easy Being Green
by Kai Ryssdal
6. The Kids Aren’t All Right
by David Leonhardt
13. Teachers Are Fair Game
by David Brooks
5. Bonfire of the Knuckleheads
by Jeffrey Goldberg
12. The Rise of the Drones
by Martha Raddatz
4. The Power of No
by Michael Kinsley
11. Obama Is No Liberal
by James Bennet
3. Boredom is Extinct
by Walter Kirn
10. The Triumph of Free Speech
by Jeffrey Rosen
America Is No. 2
by James Fallows
9. The Catholic Church Is Finished
by Ross Douthat
1. The End of Men
by Hanna Rosin
8. Deficits Matter
by Megan McArdle
PLUS: More Ideas of the Year
From TARP to sleeping with Tiger Woods
James Fallows is an Atlantic national correspondent.
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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