America is No. 2

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.

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