I have commented on several occasions in this space about the seemingly rapid decline of the United States as the preeminent power on the planet. In influence, innovation, economic and military dominance America still has no rival. I have been guilty of missing the same thing many others have missed. America is the Himalaya's to the rest of the world's Appalachians. America in every respect is simply huge. Our economy is 25% of the entire world's GDP and it has been for decades. Our military is the most advanced, best trained and the most supremely capable fighting force the world has ever known. Our universities, research centers and corporations bring miracle technologies and medicines to the world that create untold wealth and save uncounted lives. It's actually hard to quantify the impact this one nation (the good, and sometimes the bad) has on the world.
In many ways it's not that America is coming down from Everest it's that the Appalachians have now become the Rockies.
It was just 40 years ago that we thought it was all coming to an end. The economic mess in the West and the rising confidence of Soviet communist expansion was supposed to see America crumble. It didn't happen. Instead the Soviet Union collapsed. America rebuilt it's military and it's confidence. In the late 80's and the 90's it was the Japanese that were going to own the world. They took our consumer electronic business and very nearly the auto industry - as well as many famous New York skyscrapers. At the time many thought America was done, a mere shell of what it once was. But that was wrong too. Japan is now entering its second lost decade and is rapidly falling behind its chief Asian rival.
For the last 15 years we have watched the ascent of China as it took a huge slice of the West's manufacturing base with its endless supply of cheap labor. The Chinese, by embracing capitalistic tendencies, have rocketed past Japan and Germany economically and threaten America's dominance as an influence peddler. In fact, 2012 America looks rather bleak with regards to the unemployment and the public debt situation.
But is it really so?
On the surface America looks like a tumultuous mess. Tea Parties, Occupy movements, bitter elections and a 50/50 red/blue split that offers the casual observer an ugly picture of discontent. The hatred of Obama and the uber-liberals on the one side is only matched by the hatred of Bush and neo-cons on the other. Unemployment and rising prices for the staples of food and fuel multiplied by the decline in home values has created the sharpest downward spiral in wealth seen in decades. Economically there has not been this level of misery since the Great Depression. It's bad right now, there is no denying that.
On the other hand China looks like the picture of calm and confidence. Enjoying nearly double digit economic growth year after year after year has put China in the driver's seat. Busily building world class cities and infrastructure while becoming a military power to boot has resulted in rising influence internationally. They sit on billions in foreign currency and a trade surplus never before seen in modern times. To the outside world there is seemingly little political strife and the central planning by a powerful one-party system seems to work pretty well.
But does it?
In America the roiling sea of distraction masks what is a remarkably stable society. Orderly - if spirited - political campaigns result in a transfer of power that requires no bloodshed. Americans get up and go to work, by and large follow the rules and get things done. The Tea Party movement is far from radical or dangerous to the authorities - the same is largely true of the Occupiers except they are much messier and more uncouth. In truth America is the picture of stability in these extremely trying times.
China, while seeming cool and confident on the surface - the part the outside world sees - is actually a seething mess underneath. The dirt poor living in the interior have nothing except the pollution after effects of the rapid expansion of the coastal cities. Even in the wealthy cosmopolitan cities there is great discontent over wages and working conditions. Chinese consumers watch endless piles of consumer goods that they make shipped off the America and Europe with little left over for them. We hear only snippets of the news of massive riots on a scale we can scarcely imagine. What the West perceives as confident one-party rule and the certainty that comes with it is actually a paranoid club of bullies and dictators. The only way to get ahead is corruption, bribery and cheating.
These are a great people, capable of so much more. The Chinese people have only scratched the surface of what they can do - but their system is incapable of unleashing the true potential locked up inside.
In spite of everything the Chinese people are a happier lot than Americans right now. Americans are discontented - and maybe we always have been - because we know there are so many more possibilities, we have glimpsed them. Our corrupt government and their corporate benefactors have skewed everything. The Chinese simply expect less of their corrupt institutions. A vast majority of Americans feel the country and the culture is heading in the wrong direction.China on the other hand is plodding however indelicately away from their oppressive past.
America unfortunately is being led by a man who sees America's decline as the only solution equalizing the human experience. He could not be more wrong. We are voluntarily cutting off our noses to spite our faces. We have seen what can be done by unleashing human potential. Our imperfect but mostly free culture has spawned the most powerful nation in human history. It was no accident. We are letting it be squandered by ideological maggots (on both sides). Our system while not as paranoid and corrupt as China's is heading in that direction. The political and corporate corruption in Washington DC in 2012 is beyond sickening - and it's dangerous.
The world is craving leaders. Many were fooled into believing we elected someone who was different in 2008. Someone ready to throw out derision and work toward a functional (if contentious) body politic. Instead we have a petulant, ideological man-child offering very little leadership or inspiration. He offers only decline. What the world needs now is some real hope and change.