History has shown repeatedly, a single inevitability. Every great power that rose spectacularly and looked invincible for centuries eventually had to fade away. And in most cases they didn’t even know when the decline had started, till it had become irreversible.
The syndicated columnist, Fareed Zakaria, quotes a memoir of Arnold Toynbee, the renowned British historian, in which Toynbee recounts, how as an 8year old on his father’s shoulders, he watched the parade to commemorate the 60th year of Queen Victoria’s ascension to the British throne…
“I remember the atmosphere. It was: ‘Well, here we are on top of the world, and we have arrived at this peak to stay there forever. There is, of course, a thing called history, but history is something unpleasant that happens to other people. We are comfortably outside all of that, I am sure.’”
Of course, history did not just happen to other people. The British Empire did decline. But it declined gracefully. It was a sort of gradual tactical retreat to within the boundaries that it could manage economically and politically. One might look at that as a decline but it could also be far sighted foreign policy, of a nation that was able to see into the future and recognize that international leadership is unsustainable. So it gathered its tent poles, grabbed the choicest artifacts (Where do you think the 100ct Kohinoor diamond sits?) and then moved back, leaving behind lasting political and economic partnerships, most of which worked to its advantage for decades after.
Is America on a decline like the British, after a short stint of six decades at the top?
Go ahead, say yes. It is currently a fashionable thing to say. To some, the 2008 global financial crisis looked like the beginning of American decline. To others, it was ignominy of the 1975 escape through the Saigon embassy roof into the idling Huey helicopter. Even the US’s own National Intelligence Council says that, by 2025, American dominance will be much diminished’. A great economic power that has turned fat and lazy and slipped behind as it faces leaner and hungrier nations. The American dream has ended, like the ‘English way of life’. Fashionable it is, very fashionable indeed.
First, the negatives
To be honest, America does seem the way the Roman Empire did in 400AD, boorish, consumed, inflated and unsustainable. Manufacturing jobs are dwindling. Medicare costs and Pension entitlements are bloating. Assets are being sold to foreign entities, in order to pay debts. It has a government that is becoming increasingly unpopular with the rest of the world and branding its unpopularity upon innocent bystanders, its own citizens. One that is intent on forming superficial friendships and pouring billions of American taxpayers’ cash into those ‘alliances’, like the one it has with Pakistan where nine out of ten people not only dislike the US but rabidly hate it. An American taking a walk along Ring Road in Peshawar had better not make any long range plans.
Most worrying are ordinary Americans for whom the priorities seem to have shifted, from hard work and saving to instant gratification and consumption. You see that first-hand when a new gadget is launched and shoppers line up outside an Apple Store from the previous night in freezing weather to buy the new Ipad. Whether they actually need it and can afford to buy it or not is a matter that doesn’t seem to bother them. While his counterpart in Asia is intent on working to better his future and that of his family in an environment sans any safety nets like unemployment insurance and social security, an American is busy planning his next vacation or his next weekend bash.
The US school system produces mediocre students who fair very poorly in science and maths. Unlike in Asia, where getting a Bachelor’s degree is considered a must, in the US, high school students rarely aim for anything beyond some vocational courses to become truck drivers, plumbers, construction workers, fire fighters, policemen, machinists, electricians and nurses.
From there, it becomes easy to fall into the blame trap. Get through your plumbing course, get your certificate, work part time, get ‘wheels’, get tons of girlfriends, attend binges and bashes. Soon you’re in your mid-thirties and it’s too late to gain higher education. The economy takes out its bicycle. Money turns tight. Plumbing jobs get rarer. You sulk. You look for someone to blame. Aha! Those f—in’ immigrants, they’re stealing away my jobs. You wildly cheer nasty, empty-headed, partisan, ex-cheer-leader politicians like Sarah Palin for whom you are the platform. Those immigrants are the same individuals who comprise 60% of the Silicon Valley CEOs and 70% of the PhDs granted in computer science. But Sarah Palin of course has no time for such data. She’s busy admiring Russia from her kitchen window (Boy, was that stupid comment of hers a laugh!).
Till now, Americans have taken everyone else for granted. They have assumed that, instead of trying to understand other cultures, languages and methods of doing business, the others should learn to understand the US and its way of doing things. And the others have. Boy, have they. If you call a company in China, you’ll speak to someone who not only speaks fluent English but has even taken the trouble to assume a western name, like Lucy or Amelie, just so you don’t have any difficulty pronouncing her name. The others adapted, for the US to do business with them.
The Americans never bothered to learn Mandarin or Hindi or Portugese. They have never spent time figuring out what makes Asians tick. While the rest of the world has moved to the metric system, America still follows the imperial one. In this, the US has august company, in Myanmar and Liberia! If you want to do business with an American company, you’d better have a separate cell created to handle engineering in inches and pounds per square inch.
And then there is the American political system, where the popular vote does not necessarily elect a president. It is one which is designed to not be able to fix anything. It has let itself be steered by Lobbyists, Political Action Committees, big business interests and painfully petty partisan issues. Every Congressman and Senator is ‘nurturing’ his own constituency, f—k the big picture. No one has the guts to take painful decisions for future gain.
While calling itself a beacon of democracy, the US government systematically undermines it. In the fall of 2011, the Justice Department of the US started an investigation into the premier credit rating agency, Standard & Poor(S&P), claiming that the ratings agency knowingly gave some mortgage bonds higher ratings than they deserved in an aim to boost profits. Only thing, the investigation came just a few months after S&P had downgraded the US’s credit rating from AAA to AA+. One would not expect vindictiveness from the leader of nations but there it is.
The positives now
There’s also a conflicting fashion today and that is proving the other fashion (of decline mongering) wrong. I happen to subscribe to the conflicting fashion. Even though I don’t live there, I am employed by an American company, have American colleagues and American facebook friends. And I’ll tell you this. No matter how hard American politicians try to screw things up there, America bounces back and will, always.
The United States has been in the forefront of the development of the aerospace industry of which it still is the unchallenged leader. This in turn has spawned a number of inventions that we use on a day-to-day basis, the cellphone and the GPS, to name a few. It was the American government which funded the research that led to the creation of the internet and we all know what the internet means to us today. America stands apart and ahead in one attribute- its willingness to try anything, give every idea a chance.
About intolerance, we get to hear about all the racism in America and see instances in the media sometimes of cops beating up blacks and Latinos being chased out. But do you see Italy electing a black Premier or can you imagine a black French President? Both these countries have a comparable percentage of blacks in their populations (even considering Germany, UK, any of the Scandinavian countries or even my own Canada will only seem unnatural). Yet, America was the only white-majority nation where a black man realized his dream, not once but twice in spectacular fashion, with as much as 40% of the white electorate voting him into office, on his very first attempt.
A rich and well educated populace in Germany sat mute in 1933 and watched its leader send 6 million Jews to the gas chamber over the next 12 long years. Their leader did this with a pretext, completely unprovoked. In comparison, America was attacked by a bunch of extremist Muslims and barring the initial stray attacks on people of Middle-Eastern origin after 9/11, there has been no exodus. Immigration applications, in fact, are up from Muslim nations and the US still happens to have 10 million Muslims, unchanged from before 9/11.
I even remember there was a debate over whether a proposed mosque should be allowed to come up close to ground zero. Isn’t it surprising that even an application for the proposal had been allowed to be submitted? Would that have happened in Iran or Pakistan or Saudi Arabia with say, a Church, under similar historical circumstances? The reasons Muslims still choose to make America their home is because it is a nation that folk are comfortable in. And a place which makes it comfortable for you to live in is bound to continue prospering.
Take research, real, path breaking, frontier science research. In this, the US’s universities are a universe apart. They are undoubtedly the best in the world and no one can come even close. They are where ground breaking research in almost every field is on, with brilliant out-of-the-box thinking that is the envy of the rest of the world. For all the perceived progress in China and India and even other developed nations, admission into an American university still remains the dream for most graduating high school students anywhere. An American university, like its private Indian counterpart, runs like a business enterprise. The difference is that you get real higher education in the American one. The Indian private university only gives you a worthless degree, while it goes about generating tons of unaccounted cash for its promoters who invariably turn out to be politicians.
Now, this is debatable and some might challenge me on this but by and large, the American corporate sector rewards merit like no other nation does. Excellence at the workplace happened long before Japan had even heard of it. Your boss might hate your guts but the system is designed so that you will be noticed pretty quickly, if you’re good. The same belief in just rewards, fills ordinary Americans with a strong sense of guilt over the cavalier way that their successive governments have dealt with other nations.
Last but not the least, it is their unique sense of humor that will stand all Americans in good stead. You can get virtually any doors opened if you can make an American laugh. If you can make it sound funny, you can get away with talking about sex non-stop. Humor strengthens the immune system, boosts energy, diminishes pain, and protects one from the damaging effects of stress. Best of all, this priceless medicine is fun, free, and easy to use. No people appreciate this more than ordinary Americans do and I love them for it. America has a long line of Presidents who could make you laugh hysterically. Barack Obama’s popularity stems primarily from his self-deprecating humor. I’ll leave you with this gem of a quip:-
“…What you may not know is Barack is actually Swahili for ‘That One’. And I got my middle name from somebody who obviously didn’t think I’d ever run for president”.
© 2013 Achyut Dutt.