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Is United States Still Number One?

André de Nesnera

August 20, 2011

Is the United States a power in decline?

For decades, the United States has been the number one global economic power. But during the past few years, it has faced a sluggish economy, millions of Americans out of work, a huge budget deficit and a polarized political environment. All of these factors have compelled some experts here and abroad to ask whether the United States is a powerful nation in decline.

John Bolton is former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations: “Oh I think it’s way too soon to say that. Just find another power in the world that would like to go up against us militarily and the takers are few and far between. There are other countries whose economies are expanding, but after World War II, when Europe was able to recover from the massive destruction of the war, as Japan recovered in its turn, that didn’t reduce America’s influence," he said. "It may have seen others rise in their share of the world’s total product, but the result really was that everybody in the world got wealthier.”

Experts say China is a country whose economic growth could make it a powerful player in the years ahead - and a potential rival to the United States.

Joseph Nye is a senior scholar at Harvard University: “China has had very impressive progress. It has raised several hundred million people out of poverty with its high growth rates and it is making very impressive progress. I think it is going to get closer to the United States, give the U.S. a run for its money, but I don’t see it passing the U.S,” he said.

For his part, Alan Meltzer, an economics professor at Carnegie Mellon University, does believe the U.S. is a declining power. He says one reason is that since the end of the Cold War, European nations have been accommodating American interests less and less because they don’t need Washington as much as they did during the Soviet threat.

And Meltzer says there is another reason for the American decline.

“The United States couldn’t solve its budget problems and a country that can’t solve its budget problems is not in a very good position to tell other people what they should do,” Meltzer stated.

President Barack Obama and congressional leaders recently reached an agreement to increase the country’s debt ceiling - but only after some acrimonious exchanges.

Nye says a polarized political climate in Washington is nothing new.

“The outside world sees a very messy political process and many people say it shows Americans in decline. But if one looks back historically, the Americans have always had a rather messy political process - the Founding Fathers had very bitter partisan politics among themselves," he explained. "I think we are going through a bad spell of polarization in politics, but we’ve been through things like that before.”

And Nye says there is also nothing new in the current discussion whether the United States is in decline. “We go through cycles like this every decade or two. After Sputnik [1957 - first satellite to be put into Earth’s orbit] we thought the Russians were 10 feet-tall. In the 1980s we thought the Japanese were 10 feet tall. Today people are claiming the Chinese are 10 feet-tall - but I think we’ll outgrow all of this,” he added.

Many experts, including Ambassador John Bolton, say in the final analysis, the role that America will play in the years ahead remains in its own hands - and that’s what a democracy is all about.

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