A Lot of Doom About Nothing

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In 1788, Massachusetts playwright Mercy Otis Warren took one look at the unratified U.S. Constitution and declared, "We shall soon see this country rushing into the extremes of confusion and violence." This, roughly, is the origin of American declinism -- and it's been downhill ever since.

A couple centuries later, Paul Kennedy, an international relations theorist at Yale University, sought to explain the decline of great powers in terms of a ratio between military commitments and economic resources. The military buildup under former President Ronald Reagan and the deficits that went with it, he warned, had brought the United States to the point of "imperial overstretch." Not quite. Within a few years, the Soviet Union collapsed, Europe and Japan -- with no military burdens to speak of -- entered a long period of economic stagnation, and the United States consolidated its position as the world's only true superpower.

Declinism is again in vogue. "America's unipolar moment has inspired diplomatic and financial countermovements to block American bullying and construct an alternate world order," writes Parag Khanna in a recent New York Times Magazine cover story cheerfully titled "Who Shrank the Superpower?" In Sunday's Los Angeles Times, Fred Kaplan observes that "the United States can no longer take obeisance for granted." Kaplan's new book, "Daydream Believers: How a Few Grand Ideas Wrecked American Power," sounds just a bit derivative of Nancy Soderberg's "The Superpower Myth," Roger Burbach's "Imperial Overstretch" and Charles Kupchan's "The End of the American Era."

The United States' "decline" is the foreign policy equivalent of homelessness: The media only take note of it when a Republican is in the White House. Broadly speaking, declinists are divided between those who merely accept the United States' supposed diminishment as a fact of life and those who celebrate it as long overdue. As for the causes of decline, however, they tend to agree: the relative decline in economic muscle due in large part to the rise of China; an overextended military bogged down needlessly in Iraq and endlessly in Afghanistan; the declining value of America's "brand" as a result of President George W. Bush's policies on detention, pre-emption, terrorism, global warming -- you name it.

Yet each of these assumptions collapses on a moment's inspection. In his 2006 book "?berpower," German writer Josef Joffe makes the following back-of-the-envelope calculation: "Assume that the Chinese economy keeps growing indefinitely at a rate of 7 percent, the average of the past decade (for which history knows of no example) ... At that rate, China's gross domestic product would double every decade, reaching parity with today's United States ($12 trillion) in 30 years. But the U.S. economy is not frozen into immobility. By then, the United States, growing at its long-term rate of 2.5 percent, would stand at $25 trillion."

Now take military expenditures. On Monday, the Bush administration released its budget proposal for 2009, which includes $515.4 billion for the regular defense budget. In inflation-adjusted dollars, this would be the largest defense appropriation since World War II. Yet it amounts to about 4 percent of GDP, as compared to 14 percent during the Korean War, 9.5 percent during the Vietnam War and 6 percent in the Reagan administration. Throw in the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns and total projected defense spending is still only 4.5 percent of GDP -- an easily afforded sum even by Professor Kennedy's terms.

Finally, there is the issue of the United States' allegedly squandered prestige in the world. There is no doubt America's "popularity," as measured by various global opinion surveys, has fallen in recent years. What's striking, however, is how little of this has mattered in terms of the domestic political choices of other countries or the consequences for the United States.

In the immediate aftermath of the Iraq War, nearly every government that joined Bush's "coalition of the willing" -- Australia, Britain, Denmark and Japan -- was returned to power. Former French President Jacques Chirac and former German Chancellor Gerhard Schr?der, the war's two most vocal opponents, were cashiered for two candidates who campaigned explicitly on a pro-U.S. agenda. The same happened in South Korea, where the unapologetically anti-U.S. President Roh Moo-hyun has been replaced by the unapologetically pro-U.S. Lee Myung-bak. Italy's equally unapologetic pro-U.S. Silvio Berlusconi seems set to return to office after a brief vacation.

None of this is to say that perceptions about the United States play a decisive role in the politics of most other countries. It is to say that anti-Americanism, like illegal immigration, is fool's gold politics. French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel were not installed in office principally to mend relations with Washington. But to the extent that both seek to liberalize their economies, strengthen NATO or take a responsible position vis-a-vis Iran, they are moving closer to Washington's way of thinking.

Meanwhile, McDonald's -- the icon of everything anti-Americans detest about the U.S. -- is doing a booming business overseas even as sales in the United States flatlined last year. Another U.S. icon, Boeing, is having no trouble booking orders (meeting them is another matter) for its new 787 Dreamliner from such customers as Spain's Air Europa and Bahrain's Gulf Air. The quintessentially American film "National Treasure" has earned nearly half its gross revenue -- about $160 million -- in foreign ticket sales since its release in late December. So much for the United States' loss of "soft power."

Happily for Kaplan, I look forward to receiving his forthcoming book. I'll put it right up there on the shelf with another favorite of mine -- "19-0: The Historic Championship Season of New England's Unbeatable Patriots." I'm guessing it will fetch a price on eBay.

Bret Stephens is a columnist for The Wall Street Journal, where this comment appeared.