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Optimistic or Pessimistic About America: Joseph Nye

The following is from our November issue. Forty-one symposium contributors were asked to respond to the question: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about America’s future?

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Polls show widespread pessimism about America’s prospects. Such moods reflect the slow growth and fiscal problems that followed the 2008 financial crisis, but they are not historically unprecedented. After Sputnik, Americans thought the Soviets were 10 feet tall; in the 1980s, it was the Japanese. Now it is the Chinese.

The United States has very real problems, but the American economy remains highly productive. America remains first in total research-and-development expenditures, first in university rankings, first in Nobel prizes, first on indices of entrepreneurship, and fourth in the World Economic Forum’s list of the world’s most competitive economies (China ranks 27th). America, moreover, remains at the forefront of such cutting-edge technologies as biotech and nanotechnology. This is hardly a picture of absolute economic decline.

Some observers worry that America will become sclerotic like Britain, at the peak of its power a century ago. But American culture is far more entrepreneurial and decentralized than was that of Britain, where the sons of industrial entrepreneurs sought aristocratic titles and honors in London. And despite recurrent historical bouts of concern, immigration helps keep America flexible. In 2005, foreign-born immigrants had participated in onw of every four technology start-ups in the previous decade. As Singapore’s former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew once told me, China can draw on a talent pool of 1.3 billion people, but the United States can draw on a talent pool of 7 billion and recombine them in a diverse culture that enhances creativity in a way that ethnic Han nationalism cannot.

Many commentators worry about the inefficient American political system. It is true that the Founding Fathers created a system of checks and balances to preserve liberties at the price of efficiency. America, moreover, is now going through a period in which party politics have become very polarized, but nasty politics is nothing new and goes all the way back to the Founders. American government and politics have always had problems, and, though it is hard to remember in light of the current melodramas, they were sometimes worse than today’s.

The United States faces serious problems regarding debt, secondary education, and political gridlock, but one should remember that they are only part of the picture. In principle, and over a longer term, there are solutions to current American problems. Of course, such solutions may forever remain out of reach. But it is worth distinguishing problems for which there are no solutions from those that could, in theory, be solved.

Whether Americans seize the available solutions is uncertain, but Lee Kuan Yew is probably correct when he says China “will give the U.S. a run for its money” but not pass it in overall power in the first half of this century. If so, the gloomy views reported in the latest polls will turn out to be as misleading as those in decades past.

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Joseph Nye is a professor at Harvard and the author of The Future of Power (Public Affairs).


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