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Optimistic or Pessimistic About America: James K. Glassman

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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The big question is whether America can continue to lead the world.

If we can’t, our future looks awfully grim. Either the world slips into chaos or another country—China?—takes the lead. Imagine that within the next decade, North Korea threatens Japan or Iran gets set to attack Israel or Pakistan falls completely apart. Will the United States be able to decide what to do—and have the authority to do it, with or without a coalition of the willing?

Global leadership has two requirements: one moral, the other economic. On the moral side, America’s will to lead seems to be slipping away, with the growing attraction of isolationism (to both parties); and on the flip side of that coin, multilaterism for its own sake. The superficial success of the lead-from-behind strategy in Libya doesn’t help. Waiting for the Arab League or the United Nations to step out first could easily become American custom and policy, especially at a time when we’re so preoccupied with domestic economic matters. The moral requirement for leadership is, of course, a function of desire and priority in a nation’s leader. But the zeitgeist counts, and right now, it bodes ill.

Which brings me to the second requirement of leadership. Today’s moral and political atmosphere is heavily determined by the state of the economy, and, in the short term, the U.S. economy is lousy. Typically, the economy snaps back like a rubber band: bad recessions are followed by strong recoveries. That hasn’t happened. But even worse is the long-term picture. Economists forecast growth in the 2-to-2.5-percent range as far as the eye can see. That’s a full percentage point lower than the post–World War II average. Living standards will still rise, but at a snail’s pace. The danger is that we won’t have the wealth to lead or, worse, we won’t have the confidence, in a crisis, to believe that we should spend what we must now, with the certainty that we can pay for it later, as we did in World War II.

The trend lines for both the moral and economic imperatives of leadership are heading down, but they can both be raised. The moral side needs inspiration and purpose from policymakers and intellectuals, who should dedicate themselves to the project of its revival. The economic side needs a clear goal to which policy can be directed. The Bush Institute suggests 4 percent sustainable economic growth—perhaps a bit aspirational, but we can certainly get close with a consumption tax, cuts in wasteful spending and regulations, a sensible immigration policy that beckons the best, and policies to produce domestic energy production.

America can no longer get very far on momentum alone. The physics of inertia are kicking in. Yes, our comparative advantages in technological imagination, entrepreneurship, and good business management remain unmatched, and animal spirits haven’t been snuffed out. Will America continue to lead the world? I say yes, but right now that’s a judgment based more on faith than reason.

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James K. Glassman, formerly undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, is the founding executive director of the George W. Bush Institute.



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