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  A Nation in Decline
by J. F. Kelly, Jr. [writer] 2/2/07

Historian Paul Kennedy, in his epic work, “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers”, describes both the strategic and economic factors that help explain the rise and eventual decline, relative to each other, of each of the world’s dominant nations during the period 1500-2000. His examples from history are instructive. We should reflect well upon them if we would avoid the fate of other, once mighty nations. Unfortunately, even raising the question of an eventual American decline evokes challenges regarding the quality of one’s patriotism. It is, nevertheless, a fair question and one which we should be able to debate without emotion and demagoguery. The future is not pre-ordained but history provides the best predictors of it. Corrections can still be made and troublesome trends reversed but first they must be identified, acknowledged and dealt with.

J.F. Kelly, Jr.

J.F. Kelly, Jr. is a retired Navy Captain and bank executive who writes on current events and military subjects. He is a resident of Coronado, California. [go to Kelly index]

The rise of the United States to great power status was relatively swift and by the end of World War II our young nation was the world’s dominant military and economic power, challenged only by the military power of the Soviet Union. The USSR eventually collapsed because it lacked the financial base to support its military expansion, leaving us the sole remaining superpower.

Once you reach the top, however, only one direction remains. After being the decisive factor in WW II, we fought a couple of indecisive wars, one resulting in a stalemate in Korea and another resulting in a pullout and subsequent bloodbath in Vietnam, inflicting serious damage to American prestige and pride. America’s awesome military power and enormous financial assets could not ensure success in a new kind of non-traditional warfare.

Our economy continued to expand, remaining the world’s largest by far, its closest competitors the very two nations we defeated in WW II, Germany and Japan, whose war-shattered economies and infrastructure we helped rebuild and whose defense burdens we assumed, enabling them to devote all their energies to economic growth. As we entered the 21st century, our economic and military power still reigned supreme and with the Soviet threat gone, our confidence was high.

That confidence was dealt a rude blow on September 11, 2001 when it became clear that for all our military power, our cities and citizens were vulnerable to a new kind threat at the hands of suicidal terrorists fueled by visceral religious hatred. Our eventual commitment to a land war in Iraq demonstrated that our military power is able to quickly reduce cities to rubble, defeat conventional armies and overthrow regimes but faces daunting challenges in dealing with suicidal terrorists, insurgents, armed civilian gangs and religious fanatics who believe God is on their side. Public dissatisfaction with this kind of war surfaced again back home and threatens now to force another precipitous withdrawal, reminiscent of Vietnam, leaving the country we invaded to save from Saddam Hussein in chaos, adding to the instability of a region critical to western interests and again raising questions about American resolve and ability to engage successfully in non-traditional warfare.

Those who feel that America is in decline can point also to domestic signs of trouble. Our booming economy is funded by massive debt, largely owned by the Chinese who are emerging as our strongest financial and military rivals. We import substantially more than we export and part of what we are exporting are jobs, manufacturing and technology. We seem unable to stem the growth of the national debt, the service on which consumes much of the budget. We are a nation consumed with consumerism. We want everything now and we are in hock up to our armpits.

Our savings rate is essentially zero. China’s, by way of comparison, is more than 40%.  Our population is aging and demands on entitlement programs like social security, Medicare and Medicaid threaten to bankrupt these programs. We can’t seem to control our own borders and continued illegal immigration is creating a large underclass of unskilled workers, competing with our own high school dropouts for a declining number of low skill jobs in a global economy that demands technical skills and education. Too many of our schools are failing to provide our children with the math, science and reading skills we will need to stay competitive in a global economy. Too many parents are failing as well, lacking the time or the skill to reinforce at home what their children are supposed to be learning in school. The numbers of single parent families and births out of wedlock continues to signal the breakdown of the family, the basic and most important social unit in our society.

This is some of the bad news. Some of the good news is that we are still number one by a substantial margin. The challenge is to keep it that way. But those footsteps you hear behind us are getting louder. They belong to China. CRO

copyright 2007 J. F. Kelly, Jr.



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