Isn’t it funny how perceptions change? Eight years ago, in March 2012, CNN published an online column, “America has made the world freer, safer and wealthier,” by Robert Kagan. Kagan, who describes himself as a “liberal interventionist,” also is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. The column was published the same year as his acclaimed book, “The World America Made.”
In the column, Kagan noted that Americans take for granted what the world looks like today. Even given the 2008 financial crisis the global economy was still recovering from, Kagan explained that most of humanity was enjoying an unprecedented level of prosperity, and widespread freedoms and opportunities. Much of those improvements have been possible because of 75 years without a war among the world’s great powers.
As he pointed out in his column, in 1941, there were just 12 democracies in the world. Today there are 167. Before 1950, the world’s gross domestic product (GDP) rose by less than 1% annually. Since then, it has risen by an average of more than 3% a year (and that is including the -1.68% decline in 2008). As Kagan notes, America made this world when it took on the role of global leader in the years after World War II.
He is right. Thanks to the United States, most of the world today now reaps the benefits of free markets and free trade. Those benefits include better global income, health, literacy and living conditions. Are things perfect? By no means, but they are a far, far sight better than before the turn of the past century.
Almost 90% of international commerce is transported over the world’s oceans. It is American sea power that ensures the world’s busiest shipping lanes, including the northeast and southeast Asian seas, the southwest Pacific, and numerous straits and passages that could serve as chokepoints for power-hungry tyrants, remain open and uncontested allowing for the free flow of trade.
CNN published Kagan’s article more than eight years ago. How times have changed. Today scores of pundits and politicians are writing columns, talking to cable news shows and tweeting about the rapid decline of the United States. A June 1 report in The New York Times titled, “As virus toll preoccupies U.S., rivals test limits of American power,” describes a U.S. brought to its knees by COVID-19 and national protests, and overwhelmed by Chinese and Russia economic and military influences. The report warns that outside players and competitors are rushing to fill the void left by a now bumbling and stumbling America.
Writing in The Atlantic, London-based staff writer Tom McTague’s column, “Decline of the American world,” bemoans the “uniquely humiliating moment” in which we are living. He laments the fact that the U.S. no longer is the country the rest of the world wants to emulate, but rather one it pities. He suggests that the very idea of what America stands for no longer matters to a world where China is emerging as the new global leader.
Yes, the fall of America seems to be a most popular narrative. But it is a false one. And those predicting our downfall, some with almost gleeful tones, better hope they are wrong as well. A world without the United States would be a far different place then it is today.
America remains the world’s economic engine. We still are the global force that keeps despots and dictators at bay. We have made some crucial misjudgments, but the good we do far outweighs the harm. We remain the destination of hope for vast majorities of immigrants. We remain the world’s most generous nation — both our government and our people donate enormous amounts of money to charity and world organizations. When disaster strikes, we are among the first to step up with offers of assistance and aid.
On this, our 244th birthday, the union remains strong. These are trying times. But it is temporary. We are going through an upheaval because many see the American dream as unachievable. Protesting today for a better tomorrow is as American as apple pie. After this, we will emerge a stronger, more resilient nation.
The goodness and the greatness of this nation will survive President Donald Trump just as it will survive a President Joe Biden should that nomination come to pass. We will survive the current lack of strong leadership because of the resolve of the American people.
This country didn’t become a beacon for the tempest-tost, the home of inventors and investors, the lender of last resort and the world’s most generous benefactor because of presidents and politicians. It reached that status because of everyday Americans who had dreams to achieve. And it will continue to thrive because of those Americans.
Happy Independence Day.