Despite all, US still 'greatest country'

Amid all the talk of gloom and doom in the United States, with the stock market's near crash and the renewed threat of a double-dip recession, it is worth pausing to remember the US remains the greatest country on Earth. It is also the country with the most promising future.

I make these assertions not as a matter of national pride, but as an analytical conclusion. This is not to discourage serious attention to deficit reduction, economic renewal and political reform - all of which we greatly need - or to trivialise the country's problems.

Nor is it meant to deny the plight of the many Americans who have suffered enormously as a result of the punishing economic downturn of the past three years. But when the news is generally bleak, there is always a danger we will talk ourselves into greater fatalism, and more extreme responses, than are warranted or wise.

Consider our strengths, beginning with who we are. The US remains the land where people around the world dream of living, and they still arrive in substantial numbers, enriching our melting-pot society and energising the economy.

Our population today is at just over 300 million, with modest and steady growth. Almost every other major industrial power is in decline, with low birth rates and ageing populations that will soon put a huge strain on their economies.

Countries such as Turkey and Brazil have healthy population-growth rates too, and they have promising futures. But they are middle powers at most. China is rising impressively, but it also has huge problems, with far too many people for a relatively modest landmass.

The country's one-child policy will, within a decade or two, result in huge numbers of retirees relative to the size of its working-age population, a far greater challenge than we will face here. India's problem is the opposite but just as serious.

Unable to get any handle on its population growth, India's demographics verge on unsustainable. To be sure, these other countries can make progress, and we wish them well as they try. But the notion that their futures are all bright and rosy while ours is declining does not comport with the facts.

Partly because of our large immigrant population, partly because of our historical role in the two World Wars and in the Cold War, and partly because of our openness and transparency as a political system, the US is also blessed with an enviable system of alliances.

We have about 70 formal and informal allies around the world. We are not universally loved, to be sure, and even many of our allies are critical of American foreign policy. But they tend not to fear us, worrying about their own neighbours (or the prospect of anarchy) more than us.

As a result, more than 70% of combined global economic power is loosely organised under what might be termed the US global alliance system.

Additionally, many key neutral countries such as India and Indonesia prefer to work with us rather than against us. By contrast, Russia's limited alliances feature standouts such as Belarus, and China's only formal security partner is North Korea.

In addition to having perhaps the healthiest demographic profile of any middle or major power, and by far the strongest alliances of any major power in history, the US also has the best advanced educational system in the world.

We hear lots about the troubled state of our public education system, and to be sure, it needs improvement. But at the more advanced level, we remain at the front. Recent studies estimate the US has more than half of the world's best 100 universities.

The intellectual excellence does not end there. Of the $US1.2 trillion ($NZ1.4 trillion) the world spent on research and development last year, $US400 billion was spent in the US.

Europe spent less than $US300 billion. Totals for China and Japan were each around $US150 billion. Others were far behind.

Sure, China educates 600,000 engineers a year to our 60,000, but more than half that Chinese figure is made up of technicians trained in two-year colleges.

Comparing apples with apples, the ratio is more like 200,000 to 60,000, and our students have far better universities to attend.

China's prowess and progress in economic growth and manufacturing are remarkable, but at least for another year or two, the US remains the top manufacturer as measured by value added to its products.

Our setbacks in recent decades in areas such as steel, concrete, textiles and cars are partially compensated for by continued excellence in aircraft, pharmaceuticals, industrial chemicals and many computer-related technologies.

Although foreigners just overtook Americans in the number of US patents received each year, we still generate about 48% of the country's patents; not bad for 5% of the world's population.

For the reasons stated above, along with the relative openness of our society and the dependability of our legal systems, the World Economic Forum still put the US at No4 in its world competitiveness ranking for 2010.

The countries ahead of the US were Switzerland, Sweden and Singapore, with combined populations far less than that of California.

So yes, let's fix America's problems, but let's not lose sight of what's right.

Michael O'Hanlon is a senior fellow and director of research for foreign policy at the Brookings Institution.

 

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