Contrary to the popular European myth, the US is not entirely populated by overweight and under-intelligent walking human-interest stories. There certainly are some Americans who fit that description but then the average British high street is not exactly overflowing with super models on their way to join MENSA either. In fact, the enduring impression I get when in the US is of a huge number of intelligent, open-minded and articulate people (although, admittedly, it is still a novelty to discover that one of them is the President). It may be that the proportion of the super-smart is about the same as in most developed countries, but out of a population of 311 million Americans, it adds up to a lot of very clever people running around the country.
In fact, I suspect the proportion of highly educated people is actually higher in the US. About 30% of Americans graduate from university. Although this is a similar figure to other Western countries such as the UK, the numbers have been at those levels for a lot longer in the US, where the boom in university attendance is not such a recent phenomenon. In addition, the facilities, financial resources and quality of teaching at average American universities, let alone the top flight ones, are spectacular, which has an impact on the quality of the graduates they produce. Respected surveys such as the Times World University Rankings give 15 of the top twenty places to US universities. China has none in the top twenty but does at least have the good sense to send many of its brightest and best students to the US. But the influx of students from China and all over the world also helps the US. Some of them stay on and add to the pool of striving immigrants at all levels of the workforce that America continues to attract and who have always driven the country forward.
Nowhere is better than the US at turning these ideas into reality, with Apple, Google and Facebook being just a few obvious examples
These levels of education and drive feed into another great quality that sustains US dominance in the world: innovation. Apart from having and attracting a lot of great brains to come up with new ideas, nowhere is better than the US at turning these ideas into reality, with Apple, Google and Facebook being just a few obvious examples. The reasons for this include a supportive culture (the “can-do” attitude being one of the stereotypes that is actually true), plentiful finance and limited amounts of red tape. In 2008 (the latest available statistics), the supposedly fading US filed twice as many patents as China, despite having only one-fifth of China’s population. All of these factors matter a lot in a world where dominance is increasingly knowledge based.
The economic position of China in relation to the US should also be kept in perspective. After all, much of China’s economy consists of making cheap stuff for the US and a huge proportion of China’s national wealth is invested in lending the Americans the money to buy what China produces. This is not a position from which it will be easy to take on genuine economic superiority. At worst for the US, it is a Mexican standoff with both parties holding a financial gun to each other’s heads. But I would suggest that the dependence actually runs more in America’s favour. Other countries can and will be found to make things cheaply once Chinese workers inevitably discover a taste for livable wages and not having their limbs mangled in industrial accidents due to a lack of safety standards.
How many other countries could have got a special forces team undetected into a Pakistani military garrison town?
Militarily too, the likes of China have a long way to go to match the power of the Americans. The US military budget is larger than the next fifteen biggest spending countries combined. With great fanfare and pride, China recently launched its first aircraft carrier, a second-hand vessel it bought from Ukraine claiming it was planning to use it as a casino and bodged back to life on the quiet. Leaving aside the fact that aircraft carriers are increasingly old hat in modern warfare, the US has eleven of them, none of which were ever contemplated as potential new attractions in Las Vegas. Apart from the sheer bludgeoning scale that is its hallmark, the US is also capable of great military sophistication. Its unmanned drones are steadily eliminating the leadership of Al-Qaeda in precision attacks. And how many other countries could have got a special forces team undetected into a Pakistani military garrison town (whatever its other failings as a country, Pakistan does have a capable military) to bump-off Osama bin Laden?
Despite all of these assets, the US has undoubtedly had a bad spell recently and does have some problems to solve. The political system is one of them and is hampered by a media environment that prioritises loudmouthed outrage over productive debate. Beyond the bluster and in terms of actual policy, particularly on the economy, the main parties have long been two cheeks of the same backside or, as the great American writer Gore Vidal more eloquently put it, two wings of the same capitalist party. This has led to a paucity of original ideas and increasingly vicious squabbling over relatively small differences. Ironically, the rise of the tea party headbangers has opened up a clearer gap between the available choices and may ultimately result in more sensible policies being adopted. In any case, whatever problems the US democratic system has, these are nothing compared to what the Chinese Communist Party will have to deal with when their 1.4 billion subjects decide they would like to have a say in how they are governed. As we have seen with autocratic regimes elsewhere, such challenges can arise faster than expected and there have already been signs of growing dissent, for example in the furore about the government’s attempt to cover up the recent high-speed train crash in Wenzhou.
This is not the first time that the US has been subject to premature forecasts of its demise. Things got pretty bad in the seventies in the aftermath of Vietnam and Watergate, for example. And there were numerous predications during the Cold War, laughable in hindsight – especially as some of them came from the CIA, that the Soviet Union was about to overtake the US economically and militarily. As these precedents illustrate, the US has a remarkable capacity for changing course when a crunch comes and drawing on its vast human, financial and other resources to dig itself out of trouble. Beneath the current sense of crisis, the foundations are sound enough to suggest that it will succeed in doing so again.
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