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Op-Ed

The U.S. still has a promising future

Yes, the United States has problems. But let's not lose sight of its many strengths.

August 11, 2011|By Michael O'Hanlon

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 that the United States 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 trivialize the country's admittedly serious 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 last 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 United States remains the land where people around the world dream of living, and they still arrive in substantial numbers, enriching our melting-pot society and energizing the economy. Our population today is at just over 300 million, with a modest and steady growth rate. Almost every other major industrial power is in decline, with low birthrates and aging 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, designed to address that overpopulation, 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 United States is also blessed with an enviable system of alliances. We have some 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 neighbors (or the prospect of anarchy) more than us.

As a result, more than 70% of combined global economic power is loosely organized under what might be termed the U.S. global alliance system. Additionally, even many key neutral countries like India and Indonesia prefer to work with us rather than against us on most global security matters. By contrast, Russia's limited alliances feature standouts like 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 over a sustained period of any major power in history, the United States 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 that the United States has more than half of the world's best 100 universities.

The intellectual excellence does not end there. Of the $1.2 trillion the world spent on research and development activities last year, $400 billion was spent in the U.S. Europe in aggregate spent less than $300 billion. Totals for China and Japan were each around $150 billion. Others were far behind.

Sure, China educates 600,000 engineers a year to our 60,000, but more than half that larger Chinese figure is made up of technicians trained in two-year colleges. Comparing apples to apples, the ratio is more like 200,000 to 60,000, and our students have far better universities to attend.

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