Symposium: America in Decline?

Is America in decline? To discuss this question with us today, Frontpage Symposium has invited two distinguished guests:

Robert Lieber, Professor of Government and International Affairs at Georgetown University, where he has previously served as Chair of the Government Department and Interim Chair of Psychology. He is an authority on American foreign policy and U.S. relations with the Middle East and Europe. His most recent authored book is The American Era: Power and Strategy for the 21st Century. He is presently writing a book entitled, The Future of the American Era.


James Carafano, the Deputy Director of Davis Institute for International Study at the Heritage Foundation where he coordinates the foundation’s research on foreign policy and national security. A 25-year veteran of the US Army, Carafano is an accomplished historian and teacher as well as a prolific writer and researcher on a fundamental constitutional duty of the federal government: to provide for the common defense.

FP: James Carafano and Robert Lieber, welcome to Frontpage Symposium.

James Carafano, let’s begin with you.

Let’s start with the main question: Is America in decline?

Carafano: Rather than America in decline, it might be better to talk about the rest of the world ascending. Economists predict in the years ahead the world growth rate will be 4.4 percent. They say 3.3 of that will be in the emerging economies.

That said, I am not in the camp that thinks the US will be swallowed up by China. Like the rise of Japan in the 1980s, China’s economic reforms can only take it so far and then it will have to become a very different kind of country or else it won’t be able to sustain its breath-taking trajectory.

On the other hand, it is painful to watch the US squander the advantages of a free market, open society. I do worry about the US ability to compete in the future and maintain a standard of living and civil society that is second to none.

I will sketch three areas of concern.

One is security. The notion that we have the world’s finest military is increasingly at risk. True we spend more than anyone else on defense–that is because we have far more to protect. In terms of GDP, however, US defense spending is at near historic post-WWII lows. We have been under-funding modernization for decades and our defense industrial base is evaporating. That would be okay if the world was a less dangerous place. It is not.

The second concern is Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math education–STEM. America is falling behind. Some say that is not a crisis. There are lots of engineers. Sure, but that is only because the US is losing its capacity as a builder and manufacturer.

Third, the traditional model of immigration and assimilation is under assault. Mostly what we do today is import poverty and generations are not assimilating as they did in the past. Their plight mirrors that of America’s homegrown poor. Neither blacks nor Hispanics, as a whole, are capturing the American dream. They are not moving up the economic and education ladder. Immigration is an important part of the economy, our culture, and creativity. We are squandering this resource through a combination of bad immigration, poor border security, and devastating welfare programs that are growing not shrinking poverty and undermining the traditional American family structure.

FP: Thank you James Carafano.

Robert Lieber, what are your thoughts on America in decline and your take on Mr. Carafano’s comments?

Lieber: I would rather respond to the main question of whether the US is in decline.  I do agree, though, that military modernization requires serious attention and that our immigration system has become badly dysfunctional.

Is the declinist proposition valid, that as a society, economy, and political power the country is in decline?  Certainly the domestic situation is more difficult now than two decades ago.  Yet while problems should not be minimized, they should not be overstated.  Contrary to what many observers assume, the U.S. held its own in globalized economic competition and its strengths remain broad and deep.  For the past several decades, our share of global output has been relatively constant at approximately one-fifth of world output – around 20% according to two recent reports.

Moreover, America benefits from a growing population and one that is aging more slowly than all its possible competitors except India.  It continues to be a magnet for talented and ambitious immigrants (despite the immigration system).  It is a world leader in science and in its system of higher education, and it has the advantage of continental scale and resources.  In short, the U.S. remains the one country in the world that is both big and rich.

The American military remains unmatched and despite intense stress from nearly a decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq it has not suffered the disarray that afflicted it in Vietnam.  This is evident in indicators such as successful recruitment and performance of the volunteer force, the ongoing quality of the officer corps, and broad public support for the military, and in casualty tolerance.

Beyond material strengths, the society itself benefits from a durable political system, rule of law, vigorous free press and information media, and a competitive and adaptable economy, as well as strong traditions of entrepreneurship and innovation, leadership and critical mass in new technology, and a history of resilience and flexibility in overcoming adversity.

America does face a more competitive world, regional challenges, and some attrition of its relative degree of primacy.  But because of the enormous margin of power the U.S. possessed after the end of the Cold War, it should be able to withstand a degree of erosion in its relative strength for some time without losing its predominant status.

However, given profound disagreements about policy, intense partisan rancor, growing social class division, distrust of government, and lingering divisions about foreign commitments, non-material factors could prove to be a greater impediment to our staying power than more commonly cited indicators of economic strength and military over-stretch.  Can the American political system produce effective measures to cope with long term burdens of entitlement programs and national debt?  Will cultural and generational differences about the uses and even legitimacy of American power lead to abandonment of a global leadership role?  And are persistent foreign threats, especially from terrorism and nuclear proliferation, likely to sustain a domestic consensus or instead lead to intensified polarization and retrenchment?  The United States retains the power and capacity to play a leading world role.  The ultimate questions about America’s future are more likely to be those of policy and will.

FP: James Carafano, what are some of the ways we can reverse the ride of some of the dangers you point to? And what is your take on Prof. Lieber’s optimistic outlook that, despite the challenges he points to as well, America might not be in decline at all?

Carafano: Let’s start with this proposition by Lieber:

“[t]he American military remains unmatched and despite intense stress from nearly a decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq it has not suffered the disarray that afflicted it in Vietnam.  This is evident in indicators such as successful recruitment and performance of the volunteer force, the ongoing quality of the officer corps, and broad public support for the military, and in casualty tolerance.”

I would agree with all of it…but just add “past performance is no guarantee of future earnings.”

The fact is US military superiority is indeed in doubt. While the American military turned the corner in Iraq and there are signs it is doing the same in Afghanistan–both of these were near run things…and I would argue largely because we under-invested in our military since the end of the Cold War. It is not that our enemies are devilishly clever coming up with innovations such as improvised explosive devices-IEDs, it is just that since the Cold War ended we never gave our armed forces sufficient resources to deal with emerging threats–because of this unfounded presumption that we had the world’s finest military that could simply not be challenged.

Furthermore, not only have we struggled to keep up with new dangers from IEDs to WikiLeaks, we have been too complacent in preserving our conventional capabilities.  We have been living off Reagan’s “peace through strength” legacy for almost a quarter of a century. Well–guess what? We are on the verge of tapping out the bequest.

First, Congress stopped “modernizing” the military (buying new equipment to replace old systems before they wear-out or become outdated) at the end of the Cold War.

Second, Congress has allowed personnel costs (which accounts for more than half the Pentagon’s budget) to sky-rocket out of control. According to the TechAmerica Foundation, military personnel costs have risen 32 percent since 9/11. Add to that the increased costs of operating and maintaining a wartime military — and it means there is even less money left to modernize the military.

Third, Congress keeps layering on new rules, new directives that make defense spending even less efficient. For example, the majority of the Army’s research and development budget is directed through earmarks!

To make matters worse, as a recent TechAmerica Foundation study shows, the Pentagon could well get hit with a “double tsunami” — a drop in spending as the US draws down in Iraq and Afghanistan (monies that were propping-up paying for manpower, as well as operations and maintenance) — coupled with calls to gut the defense budget to help deal with the deficit.

The first casualty of the double tsunami will be all the all-volunteer force. Sure everybody likes good pay and benefits — but young people mostly serve in the military both because of a sense of mission and because they believe the US military is an effective institution. No one will want to join the armed forces if there is no money for training and readiness and if their equipment is falling apart. If Congress slashes the size of the military, no one will be interested in staying in the service if they have to constantly deploy without an opportunity to rest.

There are solutions to saving the all-volunteer force, reforms in personnel management, operations (like modernizing logistics-that would save $35 billion), and procurement that can keep the all-volunteer force healthy and affordable-that would free up enough money to modernize the military and preserve the all-volunteer force.

But, make no mistake if Washington becomes complacent about military prowess we will quickly lose our combat-edge.

FP: Prof. Lieber, your view on Mr. Carafano’s warnings about America losing its combat-edge?

Lieber: I began my previous response by agreeing that military modernization requires serious attention.  But note that James Carafano’s alarm is based on predictions and a very pessimistic view of future decisions about the defense budget.  Of course, hard choices will need to be made among priorities.  Secretary of Defense Gates has targeted some $100 billion in possible cost savings that he would like to redirect to military modernization.  Much will also depend on the pace of withdrawals from Iraq and on the progress of the surge in Afghanistan as well as on political developments there.  As we do draw down, however, that will allow more scope for choices — both within the defense budget but also as a tempting target for budget cuts.

It is important to bear in mind that the U.S. has an experienced and battle-hardened military, with very capable leadership.  The army has also demonstrated impressive learning capacity during the past decade and deploys the most experienced and effective counter-insurgency forces in the world.  The base military budget, as a percentage of GDP, amounts to approximately 3.9%, with another 1% for the operational costs of Iraq and Afghanistan.  Though the base figure is well below cold war levels, it still represents a very large sum.

We live in a world in which there are real threats to US security from both states and terrorist groups.  My own sense of the future is that Congress, the public, and the executive branch will remain sufficiently concerned about these and will maintain an effective level of support for national defense.  Isolationist sentiment remains very modest, and the political landscape does not (or at least not yet) seem to be one that would favor serious retrenchment.

Finally, bear in mind that American politics are, an “invitation to struggle” (in the words of a prominent political scientist, Edward Corwin, a generation ago).  Insuring America’s defense preparedness is a necessary part of that process. 

Carafano: Well, we agree that America has the capacity to address its ills. The real question is will it? I have not so much tried to offer a pessimistic outlook as lay out why it is vital for Americans not to be complacent about their future. There is no society so great that greatness cannot be lost in a single generation.

I would say first that America needs to reestablish its position as a free economy. Last year for the first time in the history of the Index of Economic Freedom the US slipped from the ranks of “free economies” to a “mostly free” economy. That’s alarming. High taxes, excessive regulation, and runaway government spending account for most of the problem.

Second, America is a federalist society. The continual shift of power from the states to the government is at the root of a number of our most troubling problems including education and welfare. More federal intrusion has not decreased poverty and improved the performance of students–it has, in fact, accelerated the race to the bottom. Federalism allows states to innovate, experiment, and adapt. Over-centralization is a threat to America moving forward.

Third, we cannot compromise on providing for the common defense.
If we start to under invest in our military now we will be right back in the state our armed forces were in 1973.

If the nation undertakes these three tasks I have no doubts about what we could achieve.

I agree America’s best should be ahead. That will largely be determined by what we as nation do to secure our own future.

Lieber: America’s great strength lies in its flexibility and capacity to respond to crisis — though often only after the problem has become severe.  There is no guarantee that the necessary steps will be taken, but the country has managed to overcome much worse in the past (Civil War, the Depression of the 1930s, World War II) and past history shows a remarkable capacity for renewal and response.

FP: James Carafano and Robert Lieber, thank you for joining Frontpage Symposium.

  • Alexander Gofen

    The two gentlemen go in circles not seeing 800 pound gorillas everywhere…

    About 90 years ago V. Lenin wrote: "Bolsheviks must take the power" (in various structures of Russia). Now take a look at America.

    1. The kindergartens, schools, and university system (both state and private) have been under full control of Marxists and homosexual lobby for many decades. Both systems discriminate against the white majority, against achievers, promoting mediocrity, false self esteem, anti-Americanism and sexual perversions.

    2. The mass media (except Internet and radio) is under full control of Marxists and homosexual lobby. The "freedom of expression" is exactly like Nikita Hruschev put it in the 1960s: "We have all the freedoms of expression to fight for Communism. Yet we do not and must not have any freedoms to fight against Communism".

    3. The government institutions at all levels are controlled by Marxists and homosexual lobby.


  • Alexander Gofen

    4. American army has been following the suicidal doctrine of not defending America against Islamic attacks since Carter/Clinton/Bush/Obama, which culminated on the 9/11. This attack exceeded the Pearl Harbor in all respects, yet the enemy symbols Mecca and Medina remained intact, and the enemy – Islam – has never been even named: 9 years after the devastating attack vs. 4 years of the entire WWII.

    5. Like the Soviets, America is under de facto one party rule: only with some imitation of rivalry between them.

    6. Finally 2008 was the year of a bipartisan/military coup which seated a Manchurian "president" (a foreign agent) into the White House, and the bluffing in this "presidential poker" continues up to now.

    What remains from the former America is perhaps its 40-50% of "right-wing extremists" without any representation, without "standing", schools, press, and TV.

    Is America in decline?

  • Chezwick_Mac

    America will continue to contribute mightily to humanity in the intellectual, scientific, and artistic realms…due to our remarkable reservoir of human capital, but our gargantuan fiscal problems preclude the exertion of American power in anyway remotely comparable to what occurred in the 20th century. One hopes that the ascendant powers will be as magnanimous and generous to the world as America has been through its century of global dominance.

    It will be interesting to see how countries like China and India handle their inevitable ascendancy. Both figure to reign over the globe only briefly. China's aging populace will begin sapping her strength within a generation, and India's demographic nightmare – higher Muslim fertility rates and mass illegal immigration from Bangladesh, will create a Muslim-majority nation later this century that will likely degenerate into the same moribund, fatalistic culture that afflicts the entire Muslim world (anticipate waves of Hindu emigration to America, Canada and Australia later this century, bringing their remarkable skills and talents with them).

    Though environmental concerns dominate the headlines and the thinking of the elite, I believe the proliferation of WMDs will be the defining issue of the century. By 2100, everybody and their mother will be a nuclear power. God help us all….and Merry Christmas.

  • waterwillows

    We have excellent comments and insights today. Thank you.

    Let us not forget the Most High who governs everything on His earth. He will bring a country through what is most difficult or seemingly impossible. America is still a God fearing nation, who have put their trust in His Wisdom. Europe could take a lesson from America in that regard. The US certainly does have her share of problems today, but with continued regard for the Lord, she will come through and be returned safely.

    Psalm 33: v 12 Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord.

    • chets1girl

      Yes, I think America need only look at the facts. Since 1963-64, the murder, abortion, STD, teenage sexuality, adultery, etc, etc. rates have skyrocketed. What's important about those dates? Prayer was pulled from our public schools. The simple act of allowing children to pray in the morning; and, maybe even more importantly, to allow others to show & learn respect by quietly abstaining, was removed from our society. Our faith-based heritage; our Judeo-Christian background is being thrown out the window by those who would change history to align with their leftist and radical agenda. Americans are walking down the path of "separation of church & state" even though it is not, and never has been, a part of our Constitution. Americans are selling out their own nation and allowing Islamic conquest on her soil by buying into the political correctness game. How can we protect ourselves from an enemy if we aren't even allowed to name him!? Our willingness, as a nation, to turn away from God is showing its results. I believe we need Revival in our nation, in our communities, in our schools, in our hearts. Only then will God bless America as He used to do. Read "The 5000 Year Leap" to further understand these principles; to further understand the true history of our once-great nation. Then, get on your knees and pray for her like you've never done before!

      • Ralph

        What she said!

  • muchiboy

    A safe and Merry Christmas to all.The Grant Family

  • Russell

    Note that the commenters cite our moral and spiritual decline while the experts consulted in the article seem oblivious to the issue. There you have it.

    • chets1girl

      Amen! It's up to those of us who will cite and address our moral and spiritual decline to speak out loudly, actively and continually. For, as seen in this article (and beyond), the refusal to address this very issue has become the problem. This nation has ignorantly bought into the "separation of church & state" nonsense. See where it has brought us!

  • Jack Kinch(1uncle)

    We know why the Jews were scattered. It is almost too late to save us. Pray.

  • Spirit_Of_1683

    The way America is behaving, it looks like it is in decline, has been since Ayatollah Khomeini and the Iran hostage crisis burst onto the scene in 1979, and this has been demonstrated on so many occasions over the following 32 years, never more so than in the decade following the 9/11 atrocity where being hobbled by political correctness is taking its grisly toll. It looks like "Move over America, China is taking your place", and it is entirely self-inflicted. Every despot and Islamofascist fancies his chances at kicking Uncle Sam in the pants. But we all know the Chinese would never tolerate what the US has tolerated over those 32 years, not now, not ever. The US is a supposed superpower but it is now looking like a lion who is afraid of a mouse. And whose fault is that? Patton, Curtis LeMay, Theodore Roosevelt, Ulysees S Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman must be turning in their graves.

  • ObamaYoMoma

    The fact is US military superiority is indeed in doubt. While the American military turned the corner in Iraq and there are signs it is doing the same in Afghanistan–both of these were near run things…and I would argue largely because we under-invested in our military since the end of the Cold War.

    This statement indicates that Mr. Carafano still hasn’t come to grips with Islam. Hence, since he is oblivious to the real nature of the threat that Islam presents both at home and abroad, I will have to regard with a grain of salt what he says, although I do ideologically agree a lot with what he says.

    It is important to bear in mind that the U.S. has an experienced and battle-hardened military, with very capable leadership.

    If our leaders are so very capable, then why are they still totally oblivious to Islam and the threat it presents at home and abroad? Indeed, if they had an adequate understanding of the biggest threat to freedom in the world since communism, they would be counseling that we exit Afghanistan and Iraq ASAP to reconfigure to more accurately meet the facts on the ground.

    The army has also demonstrated impressive learning capacity during the past decade and deploys the most experienced and effective counter-insurgency forces in the world.

    I totally disagree with this assessment by Mr. Lieber. If our military leaders had adequate learning capacity, our military wouldn’t still be spinning its wheels almost 10 years after 9/11 trying to win the hearts and minds of Muhammadans who are obligated to hate our kafir infidel guts no matter what per Islam. In fact, our military would know better than to ever become mired in Islamic insurgencies ever again, because they would understand fully how completely counterproductive they are. Moreover, today we still wouldn’t be propping up two Sharia states that unfortunately our military helped to create, because again our military leaders would understand fully how counterproductive that is.

    We live in a world in which there are real threats to US security from both states and terrorist groups

    What? No mention of Islam, which like communism before, represents the biggest threat to freedom in the world today. In fact, the global jihad represents the Cold War of the 21st century, yet it hasn’t been acknowledged at this point because our political elite, intelligentsia, and military leaders are all still completely oblivious to the threat.

    Our biggest problem is that our political elites, intelligentsia, and military leaders are all still totally oblivious of Islam and the threat to freedom that it represents still at this point, even going on 10 years after 9/11, which demonstrates how powerful a force political correctness, which is a by product of multiculturalism, has become in our society.

  • dawning

    I absolutely agree Ob yo mama. Islam is, and will be for a long time to come, THE number one danger for the entire planet. There is strong islam and there is weak islam and it is plain to see what, strengthining, islam has planned for the world. We simply MUST bring the eradication of islam to the forefront of all our future plans or there will be NO America.

  • sdlitvin

    The main problem is that once the Cold War ended, the U.S. didn't change its strategy to deal with the new emerging threats.

    We remained fixated on Europe and Russia. Not only did we continue NATO, but President Clinton expanded NATO eastward, taking in new European members. And for those nations that wouldn't or couldn't join NATO, there was "Partnership for Peace," a NATO surrogate in so many words.

    After the Cold War ended, the U.S. needed to remember it's a Pacific power as well as an Atlantic power, and de-emphasize its European involvement in favor of greater involvement in the Middle East and Asia. We didn't do that.

  • Rifleman

    We can still achieve our potential. Only when the average American can no longer think, decide, and act for themselves will any decline become irreversible. It's an ability that must be exercised to be kept. Naturally, the democrat party seeks to destroy it, as self motivated and independent people have no need or use for socialism.

  • Ralph

    "Moreover, America benefits from a growing population and one that is aging more slowly than all its possible competitors except India. It continues to be a magnet for talented and ambitious immigrants (despite the immigration system)."

    Horses**t, Lieber! The evidence is ample that we are importing masses of unassimilable third world poor into our country, who are already transforming large areas of the country into the slums they came from. Obviously your exposure to them is limited to a few professionals that can buy into your neighborhood. It hasn't, like mine and countless others across the country, been overrun and colonized by people who have no problem expressing their racism towards whites, all encouraged by a media that brands them saints and we villians, perpetually.

    So you think the population growth is a good thing? Check the steady stream of buried news stories, which disappear all too quickly, of third world aggression and disfunction in our country. Who cares about their talented tenth? They got them in their countries as well and these places are still dungholes, eternally and despite trillions of dollars in aid poured into them.

    On this you rest your new American Century? Delusional.

    • chets1girl

      What he said!

  • irony

    The two supposedly knowledgable experts could learn a whole lot if they read the above comments. Their heads are buried far and deep into the quicksand of history. The centralized government with its attendent political correctness is very similar to the politbureau and political comizars of our friend commie Russia.
    Fifteen years ago Glenn Spencer of said we are importing poverty and exporting jobs Dr. Carafano. And it is only getting worse.
    Our chief executive has turned his back on Americans of African descent and heartily welcomes third world newcomers with no education and no longing to become Americans. America is becoming more suicidal with each passing day.
    Where are the psychiatrists to help us understand our self-destructive behavior and hopefully reconstruct ourselves before we go over the edge?
    Good luck America, you'll need it.

  • Michael

    Islam is the number one threat to Planet Earth. It operates under the guise of being a religion.
    Thus getting sympathy from intelectuals and insane "America Hating Liberals".There are suicide bombings on a daily basis in the middle east. There are thwarted bomb attempts in Europe almost daily. Islam proves on a daily basis that…. "An addition of Muslims to a Nation is a subtraction in civilization." Our leaders choose to keep their turbans in the sand . Insanity Rules.
    American Christian Infidel
    Michael Canzano

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