Symposium: America in Decline?

Robert Lieber and James Carafano assess whether the 21st Century can still be an American era.

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.