Sixty-one years ago, a perceptive ambassador to the US and UN from Lebanon, Charles Malik, told a US college audience: “The challenges confronting the Western world are basically three: The challenge of communism, the challenge of the Rising East and the challenge of the internal forces of decay.”
In the ensuing years, the first challenge was met and communism defeated. The Soviet Union is no more, China has shucked communism in favor of what one wag called “market-Leninism” and North Korea is coming apart at the seams.
The Rising East, in the eyes of some Asia hands, should now be called the Risen East. Japan led the way with its economic surge and was followed by the “Four Tigers”: South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore. Today, China and India have started moving to the fore, with several Southeast Asian nations in their wake.
Now, to the West comes the menace of “the internal forces of decay.” Europe, save for Germany, led by the doughty German Chancellor Angela Merkel, seems unable to pull itself together either economically or politically. And the US, says a widening corps of US and Asian pundits, has slipped into decline.
The pundits have dubbed them the “declinists.” An early declinist was Paul Kennedy, an historian at Yale University, who published the widely read The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers in 1987. In it, he argued that the US was stretched thin by military commitments and spending, a contention echoed today.
In Asia, Tim Huxley, who is in charge of the Singapore office of London’s International Institute of Strategic Studies, wrote recently that it is “clear to me — as it is to many others in the region — that, like it or not, the US’ role in the Asia-Pacific region [not to mention globally] is in long-term relative decline.” In terms of the political, economic, diplomatic, military and social elements of national power, the evidence of US decline is abundant. However, at the same time, the reservoir of fundamental US strengths is not to be denied.
Take politics: On the down side, poll after poll show that a large majority of Americans are dissatisfied with the direction of the nation. A compilation by the Internet site RealClearPolitics reports that only 30 percent of Americans think the country is headed in the right direction, while 61 percent say it is on the wrong track.
In terms of leadership, no politician has the stature of former US presidents Franklin Delano Roosevelt or Harry Truman for the Democrats, or Dwight Eisenhower or Ronald Reagan for the Republicans. More polls show that US voters so far have been turned off by this year’s lackluster, negative presidential election campaign.
The gridlock in the US Congress, where the Democratic-controlled US Senate is led by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and the Republican-controlled House of Representatives by US House Speaker John Boehner, has caused a large majority of Americans to hold the national legislature in contempt.
Former US secretary of state Colin Powell, writing in the New York Times, seemed to express the voters’ lament: “I wish today’s political leaders, especially in Washington, would show the courage and willingness to fight for what they believe in, but possess an understanding of the need to compromise to solve the nation’s problems.”
On the up side, the US has been blessed with two extraordinary documents that have withstood the test of time and still guide the nation — the Declaration of Independence, whose birthday was celebrated last week, and the constitution. They express the ideals and essential optimism of Americans, even if they do not always live up to them.