The world may be caught up in the Queen’s Jubilee or the Ukraine war, but a major political drama is playing out in the United States (US). A congressional committee is conducting a direct inquiry into the sensational events of January 6, 2021, when a large mob stormed the Capitol and tried to topple the government.
Meanwhile, the US Supreme Court (SC) has passed a drastic ruling on abortion that has enabled or will enable more than half of US states to virtually ban abortion and any form of birth control. Democrats control Congress and the White House, but lack the votes to pass their political agenda, allowing the right-wing SC to pass rulings that undermine women’s rights, environmental protection and gun control laws, and have only a minority of support. Americans.
Faced with such political division and deep social drift, manifested by the country’s inability to combat gun-related violence, crime, drug abuse, homelessness and racism, many people believe the US is in a state of irreparable decline. It is layered on top of costly foreign misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But the reality is more unusual and complex.
Take traditional measures of prosperity such as gross domestic product (GDP). In 1980, the US share of world GDP was 25.16%. Today, 40 years later, the proportion is roughly the same. On a purchasing power parity basis (PPP), the US economy ranked 9th in 1990 and dropped just one spot to 10th in 2020. Unique to the US, and showing no sign of abating, is its economic strength based on its exceptional science, engineering and research and development (R&D) base. And more importantly, it functions almost autonomously from its political and social problems.
With about 27.3% of worldwide spending on R&D, the US leads the world in basic research. It has benefited decisively from its ability to import some of the world’s best brains through the relatively open American immigration system.
The real decline is in America’s soft power, recently evident by its inability to rally much of the world against Russia’s actions in Ukraine. Yet, social and political events in the US may cast doubts on its role as a global role model, which has not stopped the tide of people trying to enter the country.
The structural problems bedeviling the US are clear. Its highly democratic and governing system was thought to see it through any challenge. However, the system is now hopelessly gridlocked and is no longer able to function in a bilateral manner. Gerrymandering and fraud undermine an already outdated electoral system.
The American Dream has stalled. According to a Harvard University project, 90% of Americans born in 1945 grew up to earn more than their parents, but today, only half of all children earn more than their parents. In one of the world’s richest countries, 30 million Americans lack basic health insurance. America’s original sin at the root of political division – race. Today, this manifests itself in the resentment of many white Americans faced with the political prominence of non-whites.
However, there is an American decline, and it is related to China. In 1980, China’s GDP was about 1.7% of the world’s total, but today it is 17.8%. There are also other areas, such as R&D and science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education, where the Chinese are increasing. By PPP measure, China’s GDP is already ahead of that of the US.
Over the past five years, the US has become aware of this challenge, with the Joe Biden administration making strategic competition a cornerstone of its China policy. But the political gridlock dividing the US has blocked even such grand plans. Proposals to invest $4-trillion in jobs, infrastructure, housing and clean energy have stalled, although the America’s Competes Act of 2022 was passed, providing $110 billion over five years for basic and advanced technology research. Congress is politically game to fund projects to increase US economic competitiveness, not to fix chronic social problems in America’s deeply divided society.
The US continues to wield enormous geopolitical power, de facto separating it from Eurasia by geography. Beyond its technological prowess is its continuing demographic advantage. While China and Russia are already caught in severe demographic headwinds, high immigration levels and birth rates will ensure that the US’s working-age population continues to expand through 2050 and, more importantly, benefit from the high quality of US education. During this period, the Chinese working-age population will shrink by a staggering 100 million.
But it’s no secret that the US has its problems: anti-immigrant sentiment is high, inequality is rising, racism persists and gun violence is out of control. But to fix these, he needs to fix his politics that are poisoning the entire system. So it is essential that the perpetrators of January 6 are not punished.
The future is not set in stone. But a country with gifts as unique as the US gets no free pass to get there.
The views expressed by Manoj Joshi, Honorary Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi are personal.