Down, not out

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 12 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 July, 2012, 12:00am


Sixty-one years ago, a perceptive ambassador to the US and UN from Lebanon, Charles Malik, told an American 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 favour 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 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, seems unable to pull itself together either economically or politically. And America, says a widening corps of US and Asian pundits, has slipped onto a declining slope.

Of the political, economic, diplomatic, military and social elements of national power, the evidence of US decline is abundant. At the same time, however, the reservoir of fundamental American strengths is not to be denied.

Take politics: on the downside, polls show that a large majority of Americans are dissatisfied with the direction of the nation. In leadership, no politician has the stature of Franklin D. Roosevelt or Harry Truman for the Democrats or Dwight Eisenhower or Ronald Reagan for the Republicans. More polls show that American voters have been turned off by this year's negative presidential election campaign. And the gridlock in Congress has caused many Americans to hold the national legislature in contempt.

On the upside, America 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 we don't always live up to them.

The freedoms of the mind in the first amendment - speech, religion, the press, and peaceable assembly - hold the allegiance of all but a handful of disgruntled citizens. The constitution's checks and balances, the presidential and many gubernatorial term limits, and the insistence that the police and armed forces remain under civilian control, protect Americans from home-grown dictators.

America's high schools may be troubled but its universities are among the world's best. Labour productivity is among the highest in the world. So is agricultural efficiency.

America has been perceived to be in decline before. In 1979, shortly after the US defeat in the Vietnam war, when Japan was seen as poised to overtake the US economically, and president Jimmy Carter went on television to bemoan the national 'malaise', America seemed mortally wounded.

It turns out that pronouncement was premature. Resilient America bounced back. The chances are good that it will do so again.

Richard Halloran is a former New York Times foreign correspondent in Asia and military correspondent in Washington