Don't Believe the Doubters: America's Decline and Fall Is A Long Way Off Gerard Baker, The Times of London January 21, 2005 THE INAUGURATION of an American president is an introspective affair, the ultimate home-brewed celebration of the continuing success of this great continental experiment. Beneath the Greek-echoing columns of the Capitol building yesterday assembled the protagonists of the American demos the fabled three branches of government, plus the modern successors to the citizen-militia, an independent press, and above all, of course, the people, tens of thousands of them, arrayed in a snowy tableau off to the hinterlands horizon. But with billions able to watch the event around the world, the obverse of this democratic coin is its imperial head. A presidential inauguration is a chance for America to remind the world who is boss, to demonstrate that the modern United States is the inheritor not only of Greeces glory but of Romes reach. President Bushs second inaugural address professed anew this self-confidence of a nation tirelessly willing and uniquely empowered to take on the responsibilities of global leadership. And yet behind the pageantry and in between the rhetorical tropes, it was not hard to spot an unusual level of anxiety and uncertainty among Americans about their countrys leadership in the world. The war in Iraq has sapped the brimming self-confidence with which America greeted the new century. The strength and boldness of the US response to September 11 has given way to a nervy resignation about the limits of American power. In financial terms an unsettling sense that America is increasingly beholden to rising powers across the oceans has infected its famous optimism. Though Americans gave Mr. Bush another four years in November, they did so, not so much in a spirit of vaulting confidence but of constrained choices. As he begins a new term, polls suggest that Americans remain uncharacteristically gloomy about the future. A solid majority believes, just as it did on election day, that the US is on the wrong track. Iraq is the main reason, of course. Before Iraq, and even after the shock of September 11, it was commonplace to think that America could achieve by arms more or less anything it wanted. The doubts generated by Vietnam had been banished in a decade of military achievements in Kuwait, Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan. Now, to be stymied by a few thousand insurgents in Iraq is a bitter, and unexpected, revelation of the limits to ambition. The US economy too, the other pillar of reborn American pride in the 1990s, is as much a fount of worry and self-doubt. The dollar continues to struggle under a mountain of public and private debt. You could not help but notice the symbolism this week of a European consortium unveiling an aircraft to eclipse Boeings dominance. Surprising books about the rising power of a united Europe are ascending the bestseller lists. More plausibly, perhaps, Americans look at their growing dependence on Asias rapidly expanding economy and wonder if this is the future. China, and increasingly India, are talked of as rivals, not in some distant future, but in the world that is taking shape now. What to make of all this? The first thing to note is that we have been here before. Previous premature judgments about Americas decline enjoin us to be a little circumspect about its current difficulties. Even as American pre-eminence was realised in the past 60 years, the country has been racked by prolonged periods of self-doubt. In the 1950s, half the nation was convinced it was losing the Cold War. Vietnam eroded American confidence, not only in its power but even in the justice of its cause. In 1989, the apotheosis of American success, the fall of the Berlin Wall, was seen by many as the passing of an era of American supremacy. Japan and Germany were going to rule the world, we were told. All these alarms proved false. Will this incipient post-Iraq malaise prove to be any different? It is too early yet to declare Iraq a failure. True, the Bush Administration, and those of us who supported it, were wrong to believe that a quick show of force would bring the walls of tyranny crashing down. It will indeed be a long slog. But if the US can stay the course, the auguries are still positive. The principal obstacle to American goals there, and in the broader Middle East, is not the brittleness of US power, but the willingness of the American people to shoulder its burden. The prospects for the economic foundations on which American supremacy has been built are harder to predict. We need not dwell too long, Airbus superjumbo or no, on the threat from a united Europe. This ageing, genteel, pacifist, dysfunctional old Continent is not going to be challenging anyone in my lifetime. Asia is different. Chinas ascent to global pre-eminence, or at least parity with America, looks inevitable. Like the US it has a vast internal market, a motivated and increasingly skilled workforce. Its current three-to-one population edge over the US may fall, but it will still be a giant. Indias ascent has farther to go but looks equally assured. The rise of rival economic power centres does not necessarily spell Americas end. The resilience of the US economy through the past four turbulent years in contrast to Europe and Japan is a monument to its capacity to recreate itself. But more important even than Americas dynamism and economic resilience is the durability of its central ethos: the power of freedom. The genius of the founding fathers, which was celebrated again yesterday, has created the world s most stable, successful, and, for all the current phobias, still the most appealing model of society for humankind. The world may grow and change around it, but I would not bet on Americas eclipse just yet.