Divided States of America: Notes on the Decline of a Great Nation
Part 3: America Falls Behind
This now seems to be dawning on many of those who used to come to the United States because it was the country of their dreams. According to new studies, highly qualified immigrants from India and China are increasingly turning their backs on the country after finishing their studies there, secretly hoping for better opportunities back home. America is no longer as attractive a magnet as it once was. And, of course, China and India, the native countries of many potential immigrants, have become significantly stronger.
America will feel the effects of this trend. Immigrants made America great and have kept it great. Immigrants, who make up about 12 percent of the current US population, founded more than half of all Silicon Valley companies and filed one in four patent applications between 1995 and 2005. Almost half of all doctoral candidates in engineering and science do not speak English as their first language.
The most talented American students will not be filling the resulting gap, because they'd rather work on Wall Street than in technology and engineering fields. About a third of the students in every graduating class at Harvard University accepts jobs in investment banking and consulting, or with hedge funds -- that is, industries that produce one thing above all: fast money.
In Today's America, Long-Term Goals Stand No Chance
Obama proposed several projects to improve the country's schools, raise education levels and promote equal opportunity for all children. But instead of supporting his efforts, governors obstructed them. Some even blocked guidelines to bring healthier food into school cafeterias, merely because they were created by people in Washington. In this environment, long-term goals don't stand a chance.
Obama's major economic stimulus package, which critics claim is more of a crisis management program than the blueprint for a new beginning, set aside $90 billion to promote renewable energy. This is a lot of money, but because the "green jobs" the program promised didn't materialize right away, the president's adversaries ridiculed the entire project and cited it as an example of his failure. Obama's search for a green future was nothing but a money pit, scoffed the Republican front men, who want nothing to do with environmental protection and ecological progress, because they assume that electricity comes from an outlet and gasoline from a pump.
Solyndra, a promising startup company in the sunny town of Fremont, California, which had a seemingly brilliant idea to make more effective solar panels, became a symbol of the fight over Obama's allegedly failed environmental policy. In March 2009, Energy Secretary Steven Chu, a Nobel laureate in physics, awarded the company a $535 million loan.
"The promise of clean energy isn't just ... some abstract possibility for science fiction movies," Obama said. But that was wrong, at least when it came to Solyndra. The company went bankrupt in 2011, 1,100 employees lost their jobs, the government's money was gone and the Republicans had fodder for the election campaign.
Solyndra was in fact the exception to the rule. Of 63 companies that received government assistance under Obama's green economy programs, 58 were successful and only five went bankrupt -- a 92-percent success rate. But none of that mattered. Obama's opponents, or about half of the American population, ignored the underlying goal of the "green" offensive, which is ultimately to make the entire country more competitive.
Within a few years, major competitor China has increased its share of the global solar market from 6 to an impressive 54 percent. Less than two decades ago, the United States was still making more than 40 percent of solar technology sold worldwide. Today it's just over 5 percent.
Even as America falls behind, some of its more enlightened citizens sometimes return from abroad to report on all the things they have learned in other countries. For instance, while campaigning for Obama, former President Bill Clinton often cited the "German model" as one worth emulating. In "a country where on average the sun shines as much as it does in London," he told an audience, "the Germans have netted 300,000 jobs out of their commitment to a solar future." America, he suggested, could create a million such jobs if it wanted to. But in 2012, this is a goal that no more than half of the people in the United States would support, which is why the country is beginning to lose its edge.
Nevertheless, "decline" is a big word, especially for a nation that is still the world's number one economic and military power, and will remain so for at least the next decade. It's also a country whose innovative energy seems unbroken in many fields, and one that, unlike Europe, has balanced population growth and enormous mineral resources. In fact, when it comes to the demise of former world powers, Europe's decline is much more evident than that of the United States.
But America is losing ground: as a model, as a driving force and as an old and bright beacon for the West. It's been half a century since a US president last promised to "pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty." These were the words of John F. Kennedy, but even his direct successors were much more selective as to which tasks they were willing to take on to defend liberty after US withdrawal from Vietnam.
Ronald Reagan, whose fans credit him with having disarmed the "Evil Empire," sent Marines into Lebanon, and brought them home again after 241 soldiers were killed in a suicide attack. Otherwise, Reagan only captured tiny Grenada in the name of liberty. Bill Clinton recalled US troops from Somalia after images of a dead US soldier's body being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu were broadcast on television. He chose not to intervene in the Tutsi genocide in Rwanda. And, like the Europeans, he spent years watching the wars of succession in Yugoslavia until he ordered the bombing of the troops of then Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic.
Even George W. Bush, who, at least during his first term, was convinced that the United States had to defend freedom and democracy, with military force if necessary, did so under the delusion that major successes were possible with a relatively small commitment of troops and equipment. But he was mistaken. Annual costs of between $100 billion and close to $200 billion for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were a key determining factor in the US's current financial plight.
Obama can be credited with having finally admitted that his country's options in foreign policy are not unlimited. "We can no longer afford troop-heavy interventions, unless our national survival is at stake," he said. But in the toxically divided United States, his detractors interpreted this realization to mean that the commander-in-chief was personally preaching that the country should abandon its leadership role.
Economic Crisis Forces Foreign Policy Rethink
But it was the economic crisis and the crisis within the political system that forced the president to rethink his options in foreign policy. And it would be an illusion to believe that the outward expression of political strength has nothing to do with the economic, domestic state of a country. But it is precisely this adjustment to reality that raises the anger of those who have always seen America as the country that could tell everyone else what to do.
In fact, the more palpable and undeniable the country's economic and political weakening, the louder the nationalist bluster coming from Tea Party leaders becomes. And even as it indiscriminately demands cost cuts, especially in social and educational budgets, the Republican Party, the Grand Old Party, wants to make an exception for the defense budget. In fact, if the Republicans had their way, the defense budget would grow to historically high levels.
The Republicans paint their agenda as a commitment to a "strong America," while portraying the Democrats and, most of all, Obama, as cowards. That's why, during the campaign, there were billboards along America's highways that showed Obama bowing subserviently to oil sheikhs. And that's why the Republicans have outrageously characterized Obama's trips to the Arab world and his major speech in Cairo, offering reconciliation to the Muslims, as an "apology tour."
But foreign policy rarely decides elections in the United States. The legendary words "It's the economy, stupid" were coined by an advisor to Clinton during his successful 1992 presidential campaign. But the economy and foreign policy have never been as closely connected as they are in today's world, in which the United States faces serious competition for economic dominance. When there is talk of the Chinese challenge in the State of Ohio, whose 18 electoral votes could be critical in determining who wins the election, it relates directly to local jobs in the domestic automobile industry, so that no candidate can afford not to have an opinion on Washington's China policy.
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