The current debt, recession, wars and political infighting have depressed Americans into thinking they soon will be supplanted by more vigorous rivals abroad. Yet this is an American fear as old as it is improbable.
In the 1930s, the Great Depression supposedly marked the end of freewheeling American capitalism. The 1950s were caricatured as a period of mindless American conformity, McCarthyism and obsequious company men.
By the late 1960s, the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., along with the Vietnam War, had prompted a hippie counterculture that purportedly was going to replace a toxic American establishment. Oil shocks, gas lines, Watergate and new rust belts were said to be symptomatic of a post-industrial, has-been America of the 1970s.
At the same time, other nations, we were typically told, were doing far better.
In the late 1940s, with the rise of a postwar Soviet Union that had crushed Hitler's Wehrmacht on the eastern front during World War II, communism promised a New Man as it swept through Eastern Europe.
Mao Zedong took power in China and inspired communist revolutions from North Korea to Cuba. Statist central planning was going to replace the unfairness and inefficiency of Western-style capitalism. Yet just a half-century later, communism had either imploded or had been superseded in most of the world.
By the early 1980s, Japan's state capitalism and emphasis on the group rather than the individual was being touted as the ideal balance between the public and private sectors. Japan Inc. continually outpaced the growth of the American economy. Then, in the 1990s, a real estate bubble and a lack of fiscal transparency led to a collapse of property prices and a general recession. A shrinking and aging Japanese population, led by a secretive government, has been struggling ever since to recover the old magic.
At the beginning of the 21st century, the European Union was hailed as the proper Western paradigm of the future. The euro soared over the dollar. Europe practiced a sophisticated "soft power," while American cowboyism was derided for getting us into wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Civilized cradle-to-grave benefits were contrasted with the frontier, every-man-for-himself American system.
Now Europe limps from crisis to crisis. Its undemocratic union, when coupled with socialist entitlements, is proving unsustainable. Symptoms of the ossified European system appear in everything from a shrinking population and a growing atheism to an inability to integrate Muslim immigrants or field a credible military.
As we enter this new decade, we are currently being lectured that China is soon to be the global colossus. Its economy is now second only to America's, but with a far faster rate of growth and budget surpluses rather than debt. Few seem to mention that China's mounting social tensions, mercantilism, environmental degradation and state bosses belong more to a 19th than 21st century nation.
Two symptoms of all this doom and gloom are constant over the decades. First, America typically goes through periodic bouts of neurotic self-doubt, only to wake up and snap out of it. Indeed, indebted Americans are already bracing for fiscal restraint and parsimony as an antidote to past profligacy.
Second, decline is relative and does not occur in a vacuum. As Western economic and scientific values ripple out from Europe and the United States, it is understandable that developing countries like China, India or Brazil can catapult right into the 21st century. But that said, national strength is still found in the underlying hardiness of the patient -- its demography, culture and institutions -- rather than occasional symptoms of ill health.
In that regard, America integrates immigrants and assimilates races and ethnicities in a way Europe cannot. Russia, China and Japan are simply not culturally equipped to deal with millions who do not look Slavic, Chinese or Japanese. The Islamic world cannot ensure religious parity to Christians, Jews or Hindus -- or political equality to women.
The American Constitution has been tested over 223 years. In contrast, China, the European Union, India, Japan, Russia and South Korea do not have constitutional pedigrees of much more than 60 years. The last time Americans killed each other in large numbers was nearly a century and a half ago; most of our rivals have seen millions of their own destroyed in civil strife and internecine warring just in the 20th century.
In short, a nation's health is not gauged by bouts of recession and self-doubt, but by its time-honored political, economic, military and social foundations. A temporarily ill-seeming America is nevertheless still growing, stable, multiethnic, transparent, individualistic, self-critical and meritocratic; almost all of its apparently healthy rivals in fact are not.