Critics of America’s traditional style of leadership seem to have once again adopted a narrative of America’s inevitable decline. Drawn-out wars, China’s rising influence, and a crushing national debt are seen as kryptonite to the world’s sole superpower.
The challenges these issues pose to American influence in the world is daunting, but America’s decline is not a foregone conclusion, as Heritage Vice President Kim Holmes argued in a recent Washington Times piece.
During Ronald Reagan’s military buildup in the 1980s, Paul Kennedy of Yale argued that the United States suffered from an “imperial overstretch,” which would result in a decline in U.S. influence and prestige. Yet the vibrancy of the U.S. economy after the collapse of the Soviet Union presented a strong counterargument to his dire predictions.
More recently, Michael Mandelbaum argues in his book The Frugal Superpower that the United States is facing “entitlement overstretch.” In other words, the weight of the U.S. government’s commitments to entitlement programs—most notably Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid—is fueling America’s decline. He contends that the U.S. should reduce its global engagement and cut its defense budget.
Holmes agrees with Mandelbaum’s assessment of the problem but not the solution. Entitlement programs are set to consume more and more of the runaway federal budget, which will in turn force an increase in government borrowing.
But this can be fixed. Heritage expert Alison Fraser recently penned a broad proposal to rectify the federal budget and preserve America’s economic and military strength “by fully funding defense, keeping taxes low, fixing the budget process and reforming entitlements.” Reform will be neither easy nor painless, but it’s doable.
Which is why, as Holmes concluded, “American decline is a choice. It’s not inevitable.”
Scott Nason is currently a member of the Young Leaders Program at the Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please visit: http://www.heritage.org/about/departments/ylp.cfm