Sixty-one years ago, a perceptive ambassador to the U.S. and U.N. 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 favor 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 in economic surge 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 led by the doughty Chancellor Angela Merkel, seems unable to pull itself together either economically or politically. And America, says a widening corps of American and Asian pundits, has slipped onto a declining slope.

The pundits have dubbed them the “declinists.” An early declinist was Paul Kennedy, an historian at Yale University, who published the well-read “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers” in 1987. In it, he argued that America was stretched thin by military commitments and spending, a contention echoed today.

In Asia, Tim Huxley, who is in charge of the Singapore office of London’s International Institute of Strategic Studies, wrote recently that it is “clear to me – as it is to many others in the region – that, like it or not, America’s role in the Asia-Pacific (not to mention globally) is in long-term relative decline.”

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

Take politics: On the down side, poll after poll show that a large majority of Americans are dissatisfied with the direction of the nation. A compilation by the Internet site RealClearPolitics reports that only 30 percent of Americans think the country is headed in the right direction while 61 percent say it is on the wrong track.

In leadership, no politician has the stature of Franklin Delano Roosevelt or Harry Truman for the Democrats or Dwight Eisenhower or Ronald Reagan for the Republicans. More polls show that American voters so far have been turned off by this year’s lackluster, negative presidential election campaign.

The gridlock in the Congress, where the Democratic-controlled Senate is led by Harry Reid of Nevada and the Republican-controlled House by John Boehner of Ohio, has caused a large majority of Americans to hold the national legislature in contempt.

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell, writing in The New York Times, seemed to express the voters’ lament: “I wish today’s political leaders, especially in Washington, would show the courage and willingness to fight for what they believe in, but possess an understanding of the need to compromise to solve the nation’s problems.”

On the up side, 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 homegrown dictators.

American high schools may be troubled but American universities, from community colleges to Harvard, are among the world’s best and produce an educated public. Labor productivity is among the highest in the world. So is agricultural efficiency when one farmer can till a thousand acres.

America has been perceived to be in decline before. In 1979, shortly after the U.S. defeat in the Vietnam War, when Japan was seen as poised to overtake the U.S. economically, and President Jimmy Carter went on television to bemoan the “malaise” into which the nation seemed to have fallen, America seemed mortally wounded.

Turns out that assessment was premature. Resilient America bounced back. Chances are America will do so again.

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About the Author

  • Richard Halloran
    Richard Halloran, who writes the weekly column called “The Rising East,” contributes articles on Asia and US relations with Asia to publications in America and Asia. His career can be divided into thirds: One third studying and reporting on Asia, another third writing about national security, and the last third on investigative reporting or general assignment. He did three tours in Asia as a correspondent, for Business Week, The Washington Post, and The New York Times, and was a military correspondent for The New York Times for ten years. He is the author of Japan: Images and Realities and To Arm a Nation: Rebuilding America’s Endangered Defenses, and four other books. As a paratrooper, Halloran served in the US, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and Vietnam. He has been awarded the George Polk Award for National Reporting, the Gerald R. Ford Prize for Distinguished Reporting on National Defense, the U.S. Army’s Outstanding Civilian Service Medal, and Japan’s Order of the Sacred Treasure. He holds an AB from Dartmouth