Nations run through fairly typical life cycles. They emerge on the regional or international scene, sometimes come to prominence and then at some point lose their relative influence.
If we think of the past 500 years for Western nations, we can see this pattern. Spain and Portugal played dominant roles in the 1500s, France and the Netherlands in the 1600s, France and England in the 1700s, England in the 1800s and the United States in the 1900s. Some nations stay on the international stage longer than others, but all face the same fate, the ultimate decline of relative importance.
The reasons range from the onset of cultural stultification (France at the end of the 18th century), to the faster relative growth of other nations. The source of a relative decline can be a product of internal or external circumstances.
What is meant by relative importance is elastic. It might mean the global share of Gross Domestic Product or the ability to influence outcomes outside of one’s borders. By either measure, the U.S. peaked by the last quarter of the 20th century. Our share of global GDP, while still the largest single nation share, is falling as other nations grow faster than us. Asia has become the most dramatic center for recent economic growth.
For those interested in continuing to play a major role in the global political system, the key question is, ‘‘How do we maintain and extend the level of influence we have on the global stage?’’ My argument is that global political success follows economic success. To that end, a global focused agenda will have several dimensions:
We need to pay serious attention to our national infrastructure. This extends beyond improving our roads, bridges and ports. It includes ensuring the security of our electric grid, communication networks, air and ground transport systems, and defense capacities.
We should strive for energy independence. We have the capacity to achieve this by adding alternative resources such as solar, geothermal and tidal power.
We need to overhaul our education system so it produces citizens who are able to compete effectively in a technologically driven global economy. We lag in STEM capabilities compared to our trading partners. Failure to address this will result in the erosion of international competitiveness. Many jobs current school-age students will fill don’t exist today. They also need the generic skills of analytical and integrative thinking to be successful.
The education system must be overhauled to allow quality access for all children and young adults in the country. Failure to provide this leaves valuable productive labor resources lying on the table. We shortchange ourselves and our future when we shortchange educational access to all groups of Americans.
We need a national commitment to a research and development culture. Major future industries in such fields as bio-mechanical interface, bio-robotics and genetic manipulation exist in an embryonic form today. These technologies will change the lives of all people and if we turn our backs on them we will be at a severe competitive disadvantage. The challenges of improving energy efficiency, capturing carbon, securing our infrastructure and dealing with the unknown consequences of climate change are just a few more technological concerns.
We have a fractured immigration policy. We need to regularize the status of long-term immigrants, regardless of how they got here. We need a visa program to insure the adequacy of seasonal agricultural labor. We should encourage immigration of people with the educational skills that strengthen the economy. We need to think of how we integrate the diverse backgrounds of immigrants so they understand and buy into the traditional American system.
We have a strong tradition of response to the challenges facing the nation. We have a history of thinking long term, be it territorial expansion in the 19th century, creating the national park system, constructing the interstate highway system or executing the space program. But we also have the tendency to get caught in short-term traps.
Our future success depends on partnership between the public and private sectors. Our success also depends on a broad civic understanding that all of us are in this quest for a successful future together and that together we can achieve it. Perhaps seeing our common interest of living in a vibrant, secure and successful nation and acting on these interests together is our biggest challenge.
Tom Oberhofer is an economics professor emeritus at Eckerd College.