Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney’s speech earlier this month calling for an "American century" grabbed headlines for its bold assertions and triumphant tone. He has consulted with numerous foreign policy advisors and drafted an extensive white paper outlining his proposals to ensure continued American "dominance" in the next century. Aside from the fact that some of his policy proposals are not all that different from President Barack Obama’s positions (i.e. listen to our commanders for Afghanistan withdrawal date, continue pressure on Iran), the core of his policy vision is grounded in a nostalgic and unrealistic era as if we were living in the 1950s rather than in 2011.
The boldest assertion is that we need to spend more on defense than we already do. Never mind the fact that the U.S. already spends more on defense than almost the entire rest of the world combined. I would love it if he explained how we were going to do this while also reducing taxes and lowering the deficit. I am guessing that Romney would say that by simply reducing taxes we would summon the magic Laffer curve genie and increase revenues tenfold.
Rather than hollow pandering to national pride during a time of severe pessimism, we need a candidate who understands that military greatness follows economic prosperity. As the British empire declined, its military influence lingered on for decades even after its economy had been far surpassed by America, Germany, and Japan. But ultimately, without a robust, creative economy that attracts the world’s best and brightest, there is no reason to believe that the next century will be an “American” one.
The “rise of the rest,” as put by Fareed Zakaria, is likely an inevitable and positive trend. If we really want the rest of the world to be peaceful, shouldn’t we want the rest of the world to be prosperous as well? Yes, of course that may entail the rise of rival superpowers like China, India, and even Brazil.
But despite the rise of the rest, the one thing that the U.S. still has and will likely have for the foreseeable future is the continued promise of the “American dream” that attracts enterprising people from all over the world. Even with China’s massive investment in higher education and technology, it is hard to imagine how anything like a “Chinese dream” will come to attract the world’s best and brightest to China. America’s working age population, unlike that of Europe, Japan, or even China, is projected to grow by 42%.
The recent anti-immigration laws passed in various U.S. states along with the nativist tendencies of the Tea Party have created a national climate that is increasingly hostile to immigration. But without openness to immigration, the renewing creative force that has shaped this American century will not fuel a second one.
Yes, we need enforcement of border laws and increased border security. But without remaining open to students and professionals who want to study at our universities, they may as well go to Canada or Australia instead. And without investment in public education, our universities, the bastions of any soft power we still wield, will only decline in prestige and accessibility.
Romney should acknowledge that we are no longer in the halcyon days of the post-war world. It is not un-American or “defeatist” to concede this. Ultimately, it is not merely our military that makes us great, and it will not be our military that prolongs American greatness.
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