This is back to what I considered the original plan for these posts, start big and start narrowing down to particular issues.
While it is less frequently mentioned today than it was a decade ago, America remains far and away the most powerful country on Earth. Superpower, or even hyperpower, are still used to refer to our relative power position. This isn't inaccurate but, as I do sometimes see implied, this isn't a reason to believe that America's policies have been remarkably better than other countries, or even that it is our policies or institutions that have led us to this power position.
Let's put some perspective on America's rise. The former European powers were all very small. Some of them had large imperial territories but the form of imperialism used to control these far flung territories required substantial resource investments from the home territories to maintain. While this investment often paid off, they were far more intrinsically brittle than societies that could rely on extensive home territories for their power. What they had to rely on was a historically unique confluence of several factors, the modern state, the industrial revolution, nationalism, great demographics, democracy in some cases, and a few other factors I'm probably forgetting. These factors weren't shared by other societies they were competing against, though in situations such as Japan's where some of these factors did arise a competitor was quick to arise, and they were able to exploit the superiority of these developments to gain a historically unique position.
During this phase, the US competed remarkably well. We made mistakes, so did everyone else, but it is hard to say that our 18th and 19th century history isn't remarkable for the balance in favor of achievements over mistakes. During this period, we also successfully expanded to have a land area and population that distinguished us from all the other western powers, though distance prevented this from being decisive in this period. While getting into specifics would take far more time and space then I am prepared to give the subject, in this period I am perfectly willing to endorse the idea that relatively good policies and decisions gave the US a decisive lead over other societies. This extends up till WWII. It is important to remember of course that this success wasn't against some absolute sense of what makes societies successful, it was success against a set of particular competitors that simply made worse decisions than we did.
After WWII is where I think that some perspective on our achievements relative to our power is essential. The European powers had been decisively humbled, the Soviet Union was our only competitor. Let's be honest about this competition though. Only the US and the Soviet Union had the geographic expanse, population, economic development, and diplomatic position (in the form of the Soviet allied Eastern Bloc and US NATO, the presence of both of these organizations is owed to the first three factors however) to be in a competitive position. No other state has been in truly competitive position in the second half of the 20th century. Japan came close, but its limited geographic base is a severe restriction in long term power competition. Other states don't even come close.
What we have to admit to ourselves though, is that we were competing with a state that was operating under a fundamentally flawed political and economic ideology. It had the components it needed to compete but it wasn't using these components in a sensible fashion. Winning the Cold War had two essential victory conditions for the US, not implode and not cause a nuclear war. Only the second of these involved any difficulty, we don't deserve any awards for achieving the first. The Soviet Union was doomed from its inception because it was a society based on a theory, rather than on reality. These always fail given time.
Given this perspective, winning the Cold War has to be seen as not being in any way an endorsement of the American system, it's simply a condemnation of the Soviet one. Our own achievements are harder to assess, we simply don't have any societies worth comparing ourselves to for the past 50 years. I think we have some very good reasons to doubt that we've been making good decisions for the last 40 years or so, not that we didn't make some real doozies before that too, the WWII era decision to put so much of our health insurance benefits in the hands of employers was a bad call with very far reaching effects.
I'll be getting into specific issues, both achievements and flaws in later posts. But when assessing our modern record, it is important to keep in mind the basic disparity we have in natural resources relative to other states. The only state comparable in its resource endowments was held back by an insane ideology, those that were on an equal playing field ideologically and institutionally had far less in the way of natural resources. To say our successes are remarkable because of actions that we took as a state we have to think in terms of relative resource endowments. For instance, the next closest developed nation to ourselves in terms of population is Japan, with about 125 million inhabitants to our close to 300 million. Saying that we have more of the top Nobel prize winners than they do, or top medical specialists, or top universities, or biggest companies isn't at all impressive. With more than twice the population I certainly hope we do. Saying that we have more than 2 1/2 times the number of each of these things, well, that is something to be proud of. But remember, in this large and wealthy of a country saying that we have more of anything isn't something to be proud of, it's to be expected simply by virtue of our size. To say we've been a top performer in our position it takes more than just being the best at something, we have to be the best by quite a large margin. Anything less not only fails the test of American exceptionalism, it fails to recognize the basic facts of our place in the world.
Of course, we also have to recognize this phase of our existence is coming to a close. In a few short decades we won't be competing with countries that we out-compete by default simply by virtue of our size or their insanity. We will be competing against several states that are comparable in size and in the basic components that make up modernity. If we want to be a proud, successful country we need to stop patting ourselves on the back for defeating the feeble and realize we're going to have to work hard and make sacrifices to be competitive. I believe we've been rather self-indulgent over the last 40 years. We've taken the natural results of the size of our population, the richness of our natural resources, the security of our position, and the favorable diplomatic and political environment and mistaken this for a confirmation of the success of our actions and policies. This pleasant environment is ending. Our policies and decisions no longer are being made in a world where we win simply by being who we are, now we're going to have to prove to the world that what we do actually works and we'll have real competitors against which we can be compared. The time where we can simply experiment with policies with little thought to long term consequences is ending, we're going to have to honestly face the results of our policy decisions and make course corrections when things don't play out right. Results must trump ideology or the American superpower will rapidly become a footnote in history. A world where we're competing against real powers in Europe, China, India, and regional power blocs that are likely to form in South America centered on Brazil and possibly in South-East Asia isn't one that we can ignore reality and survive in. We have to pay our debts, do what works, and pay careful attention to adapting ourselves to paying careful attention to the world outside our borders. There's a lot of potential in this world, and I believe it will be a better world, but it's a much more competitive one that won't allow us to be self-indulgent.