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The Decline and Fall of America’s Decline and Fall

CAMBRIDGE – The United States is going through difficult times. Its post-2008 recovery has slowed, and some observers fear that Europe’s financial problems could tip the American and world economy into a second recession.

American politics, moreover, remains gridlocked over budgetary issues, and compromise will be even more difficult on the eve of the 2012 election, when Republicans hope that economic problems will help them unseat President Barack Obama. In these circumstances, many are predicting America’s decline, especially relative to China.

And it’s not just pundits who think so. A recent Pew poll found that in 15 of 22 countries surveyed, most people believe that China either will replace or has replaced America as “the world’s leading superpower.” In Britain, those putting China on top rose to 47%, from 34% in 2009. Similar trends are evident in Germany, Spain, and France. Indeed, the poll found more pessimistic views of the US among our oldest and closest allies than in Latin America, Japan, Turkey, and Eastern Europe. But even Americans are divided equally about whether China will replace the US as a global superpower.

Such sentiments reflect the slow growth and fiscal problems that followed the 2008 financial crisis, but they are not historically unprecedented. Americans have a long history of incorrectly estimating their power. In the 1950’s and 1960’s, after Sputnik, many thought that the Soviets might get the better of America; in the 1980’s, it was the Japanese. Now it is the Chinese. But, with America’s debt on a path to equaling its national income in a decade, and a fumbling political system that cannot seem to address the country’s fundamental challenges, are the “declinists” finally right?