If Reagan were alive today, conservatives would excoriate him as a declinist. But as Reagan recognized, a decline in relative American power is a good thing, not a bad thing — if we can turn rising states into solid allies. Remember “Gulliver’s Travels”? True, it wasn’t much fun for Gulliver to be the little guy in the land of Brobdingnagian giants, but it was even less fun to be a giant among the Lilliputians. Like Gulliver, America will prosper most if we can surround ourselves with friendly peer and near-peer states. They give us larger markets and improve burden-sharing; none of the global problems that bedevil us can be solved by the United States alone.
But there’s another reason American influence is declining, one that should cause us far more concern. Obama put his finger on it during the State of the Union speech, when he asked whether we wanted to settle for being “a country where a shrinking number of people do really well, while a growing number of Americans barely get by.”
By many measures, we’ve hollowed out the American dream: American life expectancy ranks well below that of other industrialized democracies, and the same is true for infant mortality rates and elementary school enrollment rates. We have the highest documented per capita incarceration rate in the world. And as the Occupy Wall Street movement has helped point out, we have greater income inequality in this country than in any other state in the developed world — and most states in the developing world.