Foreign travel is broadening, but not always in a positive way. For Americans it has an increasingly painful edge. Too often it leaves us with a disconcerting sense that our country is falling behind. In a world where competition comes increasingly from other countries, this bodes ill for our national future.
Last month I visited four countries that might seem to have little in common: Turkey, Iran, Germany, and the Netherlands. All four are intently focused on global competition. Countries like these will be eating America’s lunch in the future if we proceed as we are today.
Germany and the Netherlands have highly successful, innovation-based economies that live from exports. Turkey is laser-focused on its goal of becoming one of the world’s 10 richest countries within a decade. Iran has suffered under decades of economic sanctions but is a young and vibrant society, poised to join the world market with a vengeance if sanctions are eased — which may soon happen.
For Americans, traveling in these countries is sobering because it forces us to confront an unpleasant truth: An increasing number of nations do things better than we do. In an earlier age that might not have mattered because the United States commands such a huge land mass with such lavish resources, and because our political primacy was all but unchallenged. It matters now.
After the end of the Cold War, the US entered into a period of relative geopolitical decline. This was inevitable. Never again will we be as dominant in as many ways as we were during our most powerful days. Globalization has liberated the energies of people around the world. The global economy is more competitive than it has been at any time in living memory. This is clear to any American who travels. Our history of power and prosperity has made us complacent while other countries plan more carefully for the future. Turkey, Iran, Germany, and the Netherlands are among countries that smell our blood in the water.
One of the most striking differences between those countries and the US is in physical infrastructure. Highways, bridges, electric grids, and transit systems are modern and carefully maintained. Public art enlivens neighborhoods. It is difficult to find clusters of poverty and deprivation like those in many American cities.
The other huge difference, less visible but even more important over the long run, is primary and secondary education. One of America’s chronic problems, steadily becoming more acute, is the emergence of a large class of poorly educated, low-skilled citizens unequipped to compete in the modern economy. Our society does not provide equal access to good education. Students in other countries now regularly outperform Americans on standardized tests. This is a waste of our human resources — and a bad omen for our future.
In infrastructure and precollege education, just as in energy policy, environmental protection, and other areas, the United States no longer leads the world. One reason is that many Americans seem unable to grasp the connection between taxes and services. We want a country that is “number one,” but rebel at the idea of paying for it. Financing a country is no different from financing any other enterprise: You get what you pay for.
All four of the countries I happened to visit follow the high-tax/high-service model of government. Americans are deeply divided over whether this model is right for us. Perhaps the individualist strain in our collective DNA makes some other approach more appropriate. No society, however, survives long when great private wealth thrives alongside public squalor. While Americans argue about how to deal with our national challenges, other countries are surging forward. To see this happening, travel abroad and look around.
Stephen Kinzer is a visiting fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University. Follow him on Twitter @stephenkinzer.