Over the past year America has become a nation obsessed with forebodings of decline. A perceptible gloom grips the nation’s political, corporate, and media elites. We have seen one bestseller, Paul Kennedy’sRise and Fall of the Great Powers, chart America’s progress down the road to relative insignificance and another, Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind, paint America’s future–its young people–as essentially anti-intellectual, Philistine, and in conflict with the basic values of our civilization.
Yet even as they point out serious deficiencies–the primacy of consumption over production and military spending over the generation of wealth–the apostles of decline are distorting the objective reality of America’s actual situation in the world. In their passion to explode the Norman Rockwellesque mythology of Reaganism, the decliners ignore the assets that can help America reclaim its message to the world.
One common fallacy is to compare the United States to the fading empires of the past, most particularly Great Britain.
But unlike Britain, or any of the other past empires, the United States remains a relatively young nation, still in the process of establishing its own identity. Even after the debacles of the hst 15 years, including the disaster in Vietnam and widespread stagnation on the industrial front, this youthfulness gives us what Fuji Kamiya, a leading social commentator and professor at Tokyo’s Keio University, describes as sokojikara–a resiliency and ability to recover in new and often unexpected ways.
America’s sokojikara rests on three pillars–massive immigration, an entrepreneurial open economy, and vast natural resources. At a time when many critics suggest we refashion our national character to European or Japanese standards, we would be far better served by finding ways to build upon these unique advantages. In the process we can best find the strategy for America’s resurgence in our third century of independence.
BY CHANGING THE VERY CORE OF AMERICA, its people and their racial identity, immigration has the potential to play the most revolutionary role in this resurgence. Since the 1970s the United States has accepted more legal immigrants than the rest of the world combined. Due largely to their presence, America by the 1990s will have a younger population than any of our rivals; in Japan, for instance, by the end of the century, the percentage of retirees will be nearly twice ours. In Europe, where anti-immigration sentiment has been growing, some national populations are already beginning to shrink, with Germany’s expected to fall nearly 50 percent by the middle of the 21st century.
Perhaps more important than mere numbers, however, is the racial makeup of America’s new immigrants, the vast majority of whom hail from Latin America and Asia. Due largely to their presence and to their higher birth rates, by the middle of the 21st century the majority of Americans will no longer trace their ancestry to Europe. We are moving from being a "melting pot" of Europeans to a "world nation" with links to virtually every part of the inhabited globe.
In a world where the economic center of gravity is rapidly shifting away from the Atlantic toward the Pacific Basin, the emergence of the American world nation provides a major advantage in adjusting to the new world reality. As a world nation, the United States can transcend its European identity and emerge as a multiracial role model in an increasingly nonwhite world economic order.
Some may see in this concept of the world nation a contradiction of the traditional America. Yet it rests solidly upon the basic ideological firmament of our republic. Never a racial or cultural motherland in the sense of La France or Dai Nippon, America at its best represents a universal idea, a conception of humanity that transcends narrow racial classifications.
This idea has its roots in the earliest days of the republic. Thomas Paine, writing in 1776, rejected the notion of America as a purely Anglo-Saxon nation. In revolutionary Pennsylvania, for instance, Germans represented a majority of the population and Englishmen less than a third. In 1790, before the final ratification of the Constitution, Anglo Saxons constituted slightly less than 50 percent of the population. Far from being merely an offshoot of English civilization, America, in the conception of revolutionaries such as Paine, was destined to be "an asylum for mankind."
Today, Paine’s notion has expanded to include not only other Europeans but people of other races as well. The growing appreciation of nonwhite contributions–from the celebration of Martin Luther King’s birthday to the academic study of Hispanic and Asian roles in developing the American West–effects the continuing development of the original revolutionary idea. Today we more fully embody what Walt Whitman wrote over a century ago: "America is the race of races."
The power of this new identity can already be seen in the growing hegemony of multiracial American culture–epitomized by nonwhite stars such as Eddie Murphy and Michael Jackson–throughout various nations of the world. Already the second-largest source of American exports, our entertainment industry dominates virtually every market in which it is allowed to operate. But it is more than movies and music. It is the appeal of our individualist lifestyle that is leading to "the Californianization of the free world," in Japanese consultant Kenichi Ohmae’s phrase.
The emergence of the American world nation also has profound ideological implications. The American message– stressing individual rights and private initiative–is gradually becoming universal and less linked to "white" ideology. Nowhere is this clearer than in China, where American cultural and political influence has a powerful appeal, particularly among the young. When 50,000 Chinese students demonstrated in Shanghai’s People’s Square in December 1986, they waved banners depicting the Statue of Liberty and a dragon bound in chains. Emblazoned on the banners were calls for such American-style values as democracy, human rights, and freedom.
None of this means to suggest that these foreign movements identify with the defense or foreign policy positions of U.S. administrations. But it does suggest that our cultural forms and ideals, if not our policies, still possess a revolutionary appeal to those non-Europeans who constitute the overwhelming majority of the planet’s inhabitants.
But we do not have to look abroad for the positive impact of immigration. Hispanic influence has transformed Miami into the banking capital of Latin America, while on a smaller scale boosting San Antonio and San Diego into business centers for rapidly industrializing northern Mexico. Asian immigrants have turned Los Angeles and San Francisco into dynamic centers of Oriental capitalism.