Just 10 years ago, the United Stateswhich for the last century has been used to leading the worldwould have topped all these lists. Of course, some of these lists are a bit silly, but they actually do reflect a seismic shift in power and attitudes.
For the last 20 years, America's superpower status has been largely unchallengedsomething that hasn't happened since the Roman Empire dominated the known world 2,000 years ago.
But at the same time, the global economy has accelerated dramatically. Many nations outside the industrialized West have been growing at rates that were once unthinkable. In fact, this is something much broader than the much-talked-about rise of China, or even Asia. It is the rise of the restthe rest of the world.
Why is this happening? It's because globalization has truly taken hold: More countries are making goods, and communications technology is leveling the playing field. Together, this has created huge opportunities for growth in many nations.
At the military and political level, the U.S. still remains supreme. But in every other wayindustrial, financial, social, culturalthe distribution of power is moving away from American dominance.
The post-American world is naturally an unsettling prospect for Americans, but it shouldn't be. These changes are not about the decline of America, but rather about the rise of everyone else. It is the result of a series of positive trends that have created an international climate of unprecedented peace and prosperitywhich in the long run will only benefit America.
But that's not the world that Americans perceive. We are told that we live in dark, dangerous times. Terrorism, rogue states, nuclear proliferation, financial panics, outsourcing, and illegal immigrants all loom large in the national discourse. But just how dangerous is today's world, really?
Researchers at the University of Maryland have found that global violence is actually at its lowest levels since the 1950s. Harvard professor Steven Pinker concludes that we are probably living "in the most peaceful time of our species' existence."
Then why do we think we live in scary times? Part of the reason is that as violence has been ebbing, information has been exploding. The last 20 years have produced an information revolution 24-hour news channels, cell phones, the Internetthat brings us news and, most crucially, images from around the world all the time.
Of course, the threats we face are real. Islamic jihadists, for example, really do want to attack civilians everywhere. But it is increasingly clear that militants and suicide bombers make up a tiny portion of the world's 1.3 billion Muslims. They can do real damage, but the combined efforts of the world's governments have effectively put them on the run.
Since 9/11, the main branch of Al Qaeda (the gang run by Osama bin Laden) has not been able to launch a single major terror attack in the West or any Arab country. Of course, one day they will manage to strike again, but the fact that they have been stymied for seven years indicates we need not despair.
We do need to figure out how to deal with rogue states like Iran, which pose real threats. But look at them in context. The American economy is 68 times the size of Iran's. The U.S. military budget is 110 times bigger. None of the problems we face compare with the dangers posed by Nazi Germany in the first half of the 20th century or the Soviet Union in the second half. Those were great global powers bent on world domination.
Meanwhile, compare Russia and China with where they were 35 years ago. Both (particularly Russia) were great threats, actively conspiring against the United States, arming guerrilla movements across the globe, funding insurgencies and civil wars. Now they are more integrated into the global economy and society than at any point in at least 100 years. They are neither friends nor foes, cooperating with the United States and the West on some issues, obstructing on others.
Trade & Technology
The Iraq war has produced deep, lasting chaos and dysfunction in that country, and sent more than 2 million refugees into neighboring countries. But I've been struck by how little Iraq's troubles have destabilized the region. Everywhere you go, people angrily denounce American foreign policy, but most Middle Eastern countries are booming. Iraq's neighborsTurkey, Jordan, and Saudi Arabiaare enjoying unprecedented prosperity.
Across the globe there is enormous vitality. For the first time ever, most countries around the world are practicing sensible economicsopening up their markets and embracing trade and technology. The results are stunning. The share of people living on $1 a day has plummeted from 40 percent in 1981 to 18 percent in 2004 and is projected to drop to 12 percent by 2015.
There remains real poverty in the worldmost worryingly in 50 basket-case countries with a total of 1 billion peoplebut the overall trend has never been more encouraging.
The most immediate effect of global growth is the appearance of new economic powerhouses on the scenelike China, India, and Brazil. If these countries all feel that they have a stake in the existing global order, there will be less danger of war, depression, panics, and breakdowns.
So America's chief priority should be to bring these rising nations into the global system. To do that, the U.S. needs to make its own commitment to the system clear. Until now, the United States was so dominant that it was able to be the global rule-maker but not always play by the rules.
As economic fortunes rise, so does nationalism. Imagine that your country has been poor and marginal for centuries. Finally, things turn around and it becomes a symbol of economic progress and success. You would be proud, and anxious that your people win respect throughout the world.
The United States, accustomed to leading the world, isn't used to dealing with so many rising nations with strong, nationalistic viewpoints. It will take some getting used to. Our challenge is this: Whether the problem is a trade dispute or a human-rights tragedy like Darfur or climate change, the only solutions that will work are those involving many nations.
With the current global financial crisis and its origins in the U.S. housing market, some may conclude that the U.S. has had its day. But the U.S. will not only weather the current financial storm; it's likely to come out on the other side more stable and secure. The American economy remains extremely dynamic and flexible. And the rise of developing economies like China, India, and Brazilwhich are also feeling the heat of the global crisiswill continue to fuel global growth in the long run.
Over the last 20 years, America has benefited massively from unusually robust growth, low unemployment and inflation, and received hundreds of billions of dollars in investmentmuch of it from rising powers like China. These are not signs of fundamental economic collapse.
The United States is currently ranked as the globe's most competitive economy by the World Economic Forum. It remains dominant in many industries of the future like nanotechnology, biotechnology, and dozens of smaller high-tech fields. Its universities are the finest in the world.
There's been a lot of discussion about a recent statistic that in 2004, 950,000 engineers graduated in China and India, while only 70,000 graduated in the U.S. But those numbers are wildly off the mark. If you exclude the car mechanics and repairmenwho are all counted as engineers in Chinese and Indian statisticsit turns out, the United States trains more engineers per capita than either of the Asian giants.
The real issue is that most of these American engineers are immigrants. Foreign students and immigrants account for almost 50 percent of all science researchers in the United States. In 2006, they received 40 percent of all Ph.D.'s.
When these graduates settle in the U.S., they create economic opportunity. Half of all Silicon Valley start-ups have one founder who is an immigrant or first-generation American. The potential for a new burst of American productivity depends not on our education system or R&D spending, but on our immigration policies. If these people are allowed to come to the U.S. and then encouraged to stay, then innovation will happen here. If they leave, they'll take it with them.
America's Great Strength
This openness is America's great strength. The U.S. remains the most open, flexible society in the world, able to absorb other people, cultures, ideas, goods, and services.
The rise of the rest of the world is one of the most thrilling stories in history. Billions of people are escaping from poverty. The world will be enriched as they become consumers, producers, inventors, thinkers, dreamers, and doers.
This is all happening because of American ideas and actions. For 60 years, the United States has pushed countries to open their markets, free up their politics, and embrace trade and technology. American diplomats, business people, and intellectuals have urged people in distant lands to be unafraid of change, to join the advanced world, to learn the secrets of our success.
Yet just as they are beginning to do so, Americans are becoming suspicious of trade, openness, immigration, and investmentbecause now it's not Americans going abroad, but foreigners coming to America.
Generations from now, when historians write about these times, they might note that by the turn of the 21st century, the United States had succeeded in its great, historical missionglobalizing the world. We don't want them to write that along the way, we forgot to globalize ourselves.