WASHINGTON: The United States has rarely been stronger. Those who say it is in decline are misreading history. America will remain the world’s “one indispensable nation” for the next century and spread peace and prosperity around the globe. So says President Barack Obama. His rosy outlook is not universally shared. “I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being,” Obama said in his foreign policy speech in May at West Point, the U.S. military academy. But the belief that America is the greatest state on earth, an article of faith for most Americans, collides with the sober statistics of international comparisons.
The U.S. is still No. 1 in military power, still attracts more immigrants than any other country, and still is the world’s largest economy, though there are forecasts that it will be overtaken by China within a decade. America accounts for about a third of the world’s patents, is home to more than more than half the world’s top universities and employs more than two thirds of the world’s Nobel Prize winners.
But by a string of other measures, the United States has been slipping and fares badly in international rankings. For example, in 1988, The Economist magazine attempted to measure which of 50 countries would provide the best opportunity for a safe, healthy and prosperous life for a baby born that year. The United States came out on top. In a follow-up survey a quarter century later, the U.S. came 16th as the best country to be born in. According to U.N. figures, the U.S. ranks 34th in child mortality, behind Croatia and Cuba.
A report last year by the United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF) compared the percentage of children living in poverty in 35 developed countries. The U.S. came 34th, ahead only of Romania. It ranked low, too, in the World Health Organization’s most recent report on longevity. With an average lifespan of 78 years, the U.S. is in 33rd place out of 189 countries.
The country’s comparative performance on education is equally unexceptional. The latest results of the Program for International Student Assessment showed that American high school students dropped from 25th place in mathematics to 31st, from 20th to 24th in science and from 11th to 21st in reading since the last test in 2009.
The Americans’ results were average for science and reading and below average for math. Sixty-five countries took part in the test for 15-year-olds, which is administered every three years by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Arne Duncan, the U.S. education secretary remarked that the results were “at odds with our aspiration to have the best-educated, most innovative workforce in the world.”
He echoed Obama, who said in 2011 that the United States had to “out-educate every other country in the world” to make sure that it would dominate in the 21st century just as it did in the 20th.
Through much of the 20th century, the United States was the undisputed leader in free enterprise, a model for the rest of the world. It no longer holds the top slot, though it still ranks high on the World Bank’s annual report on the ease of doing business. For the past few years, it has been fourth on that list (after Singapore, Hong Kong and New Zealand) overall but lagged on important categories: starting a business (20th), registering property (25th), trading across borders (22nd), enforcing contracts (11th), protecting investors (6th) and paying taxes (64th).
In Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, the U.S. comes ranks 19th, with a score significantly below the five countries deemed most resistant to corrupt practices: Denmark, New Zealand, Finland, Sweden and Norway.
For a country that listed “the pursuit of happiness” as an inalienable right in its founding document, the United States does not score very well in a new comparative measure of national well-being. It was ranked 17th in a Global Happiness Report sponsored by a United Nations agency and compiled by experts using criteria such as wealth, health, freedom to make life choices, social support and freedom from corruption. The report covers 156 countries. Denmark, Norway, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Sweden came top.
Despite slipping on a range of international comparisons, the U.S. leads comfortably in some fields that are no cause of pride for many Americans. No other country holds as many prisoners and no other country at peace has as many mass shootings.
American presidents tend to stay away from statistics that challenge the notion that the U.S. leads the world. They know that talking about the country’s shortcomings invites charges of lacking patriotism. Obama learned that at his cost three months into his presidency. At a news conference in Brussels he was asked whether he, like many of his predecessors, subscribed to the notion of American exceptionalism, of a country uniquely qualified to lead the world.
His reply: “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” The remark prompted a storm of criticism and doubts over his leadership philosophy. Obama never repeated that line.