Few recent political events have stayed with me as totalitarian emblems as the sight of a young Republican throng chanting "USA! USA! USA!" Now comes a foreigner questioning how the United States could possibly be no. 1 given an allegedly inferior educational system, which prompts me to ask how the United States got here and what it means for the future of the world.
Of course, it's almost un-American to be as "patriotic" as the young people at the last Republican convention. The USA is historically and essentially a nation of oddballs ornery enough to be embarrassed by orchestrated cheering. True American patriotism has always been best represented by dissenters.
The notion of American empire, at last openly acknowledged by those in power, is also at odds with democracy. All empires have been autocratic and the imperial behavior of Americans abroad is often grossly at odds with the national democratic vocation: our diplomats and soldiers have repeatedly shown they want to force others to adopt what we think is best for them, like it or not.
Part of the reason for this is the mistaken belief that the ascendancy of the United States is an inevitable result of a superior culture or form of government, when in fact it is a major historical accident. Had the European powers -- in what Churchill aptly described as a thirty years' total war with a long truce -- avoided reducing each other to sheer rubble by 1945, the United States would have remained the ungainly, greedy older child of the British Empire and no more.
U.S. hegemony is merely the result of a large, untouched industrial base filling a global vacuum half a century ago. I have already pointed out that American military prowess was of as dubious value in the 20th century as it is in this one (see here).
The real source of U.S. power has always been primarily economic.
This has involved huge foreign inputs, in terms of labor, investment and creativity -- rather than the much ballyhooed "know how." We tend to forget, for example, that without a Scottish inventor, immigrants from Ireland and China, and hefty British investment in the 19th century, there would never have been a continental U.S. railroad network, the dominant interstate form of transportation until Eisenhower's highway program. The same could be said about any number of major U.S. economic projects.
Moreover -- and this foreigners often miss -- U.S. economic strength lies primarily in its dynamic and large internal market, rather than external trade. This is how the United States remains much more powerful economically than China, which is several times larger in many senses.
Indeed, this is why, should the United States decline, as is historically inevitable, I think China is unlikely to fill the gap -- the People's Republic is a vast underdeveloped heartland that faces the world with the mask of its glittering coastal regions.
What the U.S. ascendancy has meant for the world and still can be its enduring legacy, is the leveling effect of a relatively transparent economy and a stable but adversarial political system.
In sum, the United States is not no. 1 in brains, brawn or brass. The U.S. originality is an economic and political constitution for "men who disagree," as Oliver Wendell Holmes put it, one that is potentially open to improvement.