America’s confidence crisis – a ‘Sputnik moment’

Faced with economic and political woes at home, the US is nervous about remaining the world's only superpower. Rational fear or psychological wobble?

Recessionary gloom has most of the industrialised world in its grip. But in America - the world's largest economy, with a world-dominating language and popular culture - a deeper anxiety seems to have taken hold.

Fear of China is partly to blame. The 'Asian tiger' economy is roaring its head off, with average annual growth of 10 per cent.

Half the Americans in a recent survey believed that their country was now in second place to China, when in reality the US still enjoys a healthy economic lead. The US economy is worth a staggering $15 trillion, which is $9 trillion bigger than China's.

'The majority of Americans believe the U.S. has already lost the challenge,' said the pollsters Gallup.

In parallel to this economic loss of confidence, the political system is less trusted by many ordinary Americans, particularly on the right. The Tea Party movement has been turning discontent with President Obama into a carnival of cantankerousness.

A strong streak of suspicion of any government has always marked the US character. But now commentators say Americans have fallen out of love with the whole of their political system, and that it needs a radical overhaul.

'There's a level of political distrust in the country that makes a reasonable formation of political consensus extremely difficult,' the historian Francis Fukayama told the BBC.

The Tea Party movement feel there is already too much cosy agreement among politicians in Washington DC, their far-away capital city.

And they have allies in some serious economists, who warn that unless the US cuts back radically on its spending and curbs the $14 trillion national debt, the rest of the world's investors might also have a crisis of confidence. The financial markets would then be the ones to humble the American giant.

Starting Gun
This chorus of warning voices – the Declinists - has popped up to bemoan waning US power once in every generation. So one analyst has described the jitters as an inevitable stage in the nation's psychological cycle.

But the man in charge is taking it more seriously. In his keynote speech to the American people in January, President Obama said 'This is our generation's Sputnik moment.'

He's when referring to the days when the US realised it might fall behind the then Soviet Union in the space race and he now calls for a resurgent push for growth backed by technology to beat the rest – China in particular.

If history is anything to go by, Americans will step up to the plate.

You Decide

  1. 'Americans would be much happier if they stopped insisting on being powerful.' Do you agree?
  2. 'History shows that all empires crumble eventually. And so will America.' What's your opinion?


  1. American culture is everywhere in the world - Mcdonald's, Coca Cola, Hollywood. In a group, come up with the best five American cultural exports. And the worst five.
  2. Research the subject (useful first link in 'Become an Expert') and then write a short piece for a newspaper entitled, 'Should America be worried?'

Some People Say...

“America's arrogance should be punished.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I can't really get my head around $15 trillion.
Yup, it's a lot. One trillion is a million times a million. And alarm bells are now ringing in the US because debt has reached the same level as the size of the entire economy.
Who do the people blame?
Some economists say neither Republican nor Democrat parties will face up to the debt problem. They, of course, blame each other.
And therefore the people don't trust their political leaders?
Americans have always distrusted government. The right of US citizens to carry weapons, in case they need to resist tyrannical leaders, is enshrined in the constitution.
Is the competition with China just about the economy?
No, Hillary Clinton, secretary of state, said last week it was a 'competition for influence' in which the US was struggling.

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