It's election season again, and the main contenders for the Oval Office are knocking themselves out to reassure Americans that their nation remains at the pinnacle of the global pecking order. Mitt Romney recently declared that "this century must be an American century." Not to be outdone, President Obama insisted in his State of the Union address that "anyone who tells you that America is in decline" doesn't "know what they're talking about."
Mr. Romney and Mr. Obama might overdo it a bit, but they're actually not far off the mark. Despite two draining wars, sluggish growth and a diffusion of power from the West to China and the "rising rest," a combination of economic resilience and military superiority will keep the United States at or near the top for decades.
Still, they're missing the point. The most potent challenge to America's dominance comes not from the continuing redistribution of global power, but from a subtler change: the new forms of governance and capitalism being forged by China and other rising nations.
The democratic, secular and free-market model that has become synonymous with the era of Western primacy is being challenged by state capitalism in China, Russia and the Persian Gulf sheikdoms. Political Islam is rising in step with democracy across the Middle East. And left-wing populism is taking hold from India to Brazil. Rather than following the West's path of development and obediently accepting their place in the liberal international order, rising nations are fashioning their own versions of modernity and pushing back against the West's ideological ambitions.