The erosion of the United States’ educational edge will eventually weaken the country’s global reach. With a less highly educated workforce than it could or should have, the United States will have less economic, political, and military heft with which to defend its interests and uphold the economic and security architecture that has defined the postwar order. Eventually, Pax Americana will come under pressure. It is not hard to imagine a progressively less peaceable and more economically insecure international environment in which the United States has much less influence as a result of its stagnating pool of high-skilled labor.
Fortunately, the United States still has good options for coping with loss of educational hegemony. But they all require Washington to take initiative—something it seems unaccustomed to lately. Through more active and imaginative diplomacy, the United States could seek to forge new coalitions or alliances that would add human resource ballast to the liberal order. This might entail patient cultivation of new security partnerships with some of tomorrow’s major centers of highly educated labor: India, Indonesia, Vietnam—maybe even Iran. Other intriguing possibilities include a closer integration of Canada, Mexico, and the United States, which might bring North America’s strategic potential more in line with its tremendous demographic and economic potential.
Meanwhile, the United States could attempt to reverse its ominous educational slowdown. Stagnation in educational attainment is impeding economic growth and likely robbing the United States of trillions of dollars in output each year—a price that will only rise if the United States doesn’t shift course. Part of the problem is that Americans do not want to buy a lot of what U.S. educators want to sell, and it is hard to blame them. The quality of public primary and secondary schooling is woefully uneven, and a high school diploma does not always come with marketable skills. Higher education is increasingly bureaucratized, ideological, and expensive. If Americans treated education as if their future depended on it, they would look for far-reaching overhauls, not marginal changes, and they would look beyond teachers’ unions and university administrators for better ideas. Revitalizing the country’s human resources—not just educational attainment, but health, workforce participation, and even family—will increasingly be strategic imperatives for the United States.
The coming demographic and educational changes are predictable. But they are not entirely inevitable, and they are unfolding slowly. The United States has time to adapt and address its educational shortcomings before it is too late. To avoid squandering its educational edge and putting its position of global primacy at risk, however, Washington must acknowledge that education is no longer just a domestic policy issue but a national security issue on which the very future of the United States depends.
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