Introducing 'Decline Watch'

We actually kicked this off with David's post yesterday, but we're now making it official. In this regular Passport feature, we will be tracking signs of U.S. economic and political decline -- and the "rise of the rest," especially China. 

We don't intend this to be an excercise in schadenfreude -- we're Americans ourselves and don't wish any misfortune on the country -- but there does seem to be an emerging conventional wisdom on American decline in the foreign-policy media that's worth tracking. We'll also hopefully use the column to puncture a few bogus decline trend stories.

Each post, we'll choose a datapoint or article that purports to show a sign of American decline and rate it from 1 to 5. Here's the scoring system:

1: We're totally screwed. Start learning Mandarin.

2. Being a superpower was nice while it lasted.

3. Stay calm and carry on.

4. Decline, schmecline. We're gonna be just fine.

5. USA! USA! 

Today's sign of decline ... falling SAT scores:

Average scores on the college acceptance test, the SAT, fell across the nation this year, with the reading [comprehension] score for the high school class of 2011 falling three points to 497, the lowest on record, according to a report on Wednesday by the College Board, which administers the exams. 

The average writing score dropped two points, to 489, and the math score was down one point, to 514. 

Douglas McIntyre at AOL business makes the case

What these test scores suggest is that in general, Americans who enter the work force in the next one to five years will not be as well educated as many of their foreign counterparts. That spells bad news for America's ability to lead the world in science and other critical disciplines. With a workforce whose education and skills are in decline, the U.S. will struggle to hold its lead in the industries that are key to our economic future.

Verdict: 3. Falling test scores are obviously not a good sign. On the other hand, the fact that English scores, in particular, are falling can be attributed to increasing national diversity and the fact that parents from around the world still want to raise their kids in the United States. The New York Times reports that "27 percent of the nearly 1.65 million test-takers last year came from a home where English was not the only language, up from 19 percent a decade ago." And while average scores may be falling, the number of students receiving high scores on math -- about 700 -- have increased by 20 percent over the last five years. 

But any way you slice it, low income and minority students continue to lag behind. The numbers are nothing to be proud of. 

Feel free to nominate any American decline stories you see. (No Jersey Shore references please.) E-mail Joshua [dot] Keating [at] 

Mario Tama/Getty Images


What's happening to those named WikiLeaks sources?

Earlier this week, I wrote about the case of two Zimbabwean generals who may face treason charges for comments about their superiors made in a confidential conversation with the U.S. ambassador, and whose names were subsequently revealed in last month's unredacted WikiLeaks dump. 

That case still seems to be pending, but there's been another troubling development in Ethiopia, reports the Committee to Protect Journalists: 

U.S. diplomatic cables disclosed last month by WikiLeaks cited an Ethiopian journalist by name and referred to his unnamed government source, forcing the journalist to flee the country after police interrogated him over the source's identity, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. It is the first instance CPJ has confirmed in which a citation in one of the cables has caused direct repercussions for a journalist.

On September 5 and 6, officials from Ethiopia's Government Communication Affairs Office (GCAO) summoned journalist Argaw Ashine to their offices in the capital, Addis Ababa, with his press accreditation, Ashine told CPJ on Tuesday. He was summoned because he had been cited in an October 26, 2009, cable from the U.S. embassy in Ethiopia regarding purported GCAO plans in 2009 to silence the now-defunct Addis Neger, then the country's leading independent newspaper, local journalists said.

On September 8, Ashine was summoned again, this time by police, who interrogated him and gave him 24 hours to either reveal the identity of his source at the GCAO office or face unspecified consequences, the journalist told CPJ. Ashine fled Ethiopia over the weekend. He has requested that his current location not be disclosed for safety reasons.

Given that a central tenet of WikiLeaks' model is protecting the identity of its sources, it seems pretty tough to defend the exposing of a journalist in an authoritarian country, even if it embarasses the U.S. government in the process. 

The Christian Science Monitor also reports (via the essential twitter source for all things WikiLeaks Trevor Timm) that, so far at least, Chinese sources named in the cable don't seem to be suffering consequences:

Two weeks after WikiLeaks posted unredacted versions of a quarter of a million U.S. diplomatic cables, revealing the names of American embassies’ local contacts around the world, there are no signs of repercussions for Chinese sources, according to people who have themselves been “outed.”

“Nothing has happened to me, yet, and I have not heard of anyone else getting into trouble,” says Wang Zhenyu, a Beijing lawyer who says he has often met U.S. diplomats to discuss the progress of legal reform in China and whose name was meant to have been “strictly protected” according to a cable that quotes him.

“I don’t think I’ll have any problem from the government, though some ordinary people do not understand," adds Wang Xiaodong, an outspoken nationalist ideologue with a large following on the Web, who also shared his insights with American diplomats, according to the leaked cables.

Update: Another piece from the Globe and Mail's Mark MacKinnon notes that while there have been no legal consequences, the response from China's nationalist internet has been furious

Some of China’s top academics and human rights activists are being attacked as “rats” and “spies” after their names were revealed as U.S. Embassy sources in the unredacted WikiLeaks cables that have now been posted online.

The release of the previously protected names has sparked an online witch-hunt by Chinese nationalist groups, with some advocating violence against those now known to have met with U.S. Embassy staff. “When the time comes, they should be arrested and killed,” reads one typical posting on a prominent neo-Maoist website.

The repercussions could indeed be dire in some circumstances, particularly for Tibetan and Uighur activists exposed as having passed information to Washington. In other cases – including some Communist Party officials named as “protected” or “strictly protected” sources – the fallout is more likely to be embarrassment or perhaps lost promotions.

We'll continue to track the fallout for the sources in the days ahead.