Roger’s Rules

Declinism on the Rise, or how to hate America without really trying

Is it “closing times in the gardens of the West,” as Cyril Connolly predicated the middle of the last century? Are we witnessing Der Untergang des Abdenlandes, as Oswald Spengler said even earlier in that most unhappy and bloody of centuries? More to the point, is America, which just yesterday was proclaimed (or berated as) “the world’s only super power,” on the wane? Are we on our way to geopolitical irrelevance? Are observers like Fareed Zakaria right when they say that “Just as the rest of the world is opening up, America is closing down”?

Many pundits, from Patrick Buchanan on the right side of wrong, to innumerable writers for organs like The New York Times, on the left side of wrong, seem to think so. Without minimizing the problems that America faces, I suspect that what we have here is a case of wishful thinking, colored variously by self-hatred and (what is not quite the same thing) oceanic, socialist-inspired utopian longings. In short, I believe that what Mark Twain observed of his own demise–the reports of which, he said, had been greatly exaggerated–can also be said of the gloomy prognostications of American eclipse.

How refreshing, then, to find Robert J. Lieber’s bracing essay “Falling Upwards: Declinism, The Box Set,” in the current issue of World Affairs. Lieber does not underestimate the challenges–economic, social, political–that America faces. But he puts them into perspective, which means he looks at America’s place in the world without the anti-American assumptions that seem to inspire most of the opinion-emitting elite these days. “On the economic front,” Lieber observes, “without minimizing the impact of today’s challenges, they will likely prove less daunting than those that plagued the U.S. in the 1970s and early 1980s.”

The overall size and dynamism of the economy remains unmatched, and America continues to lead the rest of the world in measures of competitiveness, technology, and innovation. Here, higher education and science count as an enormous asset. America’s major research universities lead the world in stature and rankings, occupying seventeen of the top twenty slots. Broad demographic trends also favor the United States, whereas countries typically mentioned as peer competitors sag under the weight of aging populations. This is not only true for Russia, Europe, and Japan, but also for China, whose long-standing one-child policy has had an anticipated effect.

What about America’s military might?

In the realm of “hard power,” while the army and Marines have been stretched by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the fact is that no other country possesses anything like the capacity of the United States to project power around the globe. American military technology and sheer might remain unmatched—no other country can compete in the arenas of land, sea, or air warfare. China claims that it spends $45 billion annually on defense, but the truth comes closer to three times that figure. Still, America’s $625 billion defense budget dwarfs even that. The latter amounts to just 4.2 percent of GDP. This contrasts with 6.6 percent at the height of the Reagan buildup and double-digit percentages during the early and middle years of the Cold War.

Moreover, Lieber observes, if American pundits, the wives of some Presidential candidates, and French foreign ministers drool over the prospect of American hardship and decline, most of the rest of the world looks to us not only for leadership but also political, moral, economic, and military succor. “Other countries,” Lieber notes,

understand the unique nature of American power—if not wholly selfless, not entirely selfish, either—and its role in underpinning global stability and maintaining a decent world order. This helps to explain why Europe, India, Japan and much of East Asia, and important countries of the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America have no use for schemes to balance against the United States. Most would rather do business with America or be shielded by it.

Lieber’s whole essay is worth reading. I was particularly pleased by its conclusion:

Over the years, America’s staying power has been regularly and chronically underestimated—by condescending French and British statesmen in the nineteenth century, by German, Japanese, and Soviet militarists in the twentieth, and by homegrown prophets of doom today. The critiques come and go. The object of their contempt never does.

Hat tip to Arts & Letters Daily for putting me on to this refreshing essay.