America, always rising and falling: Review of ‘The Myth of America’s Decline’ by Josef Joffe

Carlos Lozada is Outlook editor of The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter: @carloslozadaWP .

A satellite. A jungle. A gas line. A movie. An acronym.

If the American superpower stretched out on a psychiatrist’s couch and revealed its private terrors and most closely guarded insecurities, these are the images it would recall from its nightmares — the ones that roused it in a panic, afraid that its power and self-image were slipping away.

(Liveright) - “The Myth of America's Decline: Politics, Economics and a Half Century of False Prophecies” by Josef Joffe.

Gallery

GoingOut Guide
Looking for things to do?
Select one or more criteria to search
Get ideas

Sputnik was first, convincing America that it was losing the space race and could lose the Cold War, no matter that it was not and would not. Vietnam followed, an anguish that would take a generation to shake off. The malaise of the 1970s, with its oil embargoes and embassy hostages, was soon overrun by worries of an indomitable Japan. “Rising Sun,” a summer blockbuster movie based on a Michael Crichton novel, marked the height of America’s Japan paranoia in the early 1990s — just as the Japanese economy was plunging off a cliff.

Josef Joffe is fascinated by these bouts of self-doubt that “torment the American imagination.” In “The Myth of America’s Decline,” he examines five decades of this malady, leading us to China, the latest bogeyman lurking under the bed.

Of course, in the United States, despair and euphoria have learned to take turns. Carter’s crisis of confidence gave way to Reagan’s morning in America, Cold War fears dissolved into a unipolar moment. And even the architects of the Iraq fiasco briefly believed they’d accomplished their mission. But Joffe, a journalist and fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, wants to understand “the psychology of declinism.” Why would a superpower with such overwhelming advantages convince itself every decade or so that it just doesn’t rate? “America has remained a split screen for the mind,” Joffe writes, “a frightful dystopia like ‘Brave New World’ or a heavenly place on earth like Thomas More’s ‘Utopia.’ ”

As his book title gives away, Joffe is more utopian than dystopian. America’s overblown worries of decline persist, he says, mainly because of “linearity”: the mindless extrapolation of transient trends — whether in the numbers of Soviet ICBMs or the growth of Japanese GDP — far into the future. Here Joffe could be channeling Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter, who recently complained about fans’ fascination with players being “on pace for” a certain number of home runs, no matter how early in the season. “It doesn’t work like that,” Jeter said to ESPN. “You gotta go do it. ‘On pace for’ is just useless.”

In international relations, “on pace for” is pretty useless, too.

The latest linear thinking involves the all-powerful Chinese economy. Joffe dates the paranoia to 2003, when investment bank Goldman Sachs issued its now-famous report, “Dreaming With BRICs: The Path to 2050 .” The investment firm built on recent trends to declare that by mid-21st century, China’s economy would lead the planet, with India in third. The other members of the BRIC clan (B for Brazil, R for Russia) made the challenge seem to be coming from all directions. But these countries “had nothing in common save great size and a catchy acronym,” Joffe writes, “and by the early 2010s, their fantastic growth rates were dropping like, well, bricks.”

Joffe takes the long view; sentences such as “China and Western Europe were about even in per capita income when Christ was born” are not unusual in this book. And with China’s frenetic growth already slowing, Joffe argues that, long term, China can’t prevail. Its model of state capitalism — he calls it “modernitarianism,” defined as “markets minus freedom” — leads to corruption, favoritism and inefficiency; its rising wages don’t reflect equivalent increases in worker productivity; and its population is aging so much that “a burgeoning army of pensioners and infirm will eat up investment funds as a fire will consume oxygen.”

Most important, its people’s rising expectations will eventually leave Chinese leaders with no good options: They must either loosen their grip and enable a democratic transition that would further slow growth, or they must continue to repress and risk a new Tiananmen, with the economic crash that would follow. “No matter how the red emperors try to extricate themselves, they will pay the price of waning growth or worse,” Joffe warns.

But he still has some convincing to do. A September nationwide survey for the financial site TheStreet.com finds that Americans rate the United States as the world’s dominant economy by 59 percent to 28 percent over China. But when they are asked who will be on top in five to seven years, the gap shrinks to 43 to 36 percent.

Joffe reserves an especially toasty circle of hell for the declinists — the politicians, historians, economists and journalists who stoke such worries and continually declare America’s demise. Indeed, for long stretches, the book is less an assessment of U.S. prospects and more a trashing of those who traffic in declinism. They aren’t just wrong, Joffe contends, but often maliciously so.

John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama all peddled declinism for electoral ends, he writes: “The country is on the skids, but tomorrow it will rise again — if only you, the people, will anoint me as your leader.” Doom is also an effective career-booster for Washington wonks; right now, there is no better way to sell a policy initiative to politicians or the public than to scream that the Chinese are beating us to it.

Joffe chides thinkers such as Yale historian Paul Kennedy (“the preeminent Declinist of the 1980s”), whose book “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers” still embodies the highest form of this low art, and economist Clyde Prestowitz, who switched from hyping Japan to hyping China without so much as blushing. The beauty of declinism is that it is never wrong; if it fails to materialize, declinists can say that is because the nation wisely followed their advice or because catastrophe is simply a little late to the party. “Prophecy is inherently unfalsifiable,” Joffe writes. “If disaster does not strike tomorrow, it will next week, or next year.”

Yet Joffe commits a few of the same sins. The decline he foresees in China flows in part from extrapolated demographic, economic and policy trends; so does his exalted view of the United States. He admires America’s traditional openness to immigration, and he swoons over U.S. performance on indicators such as patents, investment in research and development, and articles in science and engineering journals. Where he sees less-than-stellar trends, he explains them away: Relatively low test scores for American 15-year-olds are understandable in an immigrant nation with lots of non-native families, unlike, say, in Finland. Things look better “if one corrects for these demographics,” Joffe explains. Except you can’t praise immigration for drawing talented foreigners to America, only to discount it when ESL students undercut your test rankings. You have to pick.

Joffe also offers a retro vision of power, as though it resides almost entirely in nation-states. It’s weird that a book on American power and the challenges to it doesn’t bring up al-Qaeda until the 91st page and the Gates Foundation until the 225th, and fails to mention Exxon Mobil altogether.

Still, any foreign policy book is contractually obligated to debut a buzzword describing America’s role in the world, and here Joffe delivers. In fact, he has so many he seems undecided. America is a “decathlon power,” not first in all aspects of strength but winning the all-around competition. It is also a “default power,” the country to which others look when no one else steps up. Under President Obama, it has become a “reticent power,” with narrowing interests abroad and focused on building up a welfare state at home. (And this is on top of “uberpower,” as Joffe labeled the United States in a 2006 book.)

Whatever kind of power America wields, Joffe doesn’t see any rival overtaking it. He concedes that empires eventually fall and disappear, but in this case, “only the United States can bring down the United States,” as it nearly did in the Civil War. And no superpower, he asserts, “has ever chosen decline.”

I wonder whether Joffe might have tweaked that conclusion if he’d been able to include the government shutdown this fall and Congress’s latest flirtation with debt default — two self-inflicted crises that provide no confidence in America as a default power, let alone a versatile decathlete able to excel in multiple arenas at once.

Joffe wishes to peer inside the mind of decline. So, how might a specialist diagnose a patient who constantly swings from elation to depression, from limitless energy to self-defeating paralysis? Or, for that matter, a nation so skilled that it can build the planet’s foremost spying and surveillance system, yet such a mess that it can’t launch a health-care site that works right?

Atop a unipolar world may be a bipolar superpower.

carlos.lozada@washpost.com

Read more from Outlook, friend us on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter.

THE MYTH OF AMERICA’S DECLINE

Politics, Economics, and a
Half Century of False Prophecies

By Josef Joffe

Liveright. 327 pp. $26.95

More books content

Show more
 
Read what others are saying