Bet on America

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By Joel Achenbach
Sunday, September 2, 2007

America, the shining city on a hill, swollen over centuries into a reluctant empire, faces a long march into the twilight of its greatness. Our duty now is to supervise our relative decline. Other superpowers shall rise to match us: China, surely, and newly consolidated Europe, and maybe Russia or Japan. From ancient Rome through the Ming Dynasty, from the days of the Spanish Armada to the British Empire, the implacable rule of history is that no one stays on top forever.

We had our day. It's over. Nice while it lasted.

This, at least, is the latest word on the street (well, maybe if you eavesdropped on a couple of nerds outside one of those think tanks on Massachusetts Avenue).

Declinism crosses partisan lines. You can find it in fat books, dense journal articles and angry hip-hop songs. Hollywood takes it as a given. We're past our prime, suffering from incompetent leaders, an overextended military and an incurious, flabby citizenry.

All this strikes me as the cue to place a bet on America. Don't despair: double down.

Here's what I'd tell my children if they were to ponder whether this country will remain the most powerful on the planet: Think like a bookie. When things look most dire is when you get the best odds. Watch that Vegas line. Right now, the smart move is to take the United States and the points.

This doesn't mean that our national problems and deep-seated flaws will magically be cured. Nor should we arrogate to ourselves a special status in the eyes of Providence; putting "In God We Trust" on our coins does not guarantee that the reverse will also be true. Any number of wild cards could come into play (if computers become Terminators and try to wipe us out, all bets are off). If the past is a foreign country, as someone once said, then the future is another planet entirely. So any predictions herein are made with the proviso that I am prepared to retract them tomorrow.

But the burden of proof ought to be on the declinists. The evidence for our nation's downward spiral isn't sufficient to rule out the very opposite possibility: that the United States will become, in purely geopolitical terms, even stronger in coming decades. The mistake we make is not so much overestimating our problems, but underestimating the problems of our potential rivals. We think we're the only country with decline-and-fall issues.

I'll wager that many of the toughest challenges for Americans in the future won't be associated with our geopolitical decline, weakness or decrepitude. No: Our challenges will be the unimagined consequences of our many successes.

* * *

Shelves of books now document the decline and possible (no, certain!) fall of Pax Americana. The gloomier offerings include Chalmers Johnson's "Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic" and Charles Kupchan's "The End of the American Era." The most delightful is Cullen Murphy's "Are We Rome?: The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America." Murphy, a former managing editor of the Atlantic Monthly, is not the panicking sort, but he discerns numerous signs that we are tromping down the Roman road to ruin. The military can't scrounge up enough soldiers -- a classic Rome-in-decline feature. There's a widening gap between elites and those who serve in the military. Scholars of empires find it ominous when someone like Mitt Romney wants to be emperor, but none of his five sons has any desire to join the legions.


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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