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.
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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.
Conservatives eagerly join the declinist party: They warn that we're going soft, that we're too liberal and squeamish and infertile and easy on illegal immigrants. The jacket copy of columnist Mark Steyn's book "America Alone: The End of the World as We Know It" states that "the West -- wedded to a multiculturalism that undercuts its own confidence, a welfare state that nudges it toward sloth and self-indulgence, and a childlessness that consigns it to oblivion -- is looking ever more like the ruins of a civilization."
Nativists, meanwhile, point to illegal immigration as the equivalent of the lead in Rome's pipes. Tom Tancredo, a Republican congressman and presidential candidate, said at a debate in June that immigration calls into question "whether or not we will actually survive as a nation."
I get the sense that even the most even-keeled observers are so disillusioned by Iraq, official sleaze, corporate greed, fiscal madness and so on that they fear the whole American enterprise is fundamentally diseased. Ask your friends which country will be most dominant in 50 years, and you'll be unlikely to hear anyone say "the United States."
It's probably adaptive to plan for the worst. Humans evolved in places where the most complacent and serene members of the tribe quickly became lion chow. But many Americans may simply not see clearly the extent of our current geopolitical power. It's a side effect of our solipsism. We're not terribly engaged with the rest of the world, don't tend to speak a second or third language and famously can't find Iraq on a map.
Moreover, to even address America's "full spectrum dominance" may strike some folks as gauche. Isn't it impolite to point out, as the conservative columnist Max Boot has, that our country has nine Nimitz-class aircraft supercarriers and no other country has even one? To discuss American power is to run the risk of being "triumphalist." Neoconservatives have made this whole topic rather toxic. For some people, there's a linear progression from believing in the United States as a dominant power to arguing that we should use that power unilaterally to spread democracy in distant lands where persuasion might require, just for starters, carpet bombing.
The neocon notion of Pax Americana is built around the idea that, hell yes, we're a butt-kickin' empire, and we ought to act like one. Syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer made a striking speech in 2004 sketching America's rise as the sole superpower: "We got here because of Europe's suicide in the world wars of the 20th century, and then the death of its Eurasian successor, Soviet Russia, for having adopted a political and economic system so inhuman that, like a genetically defective organism, it simply expired in its sleep. Leaving us with global dominion."
Yeah: But how has global dominion been treatin' ya lately?
The bible of the America-in-decline camp is Paul Kennedy's 1987 bestseller "The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers." Kennedy contended that empires invariably overreach and cannot sustain themselves as military expenditures cripple their economies. Our goal should be to manage the relative erosion of our power so that it happens slowly and smoothly, he argued.
We know what happened next: The Cold War ended, and the United States became the only superpower. Still, with our recent problems, Kennedy is back in fashion. "These days, Kennedy is looking less like a heretic and more like a prophet," wrote Paul Starobin last year in the National Journal.
But if global power is measured by military might, no other country is within light years of America. Our military expenditures, according to Cullen Murphy, are about equal to the defense expenditures of the next 15 nations combined.
North Korea spends approximately $5 billion a year on its military. That is what the Pentagon leaves as a tip for a waiter. That's what we spend on condiments! That's our ketchup and mustard budget!
The gross domestic product of the United States for 2007 probably will be in the vicinity of $13.2 trillion. China is right around $2.6 trillion -- in fourth place, after the United States, Japan and Germany.
China's rivers are sewers. Environmental problems make the Chinese economic boom unsustainable. That's the recent assessment of China's deputy minister for the environment in an interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel: "This miracle will end soon because the environment can no longer keep pace. Acid rain is falling on one third of the Chinese territory, half of the water in our seven largest rivers is completely useless, while one fourth of our citizens does not have access to clean drinking water."
Moreover, China will be the first country to get old before it gets rich. China's one-child policy, so rigidly enforced in the 1980s and 1990s, will haunt the country as it finds itself without enough workers to support a geriatric population.
My colleague Joel Garreau recently surveyed global demographic trends for Smithsonian magazine and concluded that the United States is in far better shape than any potential rival. By 2020, there will be only one German worker for every German pensioner. Japan is rapidly aging and having few babies. Russia combines a low birthrate with decreasing life expectancy. Every year, 700,000 more Russians die than are born.
Scholars sometimes cite the GDP of the European Union as evidence that America will soon be matched on the world stage. But here's the headline: The European Union isn't a country! It's more like a confederation. The U.S. effort to unite disparate, sovereign states into a single political unity started two centuries ago. The Europeans right now are where we were back in the days of powdered wigs and pewter mugs. As the Harvard historian Niall Ferguson has written, "The EU lacks a common language, a common postal system, a common soccer team, even a standardized electric socket."
If you want to worry about our future, you could start with a side effect of American economic success: Our machine for wealth creation has also been a machine for income inequality. While more and more people live gilded lives, millions remain trapped in poverty. The question is: What kind of society are we trying to build? Surely not one where strip malls stretch to the horizon and countless kids disappear into role-playing games online. Geopolitical dominance doesn't guarantee that we'll have a country we can be proud of.
Technological success brings unexpected complications. A thousand years ago, it would have seemed like magic, this feat of taking rocks and liquids from the Earth, burning them and using the energy, transmitted via wires, to cool a house in the summer (also, people would have said, "What's a 'house'?"). Now we're paying a price for our ingenuity.
Scrambling the picture is the rise of transnational corporations and nongovernmental organizations. Globalization may make the nation-state increasingly irrelevant. Your intellectual community may have members on six or seven continents. "By traditional measures of hard power, compared to other nations, the United States will remain number one," predicts Harvard political scientist Joseph S. Nye Jr. in "The Paradox of American Power," "but being number one ain't gonna be what it used to."
Americans are blessed with a durable Constitution, cultural diversity, abundant resources and an open society. I think we're capable of solving our problems. That's the position, too, of Murphy, whose America/Rome meditation ends on a hopeful note. He writes that a fundamental characteristic of Americans is the belief that improvement is possible. Sure, we're making many of the mistakes the Romans made: "But the antidote is everywhere. The antidote is being American."
Joel Achenbach is a Washington Post staff writer and blogs