Saturday, August 9, 2008

America's Epitaph

Some worthwhile reading on the "rush to pen America's epitaph" from Robert J. Lieber. He is professor of government and international affairs at Georgetown University. His most recent book is The American Era: Power and Strategy for the 21st Century.

This is an excerpt from his article, "Falling Upwards: Declinism, The Box Set" in World Affairs, (Summer 2008).

"Gloomsayers have been with us, after all, since this country’s founding. Late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century European observers, especially royalists and reactionaries, commonly disparaged and discounted the prospects of the new American enterprise. (As the French author Phillip Roger has written in his insightful history of anti-Americanism, influential Parisian authors deprecated not only the new country, but also its animals and plants.) In the 1920s and 1930s, Communist and fascist critics alike offered sweeping condemnations of the U.S. as a degenerate nation. “The last century [the 19th] was the winter of the West, the victory of materialism and skepticism, of socialism, parliamentarianism, and money,” proto-declinist Oswald Spengler famously wrote. “But in this century blood and instinct will regain their rights against the power of money and intellect. The era of individualism, liberalism and democracy, of humanitarianism and freedom, is nearing its end.”

It was in the 1970s that declinism began to take on its modern features, following America’s buffeting by oil shocks and deep recessions, a humiliating withdrawal from Vietnam, victories by Soviet-backed regimes or insurgent movements in Africa, Central America, and Southeast Asia, and revolution in Iran along with the seizure of the U.S. embassy there. A 1970 book by Andrew Hacker also announced The End of the American Era. At the end of the decade, Jimmy Carter seemed to give a presidential stamp of approval to Hacker’s diagnosis when he used concerns about a flagging American economy, inflation, recession, and unemployment as talking points in his famous “malaise” speech calling for diminished national expectations.

By the early 1980s, declinism had become a form of historical chic. In 1987, David Calleo’s Beyond American Hegemony summoned the U.S. to come to terms with a more pluralistic world. In the same year, Paul Kennedy published what at the time was greeted as the summa theologica of the declinist movement—The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, in which the author implied that the cycle of rise and decline experienced in the past by the empires of Spain and Great Britain could now be discerned in the “imperial overstretch” of the United States. But Kennedy had bought in at the top: within two years of his pessimistic prediction, the Cold War ended with the Soviet Union in collapse, the Japanese economic miracle entering a trough of its own, and U.S. competitiveness and job creation far outpacing its European and Asian competitors."

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