American Decline: Debated, Contested, Obvious
Is the United States in decline? You would certainly think so from the publishers’ lists, although some of the new books, written by determined neoconservatives resisting indictment for complicity in causing the decline, such as Robert Kagan, are arguing that it’s only a very little decline, and temporary, and will end in November when the teapot boils. Certainly President Barack Obama forswears declinism. Anyone who says that America is in decline, “or that our influence has waned, doesn’t know what they are talking about,” he said in his State of the Union address.
Well, actually, the only people who can really say that are those who haven’t been to Europe or the major Asian states recently, where everything works beautifully, even if Europe’s debts are not paid off. The 200 mph trains that crisscross Europe not only run on time but give you money back if they are late. The hotels in Singapore, Tokyo and the Arabian Gulf surpass all rivals. Their national airlines provide unparalleled service, and even room enough to sit comfortably in economy.
Even the American government luxuriates abroad. Have you ever been an overnight guest in the visiting officers’ apartments of any major American military base abroad? (Not in a combat zone, to be sure!) I have. It’s like Air Force One. And you can bet that everything works, every luxury and comfort provided, every wish granted and whim gratified. What great fun for the little Obama girls! The rest of us usually fly economy.
Why the decline? First: globalization and what it did to destroy the domestic American economy in which ordinary people live. Globalization was the product of an economic ideology that said removing all regulation would guarantee free markets that would automatically produce maximum economic efficiencies, and consequent profit, in every realm of human activity, except war and peace. (Other priorities governed war and peace.)
Second: mindless oversimplification plus ignorance, following from collapsing public education. The latter has a cause that it has not been politically acceptable to identify: the liberation of women. In the United States before the Second World War, teaching in public (or parochial) schools was virtually the only serious work open to university-educated women. They educated America. They now have other things to do, for which we give thanks. But the nation suffers the consequences.
Another factor, which is not trivial, is the huge and credulous audience that has been created for the political fantasies that talk radio and Fox television demagogues promulgate. A consequence of that has been the intellectual corruption of political debate and the money corruption of American political practice and government, which has placed plutocracy in the saddle, with no visible way to unseat him.
All the agents of possible change — the Congress, the national and state parties, broadcasting and recently the judiciary — are now committed to the existing system, intellectually and by personal and institutional interest. This is the visible manifestation of the national decline that is apparent inside America, as well as to those abroad.
The external manifestation of decline, in the resigned gaze of ordinary Americans, is China. People think there has to be a leading nation: that is what we have learned from history. Rome ruled the world. Then the British Empire did (this foreshortening is more or less as history is being taught, when it is taught at all). The Middle Ages, Reformation, France and Napoleon, and the Russian Revolution were mixed in there somewhere along the way. Then came the two World Wars and the Cold War, and we were the leading nation — which is only right because we have the best values.
But now Asia looms. We Americans thought we had settled Asia with The Bomb in 1945. Here it is again, but instead of being an Asia of ingenious and committed Japanese, or masses of peasants, it turns out to be modern China, which owns more of the United States than we like to think, manufactures or processes most of what we buy, purchases the raw materials of the world and builds aircraft carriers, which, since Japan’s carriers were all sunk, has been something that we believed only the United States could do.
Shaken by this new Asia, the Obama government has responded (and I would not dream of denigrating a matchless body of fighting men) by sending the Marines to Australia, where we can be sure their presence will give China’s strategists pause.
To end this article by being serious: Yes, the United States is in decline. The matter is serious for what it means to the character and future of the nation itself, rather than to its mere rank, reputation and power in the world. The United States is wasting its traditional values, selling its birthright, as did Esau, for a mess of pottage. As the readers of Genesis know, to do so is most imprudent.
Visit William Pfaff’s website for more on his latest book, “The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America’s Foreign Policy” (Walker & Co., $25), at www.williampfaff.com.
© 2012 Tribune Media Services, Inc.