Apocalypse Now

I hope I am not being unkind to our sister publication when I say that I find National Journal's cover story on American decline almost entirely unpersuasive. Or rather, I find it persuasive that the Iraq War, the rise of China, and growing anti-Americanism from Moscow to Caracas are reducing American influence relative to where it stood in, say, the late 1990s or early 2003. But this is not at all the same thing as the beginning of the end of the American era. Yes, we may not be a "lone superpower leading the world" forever, but we weren't a "lone superpower" from 1945 till 1991, and yet that span of time is still regarded, rightly, as part of the "American Century." Great powers often acquire rivals, and even get defeated by rivals for that matter, without being understood as being in decline: nobody dates the beginning of Rome's eclipse to Crassus's defeat by the Parthians at Carrhae, and the heyday of the British Empire still had over a hundred years to run when they were beaten by the Franco-American alliance in the the 1770s. The fact that, say, India and Brazil "don't hesitate to assert narrow national interests that often have little to do with Washington's agenda" tells us very little about whether America's headed for a long-term slide, any more than the mere existence of France, Austria, Spain and Prussia spelled Gibbonesque doom for the eighteenth-century Britain.

Both neoconservatives and their foes, it's worth pointing out, have a vested interest in inflating the current crisis: The neoconservatives because it lets them argue that defeat in Iraq means defeat for all time, the realists and liberals because it lets them suggest that their wise counsel is all that stands between us and a Bush-created abyss. But while this is a tough moment for America, no question, it's still the case that we'll probably leave Iraq with our long-term advantages - economic, military, geographic, demographic - over our rivals more or less intact. And for all the current polarization, we're enduring almost none of the kind of internal instability that actually did make our institutions totter in the early 1970s. So maybe everyone - from the Zbigniew Brzesinskis who think that our Iran policy leaves us "one miscalculation away from catastrophe" to the Donald Kagans who claim that "our very existence could be at risk" if we pull out of Iraq - should take a deep breath and lay off the doomsaying. (Though to be fair to them, the NJ piece starts out with an apocalyptic frame, and clearly went out looking for quotes to suit that theme.)

Also, it's a small point, but I really don't follow this bit:

Could the Byzantine emperor Constantine XI have guessed, awakening to the sound of battle trumpets on a May morning in A.D. 1453 to find a Turkish fleet amassed outside his city walls and Turkish soldiers tunneling under his city, that the scales of history hung in the balance? Probably not.

You know, I bet he had a pretty good idea. And when we wake up with a Chinese fleet in San Francisco Bay and Hugo Chavez's air force bombing Florida, I'll be happy to admit that the American era hangs in the balance. (And also, that Rick Santorum was more prescient than anyone ever imagined.)

Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

Riding Unicycles in a Cave

"If you fall down and break your leg, there's no way out."

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus