America's Perpetual Decline

Dan Drezner channels Daniel Bell, who notes that pundits have been predicting the twilight of American power for at least half a century:

Twenty-two years ago, in a refreshingly clear-sighted article for Foreign Affairs, Harvard's Samuel P. Huntington noted that the theme of "America's decline" had in fact been a constant in American culture and politics since at least the late 1950s. It had come, he wrote, in several distinct waves: in reaction to the Soviet Union's launch of Sputnik; to the Vietnam War; to the oil shock of 1973; to Soviet aggression in the late 1970s; and to the general unease that accompanied the end of the Cold War. Since Huntington wrote, we can add at least two more waves: in reaction to 9/11, and to the current "Great Recession."....

What the long history of American "declinism" -- as opposed to America's actual possible decline -- suggests is that these anxieties have an existence of their own that is quite distinct from the actual geopolitical position of our country; that they arise as much from something deeply rooted in the collective psyche of our chattering classes as from sober political and economic analyses.

For whatever reason, it is clear that for more than half a century, many of America's leading commentators have had a powerful impulse consistently to see the United States as a weak, "bred out" basket case that will fall to stronger rivals as inevitably as Rome fell to the barbarians, or France to Henry V at Agincourt.

On the foreign policy front, selective U.S. retrenchment doesn't imply terminal decline so much as a temporary realignment to ensure that American power and interest are matched up going forward.

Drezner is talking about geopolitical power, but he might as well have been talking about economic power; at least since the 1970s, we've been hearing that America was just about to have its lunch eaten by some emerging power.  In the 1970s it was the Arabs; in the 1980s and early 1990s, it was the Japanese and the Germans; and after a brief bout of optimism, the Chinese became our betes noires.  Each time, the narrative was largely the same:  American market capitalism was a failure.  The competitive model rendered us incapable of long term planning.  We allowed corporate loose cannons to seduce our consumers into bad choices and disrupt our markets, rather than sensibly regulating them.  The American consumer was greedy, lazy, and selfish, interested only in sating himself with an endless parade of consumer gimcrackery.  Meanwhile, our competition were masters of central planning, manipulating everything from their currency to the American psyche.  Eventually, this saturnalia of selfishness and sensation-seeking would have to end as the Huns master technocrats finished conquering the decadent remnants of a once-great nation.

This is not to deny that American capitalists made some colossal mistakes, driven by a combination of greed and stupidity.  Nor that we are in for some hard economic times.  And of course, the little boy who cried wolf was right--eventually.  American dominance is not going to last forever, after all, and there's no particular reason that we couldn't be living at the moment when our power finally wanes.

But it's worth remembering that the other declinists were powerfully convinced of their own argument.  The human brain is programmed to look for what is new, and what is dangerous.  That means that we're prone to ignore all the strengths of the American economy that are still there:  the dynamism, the willingness to take risks, the immense flexibility to change and invent and grow.  Instead, we focus on what has gone wrong.  And since something has usually gone wrong--badly wrong, in our current situation--the narrative of decline is usually the best fit for the facts that loom largest in our imaginations.

But those are not all the facts, and if you're tempted to make confident pronouncements on the future of American power--economic or geopolitical--its worth reading all the commentators in the past who were equally confident,and absolutely wrong.