Is America Waxing Or Waning?

by Conor Friedersdorf

In The New Republic, Paul Kennedy asks that question:

Where on earth is the United States headed? Has it lost its way? Is the Obama effect, which initially promised to halt the souring of its global image, over? More seriously, is it in some sort of terminal decline? Has it joined the long historical list of number one powers that rose to the top, and then, as Rudyard Kipling outlined it, just slowly fell downhill: “Lo, all our pomp of yesterday / At one with Nineveh and Tyre”? Has it met its match in Afghanistan? And has its obsession with the ill-defined war on terrorism obscured attention to the steady, and really much more serious, rise of China to the center of the world’s stage? Will the dollar fall and fall, like the pound sterling from the 1940s to the 1970s?

It is easy to say “yes” to all those questions, and there are many in Latin America, Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and in the United States itself, who do so. But there is another way to think about America’s current position in today’s mightily complicated world, and it goes like this: All that is happening, really, is that the United States is slowly and naturally losing its abnormal status in the international system and returning to being one of the most prominent players in the small club of great powers. Things are not going badly wrong, and it is not as if America as becoming a flawed and impotent giant. Instead, things are just coming back to normal.

Interestingly, the author doesn't include in his harbingers of American decline many of the factors that I worry about most. Are we ceding so much liberty in order to vanquish terrorism and drugs that we'll wind up irrevocably worse off for having launched those wars? Are we now a nation where the executive branch can order torture and extra-judicial assasinations with impunity? Is entitlement spending going to bankrupt us? Are we in danger of becoming a permanent imperial power? Does the power of public employee unions make it impossible for federal, state and local agencies to operate efficiently? Is federalism dead? Are we prepared, as best as a nation can be, for a panemic disease?

Despite these worries, and others, I remain cautiously optimistic that the United States can flourish in coming years. But when I realize how far removed some of my concerns are from mainstream political discourse I can't help but feel a bit more glum.