Is America in Decline?

As election year politics heat up, Donald Trump proclaims that he can “Make America Great Again” and Joe Biden promises a brighter future, but a majority of Americans tell pollsters they think the U.S. is in decline. In 1941, on the eve of World War II, Time/Life publisher proclaimed “the American Century” and by 1945 the U.S. was the pre-eminent global power. But after eight decades, is it over?

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Americans have a long history of worrying about our decline. Shortly after the founding of the Massachusetts Bay colony in the 17th century, some Puritans lamented a decline from earlier virtue. In the 18th century, the founding fathers focused on the history of Rome, and worried about the decline of the new American republic. In the 19th century, Charles Dickens observed that if you listen to its citizens, America “ always is in an alarming crisis, and never was otherwise.”

One problem in assessing decline is that the U.S. never had the complete control that some imagine. Even when the U.S. had preponderant resources, it often failed to get what it wanted. Remember a year like 1956 when the U.S. was unable to prevent Soviet repression of a revolt in Hungary; French loss of Vietnam, or the Suez invasion by our allies Britain, France and Israel? We should be wary of viewing the past through rose-tinted glasses.

Episodes of “declinism” tell us more about popular psychology than geo-political analysis, but they also show how the idea of decline touches a raw nerve in American politics. The issue will lead to countless charges and denials in this election year. Sometimes anxiety about decline can lead toward nationalistic and protectionist policies that do us more harm than good. On the other hand, periods of hubris such as 2002 can lead to damage from mistaken policies such as the Iraq War. There is no virtue in either understatement or overstatement of American power.

When it comes to geopolitics, it is important to distinguish absolute from relative decline. In that sense, America has been in decline since 1945 when it represented half the world economy and had a monopoly on nuclear weapons (that the Soviet Union broke in 1949). World War II had strengthened the U.S. economy at the same time it weakened others. As the rest of the world recovered, the U.S. share of world product fell to a quarter of the total by 1970. President Nixon interpreted this as decline and took the dollar off the gold standard. But the dollar remains pre-eminent a half century later, and the American share of world product remains at about a quarter (as it was on the eve of World War II). And the “decline” did not prevent the U.S. from prevailing in the Cold War.

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American fears of decline and social change have been cyclical. After the Soviets launched Sputnik in 1957 and Khrushchev proclaimed their superiority, many Americans believed the Eisenhower administration was stagnant and the US in decline. After the hubris and defeat in Vietnam, the 70s were also marked by declinism. In 1979, a prominent American magazine cover had a picture of the Statue of Liberty with a tear rolling down her eye. Yet a little more than a decade later, the Soviet Union collapsed and the U.S. entered the hubristic period of “the sole superpower.”

Where do we go from here? No one can be sure, but I have tried to guess at the answer in my memoir, A Life in the American Century. Here is how it ends:

What sort of a world am I leaving to my grandchildren and their “Generation Z”? Is the American Century Over? I conclude that the answer is “no,” but that American primacy in this century will not look like the twentieth century. I argued that the greatest danger we face is not that China will surpass us, but that the diffusion of power at home and abroad may produce entropy, or the inability to get anything done.

China is an impressive peer competitor with great strengths but also weaknesses. In assessing the overall balance of power, the U.S. has at least five long-term advantages. One is geography. The U.S. is surrounded by two oceans and two friendly neighbors, while China shares a border with fourteen other countries and is engaged in territorial disputes with several. The U.S. also has an energy advantage, whereas China depends on energy imports. Third, the U.S. derives power from its large transnational financial institutions and the international role of the dollar. A credible reserve currency depends on it being freely convertible, as well as on deep capital markets and the rule of law, which China lacks. The U.S. also has a relative demographic advantage as the only major developed country that is currently projected to hold its place (third) in the global population ranking. Seven of the world’s fifteen largest economies will have a shrinking workforce over the next decade, but the U.S. workforce is expected to increase, while China’s peaked in 2014. Finally, America has been at the forefront in key technologies (bio, nano, and information). China, of course, is investing heavily in research and development and scores well in the numbers of patents, but by its own measures its research universities still rank behind American ones.

All told, the U.S. holds a strong hand in the great power competition, but if we succumb to hysteria about China’s rise or to complacency about its “peak,” we could play our cards poorly. Discarding high-value cards—including strong alliances and influence in international institutions—would be a serious mistake. China is not an existential threat to the U.S. unless we make it one by blundering into a major war. The historical analogy that worries me is 1914, not 1941.

My greater concern, however, is about domestic change and what it could do to our soft power and the future of the American century. Even if its external power remains dominant, a country can lose its internal virtue and attractiveness to others. The Roman Empire lasted long after it lost its republican form of government. As Benjamin Franklin remarked about the form of American government created by the founders: “A republic if you can keep it.” Political polarization is a problem, and civic life is becoming more complex. Technology is creating an enormous range of opportunities and risks that my grandchildren will face as they cope with the Internet of Things, AI, big data, machine learning, deep fakes, and generative bots—to name but a few. And even larger challenges are approaching from the realms of biotechnology, not to mention coping with climate change.

Some historians have compared the flux of ideas and connections today to the turmoil of the Renaissance and Reformation five centuries ago, but on a much larger scale. And those eras were followed by the Thirty Years’ War that killed a third of the population of Germany.

Today, the world is richer and riskier than ever before. I am sometimes asked whether I am optimistic or pessimistic about the future of this country. I reply, “Guardedly optimistic.”

America has many problems—polarization, inequality, loss of trust, mass shootings, deaths of despair from drugs and suicide—just to name a few that make headlines. There is a case for pessimism. At the same time, we have survived worse periods in the 1890s, 1930s and the 1960s as I have described. For all our flaws, the U.S. is an innovative society that, in the past, has been able to recreate and reinvent itself. Maybe Gen Z can do it again. I hope so. We should be wary of counting too heavily on American exceptionalism, but my guarded optimism is described in this account of what it was like to live through the first eight decades of the American century.

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