Lamenting American decline is as American as, to borrow a phrase, baseball and apple pie. As the Yale historian Harry Stout has shown, even before the United States was a nation, as early as the 17th century Puritan ministers in New England regularly warned their flocks against the dangers of “declension” from their spiritual commitments and their calling to forge a new society. Such jeremiads a century before the founding of the American nation seem to have been subsequently hardwired into our national DNA. More recently, as Celeste Ward Gventer and Joseph Joffe have pointed out, the US has, almost like clockwork, every decade undergone hand-wringing over our looming decline – anxieties that, not coincidentally, occurred alongside America’s ascent to global superpower status. So the 1950s brought Sputnik and worries of the lost American edge in science and technology; the 1960s had the “missile gap” and descent into the Vietnam quagmire; the 1970s witnessed the oil embargo, recession and inflation, and declining global influence; the 1980s saw the rise of Japan as the dynamic economic competitor, and so on. Every decade, it seems, Americans fret that our nation is in decline.
But just because decline has been successfully warded off in the past does not mean that American hegemony is destined to continue into the future. While I hope that an appreciation of our history of declinist worries brings some perspective, it should not bring complacency.
Looking back over this week’s posts, a few themes stand out (besides the, ahem, high volume of quality contributions from the fine students and scholars at the University of Texas-Austin):
First, the evolving and expanding nature of power. As Frank Gavin discussed, in bygone eras national power was a pretty straightforward combination of military strength, economic might, population and geography. Yet just glancing through the range of issues that our contributors touched on this past week – including demographic trends, family structures, education policy, participation in multilateral institutions, entrepreneurship and innovation, governance, fiscal policy, even culture and cuisine– shows how much more multifaceted and expansive the very concept of national power has become in the 21st century. This brings new challenges as efforts to maintain American supremacy need to account for a growing number of variables, but new opportunities as well for the United States to show global leadership.
Second, the patterns and lessons of history. History is inescapable when considering our present circumstance. Jeremi Suri brought some insightful lessons and perspective from an erstwhile empire that is little appreciated today: once-great Austria-Hungary. Celeste Ward Gventer found in history a cautionary tale that American power can get precipitously sapped by nation-building adventures abroad. Former NIC Chairman Bob Hutchings took a different gloss on history as he recounted past efforts by the NIC to evaluate America’s evolving global role, and suggested ways that this type of institutional and intellectual history could shape future predictions.
Third, the need for wise policy and political will. The various Global Trends reports make very sophisticated efforts to project what the world will look like two decades into the future. Yet as Mat Burrows and his very capable team who produce the reports will readily admit, one of the biggest variables in these projections is the human factor – specifically what policy decisions will leaders make, and will citizens collectively generate the political will to change course and make tough decisions? Many of our contributors came back to this fundamental fact: for the United States, decline is a choice. And as I discussed here, much of the disposition of American decline rests not on the problems our nation faces, but on whether we will be resigned to acquiesce to these problems, or resolved to overcome them.
William Inboden is a Distinguished Scholar at the Strauss Center for International Security and Law and Assistant Professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas-Austin, and a non-Resident Fellow with the German Marshall Fund.