Americans Have a Long History of Worrying About Declinism

By Joseph S. Nye Jr. at Time: 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?

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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