A History of Decline

US Decline
By Andrew Gawthorpe

The American people are renowned for their optimism, but the history of their political thought has a dark undercurrent of pessimism and a persistent fear of decline. Declinist thought has proven hardy. It has flourished come rain or shine, and history has often proven its fears misguided.  Its persistence can be explained partly by the natural tendency towards self-criticism in a liberal society, and partly by the manic-depressive nature of the business cycle. But it is also surely attributable to the very real problems that have faced American statesmen of every generation, problems which it was never guaranteed would or even could be solved. 

While the same can be said for the challenges facing the present generation, it is also important to realize that today’s declinists had predecessors of their own who were proven to have vastly overstated their case. The idea that the US was in or would soon enter a period of terminal decline is as old as the republic itself, and has taken many forms. As they are today, these fears have often been economic, and particularly focused on the relationship between economics and national power. The early Federalists wanted to build a strong executive branch and encourage the development of national manufacturing and financial industries to enhance national power; the Jeffersonians worried that these developments threatened the decentralized distribution of power throughout society which they took to be America’s special virtue. This tension between the need for national power and the desire to maintain a liberal society has been ever-present in American history, and became even more acute when the US took on a global role after World War II.

Today, declinists worry that American power and the American economy are in terminal decline due to shifts in the structure of the global economy caused by rapid growth throughout Asia, especially in China. The locus of global manufacturing has dramatically shifted, allowing the Chinese to lift hundreds of millions out of poverty even while leaving millions of Americans unemployed and the living standards of tens of millions more eroded.  In the aftermath of the explosion of the last decade’s economic model, the US has assumed enormous debts which will weigh on the American economy for decades, mandating a retreat from the world and only seeming to accelerate what was anyway a pre-existing trend: the sun has set in the West, and arisen in the East.

The thrust of this argument has been a staple of declinist predictions since the 1960s. As the Vietnam War soured we first saw the emergence of many of its contemporary themes – the belief that interdependence in the global economy reduced the US scope for action, the focus on Asia as a new locus of global power, and the idea that the US had become, as one author had it, “an ordinary country”.  The Japanese economic miracle of the 1970s and 1980s seemed to drive the point home. Before 1989, the Soviet Union also seemed to offer an alternative and challenge to the US, one at the time which was presumed to be permanent and which conservatives eventually feared might best the US in the Cold War through superior discipline.

Yet things did not turn out as the declinists of the time predicted. The Soviet Union eventually collapsed, and the Japanese economy entered a long period of stagnation from which it has yet to emerge. By the 1990s, America was the last remaining superpower and its “unipolar moment” was hailed (optimists, too, can get carried away).

We can go back even further, to another time the death knell of the US economy was sounded. We only have to listen to the words of Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR), declaring during the Great Depression that American economic growth had run its course, and that "a mere builder of more industrial plants, a creator of more railroad systems, an organizer of more corporations, is as likely to be a danger as a help". FDR believed that the prospects for the future of the American economy were weak and that the US needed to shift to a slower and safer economic model that would focus on the redistribution of wealth rather than rapid growth, which could no longer be relied upon. Yet in a decade the course of world – and American – history had been dramatically changed by a world war which lay the foundations for decades of growth in the US. While a new global war thankfully seems a remote possibility today, international politics is in a highly-charged state of flux which makes long-term predictions particularly tricky.

This is why, even though it is possible to view China’s rise as a final vindication of the declinist theory about power shifting east, it is far too early to say for sure that this will be the end result. In the last decade China has undergone a process of social and economic change which is scarcely comprehensible, and this chaotic state of affairs is predicated on an economic model which is increasingly unsustainable. Policymakers in Beijing are caught in a vice, compelled on the one hand to strive for continued growth to meet the rising aspirations of their population while on the other desperately needing to curb rampant inflation, control a property market which is beginning to make pre-crash America’s look like a model of sobriety, and foster the creation of a middle-class to increase domestic consumption while keeping demands for political change in check.

To expect this process to be managed smoothly for the several decades it would take the Chinese economy to become larger than America’s while avoiding Soviet-style collapse or Japanese-style stagnation is to make a risky bet indeed, while the likelihood that America’s open society will eventually address its problems effectively – even after exhausting all the alternatives, as Churchill famously said Americans always do – seems higher.  Nor has China yet made any meaningful strides in translating its economic power into meaningful global military power, which is entirely understandable given the grave internal challenges it faces.

As a result of this, the American Navy still controls the shipping lanes that carry Chinese goods out and the commodities it relies on in, a situation likely to persist for decades. Interdependence, it transpires, cuts both ways.  The same point is relevant when we consider the fate of the European economy – while much is made of the West’s need for cheap Chinese credit, Beijing’s need for western markets for its exports is equally, if not more, profound.  A deepening of the collapse in consumer spending in Europe and America would throw China’s economy and social stability into question – and just such a collapse could well be a result of the Eurozone’s debt crisis. With China’s continuing growth so dependent on factors beyond its control, it seems unwise to herald a permanent shift in global power just yet. As in the past, the declinists have their eyes on some essential truths – but as it also turned out in the past, it is a little early to write America’s epitaph just yet.


Andrew J. Gawthorpe is a media analyst and historian of American foreign policy living in London.  He is currently reading for a PhD in War Studies at King’s College, where his research focuses on the history of nation-building doctrine.


2 August 2011