America: Down in the Dumps But not Out
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  • I suppose there will always be declinists not only predicting the imminence of American collapse but, in many cases, secretly hoping for it. In political terms it’s hard to see what wretches like these truly deserve, other than the most unvarnished contempt.

    But do the merely concerned and vigilant necessarily fall into this same category? Should these latter be regarded as even in the same fleet as the “schadenfreude” declinists, much less in the same boat? I’m thinking of certain Founders – Franklin, Washington and Adams being just three who come to mind – who weren’t nearly as much confident of the pending certainty of American decline as they were haunted by its ongoing possibility. And who were most “patriotically” determined to do everything in their power to avert it. Can we be sure – or even reasonably confident – that we’ve successfully navigated ALL the shoals and reefs these gentlemen worried about in their lifetimes? So that, were they alive to see America today, they’d consider a generous dose of Rumsfeldian triumphalism to be just what the doctor ordered? As distinct from a solid regimen of Trumanite firmness and Eisenhowerian caution? For me the real question is always the same, whether you’re looking down from the 1999 pinnacle or down into the 2009 abyss: It is whether brashness, overconfidence, or self-congratulatory smugness – the kinds of “patriotism” most abundantly on offer throughout the decade 1995-2005 – are really the best means of maintaining a nation’s pre-eminence, much less averting or reversing its decline.

    “It is much too soon to count the Great Republic out. ” Undeniably. But being by nature easily traumatized, I again keep recalling that infamous decade from ’95 to ’05, in which we not only counted ourselves very much in, but came dangerously close to counting pretty much everyone else OUT. I can only pray we don’t try to repeat anything like it anytime soon. (This, mind you, from one who continues to believe in the necessity of a long-term US presence in both Iraq and Afghanistan.)

    “God, it appears, continues to smile on fools, drunks, and the United States of America.” Indisputably. But that only brings me back to a loose paraphrase of an earlier question: How often do successful, powerful Americans smile on drunks and fools? And might not even they be happier if they did it a bit more often?

  • ms

    I would say that Obama has done the nation a favor by helping us understand that leftist policies–the blue state model–are unworkable and unsustainable. We had been slowly drifting leftward under both parties without really understanding the inevitable dead end of entitlement thinking and welfare culture. If all goes well, Obama will help us move beyond such seemingly compassionate, but ultimately debilitating, dead ends. His tenure, along with events in Europe, have hopefully reduced the left’s Europe envy and helped us determine that we do not want to be Europe.

    I have a lot of faith in good old Yankee ingenuity to find ways to use technology to solve our problems. I also see people on both sides of the aisle, though I admit things are still bad, coming to a consensus on the necessity of responsible use of public money. For example, Jerry Brown is taking on unions! Will wonders never cease!

    Beyond all this, Americans are in fact the envy of Europe because our birth rate is above replacement. Too late, many countries and cultures have come to realize that depopulation is a greater threat than overpopulation. Who knew?

  • Kenny

    ““God, it appears, continues to smile on fools, drunks, and the United States of America.”

    Why wouldn’t God smile on the U.S., although I’m puzzled about the drunks and fools?

    The country’s founding was Christian and biblically based, irrespective of what the militant secularists of today might say.

  • WigWag

    To paraphrase Ralph Waldo Emerson, consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds. Professor Mead seems to be doing his best to shoo away those hobgoblins.

    In this post, Mead (correctly) ridicules the notion that the United States is declining; he says,

    “Predicting the end of America’s global leadership has been a small cottage industry in pundit-land since the end of World War II.”

    The inconsistency can be found in the fact that in the post directly above this one, Mead extols the virtues of Paul Kennedy. Professor Kennedy is the pied piper of American declinists. While I have no doubt that Professor Kennedy is a smart person it’s hard to understand how Mead can think that reports of America’s decline are hogwash while at the same time thinking Kennedy is a great scholar. Either declinists like Paul Kennedy are right or the point Mead is making in this post is right; both can’t be.

    Speaking of “cottage industries” the real cottage industry warning about American decline began in the late 1980s with the publication of Kennedy’s book, “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict From 1500 to 2000.”

    Kennedy argues that imperial over-stretch inevitably leads to military adventures that the hegemon does not have the economic resources to afford; economic calamity and decline being the inevitable result. Kennedy dismisses the cultural capital that Mead argues is important in all of his books, as more or less irrelevant.

    I tend to think Mead is right; cultural capital is at least as important as economic factors in determining how long a great power can thrive in competition with other powers. Squandering cultural capital seems to me to be much more of a sign of decline than economic determinists like Kennedy believe.

    Kennedy’s work is in the tradition of another economic determinist, Charles Beard, whose books including “The Rise of American Civilization,” and “An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States” were used by an earlier generation of critics in the same way that Kennedy’s book was used-to tear America down.

    Mead may be right that “Professor Kennedy’s students are lucky to have such a guide to this emerging future landscape…” but much of what Professor Kennedy has written is simply wrong.

  • David Billington

    Professor Mead – I’m pleased that a comment of mine has anticipated, if it didn’t prompt, a comment of yours here. The question you might also underline is whether America will take advantage of any respite to attend to its longer-term needs.

    Wigwag – I remember a meeting at the Wilson Center shortly after Kennedy’s Rise and Fall book came out in which every panel member expected that they would be the only panel member to dissent from Kennedy’s thesis. It turned out that all of them dissented.

    Kennedy’s warning against war by deficit spending has still held up rather well. His mistake was to try to identify a transient set of conditions with real long-term decline.

    The question now is whether he is correct, in his current NYT article, in joining those who have warned that Asia is becoming the kind of arena that Europe became after 1890. If so, it will be hard to avoid the danger of a terror attack in, say, India triggering a war with Pakistan that draws in China, America, and other interested parties.

    I am less persuaded that our currency is in imminent danger but I’m also not sure that its continued strength is a good measure of our power in the long run. The British pound was the world’s reserve currency during the first half of the twentieth century, when it helped to mask Britain’s relative decline. I hope that doesn’t happen to us.

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    It’s like America has some kind of “Special Providence” 😉

  • WigWag

    David, it’s always nice hearing your voice in cyberspace.

    I have nothing against Paul Kennedy; he’s obviously a first rate scholar even though I disagree with much of what he says.

    What I do object to is the inclination of some scholars to think that because they are an expert in one field, that what they have to say in another field should resonate with the public at large. Kennedy is guilty of this in spades.

    The idea that historians, no matter how learned they might be, have a special insight into what’s happening in the contemporary world is almost always wrong.

    No historian with an ounce of humility or an ounce of common sense would try to predict the future based on what they’ve learned about the past. The idea that Paul Kennedy or anyone else who has studied why Rome or Great Britain or the Ottoman Empire eventually faltered can predict the factors that will lead to the eventual decline of the United States is simply ridiculous. Kennedy may actually be less guilty of this than others who have used his 1988 book to predict the decline of the United States.

    Anybody who knows anything about history knows that British commentators for the entire history of the British Empire regularly predicted its imminent decline. In fact, this started with the War for American Independence which many British pundits of the day insisted was proof of imminent collapse. Of course, it wasn’t; in fact the American Revolution probably had the ironic effect of actually launching the British on a quest for their empire.

    When historians use the knowledge that they’ve gathered in their field to make representations outside of their field it is merely annoying; in other contexts it can be deadly.

    Back in the late 1950s and early 1960s, biologists with an expertise in lipid metabolism thought they could use their knowledge to make recommendation about an area outside of their specific expertise; specifically they made recommendations about public health. These biologists incited America’s phobia about dietary fat, especially saturated fat. They were wrong.

    As a result of their arrogance, Americans eschewed dietary fat and cholesterol and the result has been an epidemic of obesity which has led to more heart disease and an epidemic of diabetes.

    For more on this, I recommend two books by Gary Taubes,

    “Why We Get Fat”


    “Good Calories, Bad Calories”

    When experts comment outside of their fields, we should remember that they are not commenting as experts.

    When Paul Kennedy comments about the decline of America, he doesn’t know more than anyone else.

    As far as Kennedy’s article in the New York Times, I think the kindest thing I can say about it was that it was banal.

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