It’s decline time in America. Again. Here is the up-to-date generic version. “In the years following the global financial crisis, the United States has increasingly ceded its leadership in the world, while China has rushed in to fill the gap left behind.” Under Trump, “this trend is poised to accelerate.” A bit farther back, a declinist orated: “Obama is not merely the presiding instrument of American decline, he is the architect of American decline.” In fact, Donald Trump’s shibboleth “Make America Great Again” is declinism pure, implying that the country was on the way to hell before he bestrode the stage as the country’s savior.
D&D, decline and decadence, is nothing new under the sun; “hasbeenism” is as American as apple pie, and we are now in Decline 6.0. Doom has been sounded ever since the United States emerged from World War II as the one and only global power. The wave has crested about once every decade, and usually during a presidential campaign.1
1.0 hit the nation in the late 1950s when John F. Kennedy launched his bid for the White House. These were the years of the “Sputnik Shock,” when the Soviets were first to launch a satellite into space, when high schooler “Johnny” could not “read above fifth-grade level,” while “Ivan” had already mastered calculus. These were also the years of the “missile gap,” which never existed, but helped to propel JFK into the presidency. To fib was to win.
In the late 1960s, with the Vietnam War in full swing, America was doomed again. 2.0 unfolded while Robert F. Kennedy primed himself for the White House with a message of decline echoing his brother’s rhetoric. “Today, the Soviet Union may be ahead of us in megaton capacity.” Worse: “Twenty years ago, we were respected throughout the world. Today, hardly a day goes by when our flag is not spit upon, [our] embassies stoned. . .” Richard Nixon, running in 1968, recalled the fate of Greece and Rome. Having become wealthy, “they lost their will to live, to improve.” The United States was now reaching that period of “decadence.” But fate could be stopped if the nation were to elect Nixon, the savior it did.
3.0 was the decade of Jimmy Carter’s “malaise,” the years of skyrocketing oil prices and galloping inflation that cut the value of the dollar in half. Add the humiliation of the Tehran embassy takeover and the Soviet plunge into Afghanistan. Carter decried a “crisis of confidence. . . that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will.”
The United States was finished again, and Ronald Reagan picked up where the Kennedy brothers had left off. “America’s defense strength,” Reagan remonstrated, “is at its lowest ebb in a generation, and the Soviet Union is vastly outspending us in both strategic and conventional arms.” It was not, but Reagan won in a landslide. As a fabled campaign slogan intoned four years later, it was “morning again in America.” But not for long.
4.0 engulfed the nation in the 1980s. This time, Japan would inherit the earth. In language foreshadowing the China hype two decades later, Japan was touted as the wunderkind of the world. Its economy was soaring, now and forever more. Where it had failed militarily in the 1940s, it would now conquer with its industrial might. Alas, Japan’s growth, as fantastic as it had been in the 1960s and 1970s, peaked in the great real estate crash of 1988. The country did not recover from stagnation until the teens of the 21st century. In the United States, by contrast, 1992 marked the beginning of the longest peacetime expansion ever.
Recall Paul Kennedy’s academic blockbuster, The Rise and Decline of the Great Powers (1987). The 700-page tome predicted that “imperial overstretch” would lay low the United States. He got the analysis right, but not the name of the victim. Imperial overstretch did in the Soviet Union, which committed suicide on Christmas Day 1991. Its meager means had way exceeded its great power ambitions.
Decline & Decadence took a break in the 1990s because the United States was now the undisputed No. 1, the “last remaining superpower,” and then with a relentlessly growing economy. The Soviet Union, Europe, and Japan, allegedly destined to dethrone the “indispensable nation,” were either down or out. But with America’s singular power, flung around in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, 5.0 was already lurking in the wings. Now, in the early 21st century, angst centered on China, forging ahead at growth rates hitting up to 15 percent during the beginning of its rise in the 1980s.
Project double-digit growth forward, and for sure China will overtake the U.S. economy. But you can’t predict that tomorrow will be like yesterday. Take the Asian dragons and tigers of the 1960s and 1970s—Japan, Taiwan, South Korea—who wrote the book on the Chinese growth model: exports first, then under-consumption, overinvestment and an artificially cheapened currency. Invariably, this model runs out of steam, as wages rise, displacing production to cheaper countries like Vietnam. The law of diminishing returns kicks in, with each unit of investment generating less output and fewer jobs. Where double-digit growth once reigned in China, it is now down to 6-7 percent. Also, China is rapidly aging, looking at 350 million pensioners by mid-century. Retired folks don’t produce but consume, detracting resources from the Chinese military.
Nonetheless, we are now in the midst of 6.0, with China destined to displace the United States as No. 1, as predicted by the current crop of declinists. Just refer to all those pundits who are again proclaiming the “end of the American century.” Rote repetition does not strengthen their case, but against the backdrop of Decline 1.0 through 5.0, there is something new under the sun: Donald Trump, who is laying the axe to the global architecture built and maintained by all his postwar predecessors.
That architecture, also known as the “liberal international order,” was the stage where American power and authority unfolded for the last 70 years. Trump’s rap sheet is now familiar enough to need no retelling. Nor do we need to dwell on 20 months of crudeness and imperial contempt poured on friends and allies, nor regurgitate Trump’s bizarre fondness for the strongmen of the day. The new take is a wretched tale of “deconstruction” that does not serve America’s well-considered interests.
But look again—coldly, even cynically. Does Trumpism mark the foreordained fall from the penthouse of global primacy? As nasty as Trump’s antics are, they do not mark America’s impending demise. Au contraire. This rogue elephant actually generates lots of power, and he is forging ahead.
Trump’s America has gotten the attention of China, Europe, Mexico, and Canada in matters of trade. By beating up on the Europeans, he has pushed them to increase defense spending. He is realigning the strategic map of the Middle East by pushing Israel and the Sunni states into an alliance of convenience against Iran. He may well gouge a better nuclear deal out of Tehran, one that will lengthen its path to the bomb, perhaps even cut it off. He is beefing up U.S. military strength in the Western Pacific. He is exploiting U.S. economic and financial might for political as well as commercial gain.
To score a rhetorical point: If the United States is declining, how come allies and adversaries shrug off his uncouth ways, staring at him like the proverbial deer in the headlights? Weak powers normally provoke push-back. Yet though universally disliked, Trump seems to be getting his way, plus what he craves most: attention. Countries on the way down are either ignored or pushed around.
From Clinton to Obama, the United States used to fete itself as the “indispensable power” at the center of world politics. For all his brutality, Trump dominates the stage—and the headlines—as Barack Obama, the “good American,” never could. So vice is its own reward, and this “ugly American” gets what he does not deserve, given his obsessive defiance of the rules of decent conduct.
Messrs. Putin and Xi, as self-serving and cynical as they are, score as well. But neither will soon push Trump offstage. Why not? Because this American “has-been” plays with the biggest pile of chips: the mightiest military, the richest economy, its technological edge, its sway over the world’s finance and trade. A morality tale, where the good are rewarded and the bad punished, this saga is not. But as an effective strategy, Trumpism is hard to beat.
Bad guys are not supposed to win, and we are just in the first inning. Which is a good moment to recall Letitia, Napoleon’s mother, who cautioned her son at the height of his conquests: “Pourvu que ça dure”—let’s hope this will last. In the end, the laws of international politics will kick in. Ganging up and counter-coalitions will be organized by the lesser powers. The question is only “when?” Meanwhile, this rogue elephant will continue to demolish the global order the United States built and nourished. Guardianship had its costs, but they were dwarfed by a system that amplified and legitimized American power.
If Trump gets a second term, he will complete the demolition job. Amidst the ruins of the magnificent architecture Made in U.S.A., Decline 7.0 will rear its ugly head. This time, it may be the real thing. For power unleavened by responsibility invariably provokes counter-power against Mr. Big.