CoverStory

Not dead yet

Exaggerated reports of America's imminent demise have been around for more than 50 years.

By Josef Joffe

Half a century ago, on October 4, 1957, America was on the way out. On that day, the Soviet Union became the first space power in history, launching its Sputnik into orbit, and terror into the American soul. It “gave us a shock which hit many people as hard as Pearl Harbou r,” was a typical reaction, inflicting “a frightful blow on our pride.” America had grown “soft and complacent.” “Number One in everything,” the country was losing to the Soviet upstart. 

Soul-searching and self-doubt turned into an obsession—and, as the century advanced, into a national pastime. Call it ‘declinism.’ The basic theme—the country as has-been—has been recycled every 10 years. “It’s decline time in America,” trumpets this stock drama. As in the handwringing over Sputnik, the alarm usually does spring from real trouble, military or economic. But just as regularly, the angst attack expands into Spenglerian visions of decay-as-destiny. A crisis is not just a crisis, but a portent of doom like the writing on the wall in the Book of Daniel.  This is the Biblical original. “God has numbered the days of your kingdom,” the handwriting tells the King. Like Babylon’s, America’s best days are over, and other nations will dethrone it. The Soviet Union was first in this tale of woe. It would be followed by Europe, Japan, India and China. The characters changed, the drama became part of the modern American repertoire.

The first usurper was the Soviet Union. Soon ‘Sputnik Shock,’ Life magazine launched an “urgent series” titled “Crisis in Education.” Johnny “can’t read above fifth-grade level.” Mary “has barely mastered the fourth-grade arithmetic fundamentals.” In a cover story on Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev as “Man of the Year,” Time reported: “In 1957...the world’s balance of power lurched and swung toward the free world’s enemies.”  

The year of the Sputnik also saw a top-secret report, Deterrence and Survival in the Nuclear Age, that went down in history as the Gaither Report. The language of doom could easily be applied to China today. The Soviet economy was “increasing half again as fast” as the American one, and so by 1980 Moscow’s military spending “may be double ours.” Today’s doomsters similarly point to the double-digit annual expansion of the Chinese defence budget, and the more strident Cassandras target 2025 as the year when China will leave the United States in the dust economically. Others give the United States until 2050 to drop to No. 2 or even 3 in the GDP race. 

The Gaither Report found a grateful disciple in the freshman senator from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy. Eying a presidential run in 1960, he began to expound that by then, “the United States will have lost…its superiority in nuclear striking power.” This was the fabled missile gap that never existed; it would take years before Soviet missiles based at home could effectively hit the continental United States.  Still, the Russians were working on a “new short cut to world domination.” In the campaign, Kennedy orated: “We have to overcome [the sense] that the United States has reached maturity, that maybe our high noon has passed, maybe our brightest days were earlier, and that now we are going into the long, slow afternoon.” The United States did not hobble off into the sunset, and the Soviets never managed to take that “short cut.” In fact, a mere 30 years later, the USSR was no more. It literally died on Christmas Day 1991, leaving behind the Russian Federation and 14 orphan republics.

Ten years later, the drama of decline was re-enacted by Kennedy's Republican disciple, Richard M. Nixon, as he launched his second run for the White House. Except this time, the story was not about a fictitious missile gap, but about a real war in Vietnam. In 1966, the demonstrators came by the thousands; in 1969, half a million marched through Washington. Martin Luther King was murdered, and so was Robert Kennedy. It was The Unravelling of America, or more ominously, "America's Suicide Attempt." Running for the Democratic nomination in 1968, Kennedy naturally invoked the classic prophetic motifs of transgression and perdition: guilty were those who have succumbed to the "darker impulses of the American spirit." Thus spoke Daniel redivivus.

Nixon was also running for the presidency. "Let us look at the balance of power in the world," he began:

Twenty years ago the...our military superiority was unquestioned. Today the Soviet Union may be ahead of us in megaton capacity and will have missile parity with the United States by 1970... Let us look at American prestige:...today, hardly a day goes by when our flag is not spit upon, a library burned [around the world].

Four years later, as president, Nixon saw "five great power centres in the world." Sounding like Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee rolled into one, he invoked Greece and Rome, "great civilisations of the past," which first became wealthy, then "lost their will to live, to improve," sinking into the "decadence which eventually destroys a civilisation." And "the United States is now reaching that period."

The United States, though it did not prevail in Vietnam, was never facing demotion in the late 1960s. It did suffer from the revolt of the young, and the tribulations of an economy charged with delivering too many guns and too much butter (aka social spending) all at once. But by any measure of power, the US remained No. 1. Those fabled dominoes didn't fall all over Asia; it was communism in just one more country—South Vietnam. America's allies in Asia continued to huddle under its military umbrella. Lesser nations lose big when they fail in war. But losing a war without strategic consequences—this is the mark of a truly great power. Now, shift forward 10 years.

At the end of the 1970s, American social critic Christopher Lasch published an almost generic lament, requiring only minor editing to make it timeless:

Hardly more than a century ago after Henry Luce proclaimed "the American century," American confidence has fallen to a low ebb. Those who recently dreamed of world power now despair of governing the city of New York. Defeat [and] stagnation...have produced a mood of pessimism...[America] has lost both the capacity and the will to confront the difficulties that threaten to overwhelm it.

Again, real calamity was piling up. After the Second Oil Shock of 1979, gasoline prices in the United States almost doubled in 12 months. Inflation kept accelerating: from 6 per cent in 1977, when Jimmy Carter took office, to almost 14 per cent in 1980. Abroad, the dollar had dropped by one-half against major European currencies. Add geopolitical humiliation. Nicaragua fell to the Sandinistas in 1979, becoming Cuba's first Latin American satellite. The Shah escaped for his life from the Khomeini Revolution in January 1979. Soviet and Cuban troops were marching across Central Africa. Finally, during Christmas 1979, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. Enter Jimmy Carter with his famous 'malaise speech'. In the summer of 1979, he proclaimed "a crisis of confidence" striking "at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will." The "social and the political fabric of America" was at stake. At the end of 1979, declinism was rampant. In a cover story, Newsweek asked: "Has the US Lost Its Clout?" The magazine then unearthed proof of the "erosion of American prestige and power." There was the Soviet bogey again. Once America had held a nuclear monopoly, now it was struggling "to maintain something called 'parity'." The spokesman of the German government wouldn't exactly gloat; "rather we feel pity" for the US—schadenfreude masking as concern. The sequel of "The Missile Gap" was the "Window of Vulnerability," and the script was written by the Committee on the Present Danger, an assembly of influential citizens, which had already played Cassandra in 1950. Ronald Reagan, the Republican candidate in 1980, had joined the executive board of the committee the year before. Then again, as in the Fifties and Sixties, the Soviet Union was going for nuclear superiority, arming to fight and win in a first strike. Time magazine quoted defence experts who warned that the "Soviets are ahead or gaining in almost every category."

That alarm, too, turned out to be false. But it helped Reagan to win the White House, having appropriated the alarmist language as deftly as had Kennedy 20 years earlier. "America's defence strength," remonstrated Reagan, "is at its lowest ebb in a generation, while the Soviet Union is vastly outspending us in both strategic and conventional arms."

After three decades of "The Russians Are Coming!," the Soviet Union was faltering. It would go on to lose the Cold War in 1989 when the Velvet Revolutions swept away Moscow's empire in Eastern Europe. So who would push aside the United States now? Declinism had to find another behemoth. Enter: Japan and Europe. Japan was first fingered during the Vietnam days—in a language almost identical to the hoopla about China three decades later: "Some scholars imagine the Japanese GNP catching up with the American by 1985 or 1990. The year 2000...will begin the Japanese century."

Yet in 1985, the US economy was three times larger than Japan's (in then-dollars). At the end of the Naughts, it was a little less than 5 trillion for Japan, and almost 15 for the US. In 1979, in the year of Carter's 'malaise', Harvard sociologist Ezra Vogel fathered Part II of the Japan hype with Japan As Number One: Lessons for America. It set the tone for half a generation of keyed up hero worship. The book, noted an admiring reviewer, was a monument to "Japan's steamroller eminence."

But by then, Japan's growth had already flattened: from double-digit at the start of the Seventies to less than 3 per cent at the end. 1988, Japan hit the last peak of 6.5 per cent; then it was downhill ever more. Yet in that year, Clyde Prestowitz, a former Reagan official, announced: "The American century is over. The big development...is the emergence of Japan as a major superpower." The US was a Japanese "colony in the making."

Michael Crichton published a bestseller, Rising Sun, in 1992, followed by the movie with Sean Connery one year later. The blockbuster was a Technicolor testimony to American paranoia. Hadn't the Japanese already gobbled up two national treasures, the Rockefeller Centre and Pebble Beach? They were worming their way right into the heart of the US economy: cars, consumer electronics and tool-making.

Rising Sun wrapped America's debasement into a rape-and-murder whodunit with a heavy political message. One American character spells it out: The Japanese "say 'business is war,' and they mean it." At the peak of the paranoia, Japan was already sliding into the 'Lost Decade' of deflation and contraction. In the year of the Rising Sun, growth plunged below 1 per cent. Ever since, Japan has been growing at about half the speed of the US. As Japan's economy worsened, so did its press. Everything once touted as shiny pillar of excellence now crumbled into proof of incompetence. Though shalt not mistake a rapid rise from a low base for an everlasting boom, was the lesson of the 1980s.

Starting out amidst the ruins of war, it was propelled from the outside by ever increasing exports, and from the inside, by under-consumption and high saving. Ballooning trade and savings accounts made money extraordinarily cheap. Money became even more plentiful as a rising yen swept in foreign funds in search of quick profits from further revaluation. These are uncanny parallels to China today. The predictable result was an enormous asset inflation. The Nikkei index hit an all-time high of almost 39,000 on December 29, 1989. When the bubble imploded, trillions of yen were wiped out in the collapse of the stock and real estate markets. Twenty years later, the Nikkei stood at around 10,000.

The irony didn't end there. The year of the Rising Sun, 1992 saw the birth of the longest American boom since the mid-19th century, when reliable statistics became available. It continued for 10 years and in fact extended all the way to the Crash of '08. The 16-year surge was interrupted only briefly by an eight-month stumble below 1 per cent growth after the dotcom bubble had burst in March 2000.

The most famous declinist of the 1980s was Paul Kennedy, the Yale historian, who published Rise and Fall of the Great Powers in 1987. The central argument was this: "The United States now runs the risk, so familiar to historians of the rise and fall of previous Great Powers, of...imperial overstretch." As checklist of decay, Kennedy provided: "overall growth lagging behind that of its chief rivals"; "social problems of its inner cities"; "eroding infrastructure"; and "shortcomings of its educational system." It all added up to "relative decline," just as in the case of Britain, yesterday's Mr Big. Now, the "new Number One power is faltering."

The most trenchant critique of Kennedy's declinism was Samuel Huntington's seminal Foreign Affairs article of 1988. He reserved his sharpest attack for an evergreen of declinism: the shrinking American share of the global economy. To lose GDP was to lose greatness. But it all depends on how you look: you see what you want to get. If 1945 is chosen as base line, then the US was indeed waning. At the end of history's most murderous war, the US economy was good for half the world's total. As the rest bounced back, this anomalous share was bound to shrink. By 1950, America's share was down to 27 per cent. So Gulliver was buckling? In the 1970s, it was a bit less than 27 per cent. Forty years later, it was a bit more, never mind the breathtaking rise of China. The data demonstrate sullen continuity once the fluke of 1945 is disregarded. The more general problem lurked on the other side of the bipolar divide. Looking at the two nations at the top, Kennedy saw both the US and the USSR sinking, but the US was sinking faster, he thought. But two years after Kennedy's book came out, the Soviet Union was in its death throes. And why? Because whatever symptoms of decay were plaguing the United States, the Soviet Union had them in spades. Kennedy had almost everything right except the name of the loser.

The Soviet Union was a system waiting to implode. The trigger was the oil price. In 1980, crude fetched $US100 per barrel (in 2008 dollars). When Mikhail Gorbachev was anointed five years later, the price of oil had almost halved. When the Soviet Union committed suicide on Christmas Day 1991, oil sold for $US30, dropping to its lowest low, $US15, seven years later. This was less in real terms than just before the First Oil Shock of 1973. This "Upper-Volta with nuclear weapons," as German chancellor Helmut Schmidt famously quipped, was a Third World extraction economy, its fate chained to raw materials, especially of oil and gas. As the price collapsed, so did the power.

Declinism took a break in the 1990s, perhaps because the United States was enjoying such a nice run after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It doesn't take much to vault from melancholy to muscle-flexing when the geopolitics is right. Hadn't the US just won the Cold War? What other country could fight and win a hot war, as the US had done in Iraq in 1991, from 6000 miles away? There was no new No. 1 creeping up on Gulliver. Why even think about a military threat? Secretary of state Madeline Albright crowed that America's might was so awesome as to make its exercise unnecessary. "But if we have to use force, it is because we are America; we are the indispensable nation. We stand tall, and we see further than other countries into the future..." Thus did the depression of the late Eighties turn into the triumphalism of the Nineties.

The economy, boosted by Reaganite deregulation, was soaring. As joblessness dropped to the full-employment level of 4 per cent in 1997, it rose above 10 per cent in the European Union, which had been touted as the coming No. 1 on and off since the Seventies. "The defining feature of world affairs [was] globalisation," exulted the New York Times' Thomas Friedman in 1997, "and [if] you had to design a country best suited to compete in such a world, [it would be] today's America." Now the heroes of the dotcom age were the new masters of the universe, and they were all Americans. Those who used to go to Japan to adulate and imitate invaded Silicon Valley. Friedman concluded: "Globalisation is us."

Yet at the end of the Naughts, decline was back with a vengeance. Back was Paul Kennedy with a remake of Rise and Fall, this time because of the global financial storm unleashed by the fall of the House of Lehman on September 15, 2008. The "biggest loser," he concluded, "is understood to be Uncle Sam." Chronic fiscal deficits and military overstretch—the twin-scourge of his 1987 book—were finally doing in the United States, and the "global tectonic power shift, toward Asia...seems hard to reverse." But take heart, America, the most famous declinist insinuated: great powers "take an awful long time to collapse."

The German finance minister, Peer Steinbrück, oracled: "The US will lose its status as the superpower of the global financial system [which] will become more multipolar." A good part of declinism was again generic, that is, divorced from time and circumstance and thus achingly familiar to those who remember 50 years of similar writing on the wall. "The era of American global leadership...is over," pronounced Oxford don John Gray, refurbishing a classic. A few months before the Crash of '08, Parag Khanna of Washington's New America Foundation wrote, "America's standing in the world remains in steady decline." The disease was "imperial overstretch," a theme taken from Paul Kennedy. "We are...losing in a geopolitical marketplace alongside the world's other superpowers," a verdict that could have been penned in 1958, 1968, 1978 and 1988.

What may be concluded from half a century of American hasbeenism? First, doom comes in cycles, as it has done since the birth of the Republic. As early as 1797, the French thinker Joseph de Maistre found ugly "symptoms of weakness and decay." If so, this sickly child made up for it with a surfeit of insolence, starting a war against the Barbary pirates in 1801 and another against Britain, the mightiest power on earth, in 1812. In between, Thomas Jefferson grabbed half a continent from Spain and France. Decay has never been so lively.

The periodic rise and demise of declinism ought to be good news, for what comes and goes cannot lead straight to the eighth circle of geopolitical hell. Cycles, by definition, do not a trend make. Nor does the lapping tide announce the deluge; it just recedes. But this is just a logical point. More apropos is the psychology of declinism.

Ever since America was discovered, it "has been an object of the imagination. Long before the 13 colonies jelled into union, America was a construct more than a country—a canvas onto which [the world] would endlessly project its fondest dreams and fiercest nightmares." America is either a dystopia like Brave New World or a heavenly place on earth like Thomas More's Utopia. Projection—fear or fantasy—is the name of the game. On the American canvas, Babylon lurks right next to the New Jerusalem.

Finis Americae also comes in two schools: glee and gloom. Glee is mostly celebrated abroad, and for good reason. Wanting America to stumble comes naturally to those who must coexist with this Gulliver, for he irks by just being there, and terrifies when he throws his weight around. To find comfort, the lesser players will magnify the giant's warts and count each new one as proof of terminal disease. Every decade, hope springs anew that he will be cut down to size by a mightier rival, be it Russia or Japan, Europe or China.

Such fantasies are actually a perverse way of paying homage to the giant's fearsome strength. Small powers are never diagnosed with debility; nor do they provoke schadenfreude when they stumble. The declinist literature on Britain fills small libraries. It is definitely thin when it comes to contemporary France, Germany or Canada.

The gloom is mainly 'Made in USA', and then with a very different tone. The purpose is not to gloat, but to lament in the way of the prophet Obadiah: "Behold I have made you small among the nations; you are much despised." Amos warns: "I will raise up against you a nation, O house of Israel..." Such scenarios, ancient or modern, all have many functions—all of them instrumental.

On the jejune, practical level, there is the Kennedy–Reagan variant: paint the country in hellish colours and then offer yourself as a guide to heaven. The country will rise again—if only you will anoint me as your leader. Jimmy Carter's 'malaise' pursued a similar purpose by invoking the nation's "crisis of confidence." A related variant was Richard Nixon's. He drew the country smaller than it was in order to prepare the electorate for the U-turn in grand strategy: détente with the Soviet Union and the opening toward China. The suggestive message was: If we are sinking, and they are rising, there is no shame in accommodation. "Come home, America," was George McGovern's battle cry against Nixon in his 1972 campaign. For this school, weakness comes from imperial arrogance and over-commitment. Genuine strength demands less militarism and more welfare; the New Jerusalem of the post-Truman left is not a bristling armory, but the citadel of an exemplary nation. "Imperial overstretch," which suffuses so much of liberal declinism is at heart not about America's standing abroad, but about redistribution and social justice at home.

Whatever the ideological impetus, declinism is about prophesies that must not come true so that righteousness can triumph. Hence, declinism is never just an empirical exercise like counting guns and measuring GDP. Nor can it be empirically refuted. How to gainsay those who either cheer or fear America's fall? No soothsayer has ever been silenced by facts because prophesy is inherently unfalsifiable. If the horror does not materialise today, it will tomorrow, and so the doomsters always come back. They are often the same persons, repeating what they predicted 10, 20 years before. During the Crash of '08, a New Yorker cartoon gently poked fun at such recidivists. It shows a penitent with a placard proclaiming: "The End Is Still Coming," and has a passerby ask: "Wasn't that Paul Krugman," the economist and perennial Cassandra of the New York Times op-ed page? 'Decline time in America' is didactic repertoire theatre, played out left, right and centre not to analyse, but to agitate—like Brechtian drama. But to invoke cycles and expose agendas does not dispatch the larger issue. Because all past prophecies of decline have not come true does not mean they never will. History is full of empires whose decline was terminal—from Babylon to Britain.

In 1897, at the peak of British power, Rudyard Kipling penned this little elegy to empire:

Far-called, our navies melt away;
On dunes and headlands sinks the fire;
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Niniveh and Tyre!

He was off by only 20 years. Britain never recovered from the bloodletting of the Great War. Sometimes, prophets are proven right. So as we peer into the 21st century, the problem persists: what is America's standing in the world, and what might topple No. 1–or not?