Yet again this Sunday, Thomas L. Friedman used his column in The New York Times to issue an ominous warning about America’s decline. Quoting from Lewis Mumford about the moral decadence of imperial Rome, he commented: “It was one of those history passages that echo so loudly in the present that it sends a shiver down my spine—way, way too close for comfort.” He ended the column with a call for a third-party candidate in 2012 with the courage to say to the voters: “I am going to tell you what you need to hear if we want to be the world’s leaders, not the new Romans.”
Friedman is sounding a popular theme. A Google search for the phrase “America’s decline” turns up 42,500 hits. Comparisons to Rome and other once-powerful empires abound, as in Cullen Murphy’s popular 2007 book Are We Rome? The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America. From the Tea Party right comes the constant, screeching cry that President Obama and the Democrats are “destroying America.” The National Intelligence Council itself, a few years ago, predicted the “erosion” of American power relative to China and India. Clearly, the most popular classical figure in America today is that high-strung Trojan lady, Cassandra.
If we can be certain of anything, it is that some day the United States will indeed cease to exist. “If Sparta and Rome perished, what state can hope to last forever?” asked Rousseau in The Social Contract. The timing, however, is another matter. Why should we assume that we are just now sliding helplessly towards the edge of the cliff?
Twenty-two years ago, in a refreshingly clear-sighted article for Foreign Affairs, Harvard’s Samuel P. Huntington noted that the theme of “America’s decline” had in fact been a constant in American culture and politics since at least the late 1950s. It had come, he wrote, in several distinct waves: in reaction to the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik; to the Vietnam war; to the oil shock of 1973; to Soviet aggression in the late 1970s; and to the general unease that accompanied the end of the Cold War. Since Huntington wrote, we can add at least two more waves: in reaction to 9/11, and to the current “Great Recession.”
Trolling back through the older predictions of decline and fall can make for amusing reading. In 1979, just two years before George F. Will joined Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” chorus, he was lamenting in Newsweek: “When, as lately, America’s decline accelerates, it is useful to look back along the downward, crumbling path.” In 1987, as the Soviet Union stumbled towards its final collapse, the book that dominated conversations in Washington was Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, which predicted the eclipse of the United States.
A year later, with the Soviet Union even further down the cliff, David Calleo, a Professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies called America “a hegemon in decay, set on a course that points to an ignominious end.” And, two years after that, Harvard’s Stanley Hoffman sternly warned that unless American statesmen fixed our domestic problems, “we will find ourselves on a road comparable to that on which the Soviet Union is now skidding.”
Meanwhile, even as the Cold War ended, the pundits and professors quickly identified another rival threatening American dominance: Japan. In October, 1990, the journalist Hobart Rowan wrote in The Washington Post: “Some feel that Japan in many ways is already No. 1, that Pax Nipponica has been replacing Pax Americana, and that the only question is how much worse for America the situation is going to become.”
What is particularly fascinating about these older predictions is that so many of their themes remain constant. What did our past Cassandras see as the causes of America’s decline? On the one hand, internal weaknesses—spiraling budget and trade deficits, the poor performance of our primary and secondary educational systems; political paralysis—coupled with an arrogant tendency toward “imperial overstretch.” And on the other hand, the rise of tougher, better-disciplined rivals elsewhere: the Soviet Union through the mid-'80s; Japan until the early '90s; China today.
The image that comes through irresistibly is that of an aging, impotent America being outpaced by younger, more virile competitors. Such has always been the implicitly sexual language of national rivalry, which Shakespeare made brilliantly explicit in a speech by the French Dauphin in Henry V: “By faith and honor, / Our madams mock at us, and plainly say / Our mettle is bred out and they will give / Their bodies to the lust of English youth / To new-store France with bastard warriors.”
What the long history of American “declinism”—as opposed to America’s actual possible decline—suggests is that these anxieties have an existence of their own that is quite distinct from the actual geopolitical position of our country; that they arise as much from something deeply rooted in the collective psyche of our chattering classes as from sober political and economic analyses.
For whatever reason, it is clear that for more than half a century, many of America’s leading commentators have had a powerful impulse consistently to see the United States as a weak, “bred out” basket case that will fall to stronger rivals as inevitably as Rome fell to the barbarians, or France to Henry V at Agincourt.
Of course, this does not mean that their actual analyses are mistaken at every point. But it does mean that they often take for granted things that perhaps they should not: for instance, that overall national economic performance necessarily follows from national performance in primary education, or from the savings rate; or that political paralysis at home necessarily weakens a country’s international influence. Such conclusions stem naturally from notions of what is wrong or right, strong or weak on an individual basis. How can a weak, flabby, undisciplined couch potato possibly compete with a rival who eats right, studies hard and works out every day (like the Russians … I mean the Japanese … I mean the Chinese)?
The trouble with the analogy is that nations do not in fact behave like individuals. Government debt is not the same thing as individual debt. The collective pursuit of new pleasures and luxuries can create economic benefits that have no real individual equivalent. Attempts to impose stringent discipline on behavior on a national scale can backfire spectacularly. But the psychological impulse to see the country in decline leads writers again and again to neglect these differences, and to cast the story of a huge, complex nation as a simple individual morality play.
And worse: The stories of national decline that they tell can be positively counterproductive. By comparing America to Rome and warning us about our imminent decline and fall, writers like Friedman think that they are issuing a necessary wake-up call; sounding an alarm in terms that cannot be ignored. But are they? The fall of an empire is a historical cataclysm on a scale so vast that, in hindsight, it is hard to see it as anything other than inevitable. Would Rome not have fallen if a group of clear-sighted, hardheaded Roman commentators had sternly told the country to buck up in the late third century, lest the empire share the fate of Persia? Was Great Britain’s decline in the twentieth century a product of moral flabbiness that a strong dose of character-building medicine could have reversed?
I doubt many people think this, in which case casting our present-day difficulties as part of an epochal decline and fall may in fact be subtly to suggest that we can do nothing to cure them. We would do better to recognize that calling ourselves “the new Romans” is really just a seductive fantasy, and that our political and economic problems demand political and economic solutions, not exercises in collective moral self-flagellation.
David A. Bell, a contributing editor to The New Republic, teaches history at Princeton.