The Myth of America's Triumph

January 8, 2014 Topics: Politics Regions: United States

The Myth of America's Triumph

Mini Teaser: The declinists are wrong—but so are many of their critics.

by Author(s): Michael Lind

Josef Joffe , The Myth of America’s Decline: Politics, Economics, and a Half Century of False Prophecies (New York: Liveright, 2013), 352 pp., $26.95.

IN THE The Myth of America’s Decline , Josef Joffe offers a book-length version of what, by now, is a familiar line of argument—the antideclinist polemic. Joffe, the American-educated publisher of the German weekly Die Zeit , has been closely associated with neoconservative foreign-policy thinkers on both sides of the Atlantic for a generation. An engaging and entertaining writer, widely read in history and current events, Joffe scores many hits against his targets. But he goes too far in trying to counter the errors of declinism with a defense of American triumphalism. Instead of dispelling myths about America, he creates his own.

The terms “declinism” and “neoconservatism” have been the sibling rivals of American foreign policy. Both terms originated and passed into popular usage around the same time, during the latter stages of the Cold War. And both terms originated as insults. After the socialist thinker and leader Michael Harrington sought to stigmatize liberal and social-democratic opponents of the New Left by calling them “neoconservatives,” Irving Kristol and others adopted what was intended as an insult as the name of their movement, though some intellectuals such as Daniel Bell and Sidney Hook continued to insist that they remained on the left, not the right. “Declinism,” another insult masquerading as a description, was popularized by the late Samuel P. Huntington, a neoconservative Democrat, in a 1988 article for Foreign Affairs . In the piece, he criticized Paul Kennedy (among others) for underestimating America’s power and potential, most notably in Kennedy’s 1987 surprise best seller The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers . Unlike neoconservatism, however, declinism has not been adopted as a proud label by any individual or school of thought.

Ever since Huntington’s essay, neoconservatism and declinism have been closely linked—if only because thinkers and writers of the neoconservative school have specialized in denouncing those who do not share their optimistic vision of America’s potential power and influence as “declinists.” An all-purpose term of abuse, “declinism” allows neoconservatives to denounce their rivals across the political spectrum, from paleoconservative and libertarian isolationists who have always supported a minimalist foreign policy to anti-interventionist liberals who insist on “nation building at home” and realists who propose a U.S. foreign policy of “offshore balancing.”

Much of The Myth of America’s Decline is, in effect, a restatement, updating and expansion of Huntington’s 1988 article, “The U.S.—Decline or Renewal?” In it, Huntington declared:

In 1988 the United States reached the zenith of its fifth wave of declinism since the 1950s. The roots of this phenomenon lie in the political economy literature of the early 1980s that analyzed the fading American economic hegemony and attempted to identify the consequences of its disappearance. These themes were picked up in more popular and policy-oriented writings, and the combination of the budget and trade deficits plus the October 1987 stock market crash produced the environment for the spectacular success of Paul Kennedy’s scholarly historical analysis in early 1988 [ The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers ]. Decline has been on everyone’s mind, and the arguments of the declinists have stimulated lively public debate.

Huntington offered “three core propositions” of the alleged declinist school:

First, the United States is declining economically. . . . Second, economic power is the central element of a nation’s strength, and hence a decline in economic power eventually affects the other dimensions of national power. Third, the relative economic decline of the United States is caused primarily by its spending too much for military purposes, which in turn is the result, in Kennedy’s words, of “imperial overstretch,” of attempting to maintain commitments abroad that the country can no longer afford.

He concluded:

Declinist literature sets forth images of a nation winding down economically, living beyond its means, losing its competitive edge to more dynamic peoples, sagging under the burdens of empire, and suffering from a variety of intensifying social, economic and political ills. It follows that American leadership must recognize and acquiesce in these conditions and accept the “need to ‘manage’ affairs so that the relative erosion of the United States’ position takes place slowly and smoothly, and is not accelerated by policies which bring merely short-term advantage but longer-term disadvantage.”

Joffe follows Huntington in describing several waves of declinism. In Joffe’s version of the schema, Decline 1.0 in the late 1950s and the early 1960s was associated with the shock of Sputnik and the fear that the United States was losing the arms race and the space race to a dynamic Soviet Union. Decline 2.0 came with the “malaise” (to use Jimmy Carter’s term) that afflicted the American national psyche in the 1970s, when U.S. failure in Vietnam, out-of-control inflation and two oil-price shocks created a depressed and defensive national mood.

Pullquote: Joffe defends a version of American "triumphalism" that is as unbalanced as the very declinism he scorns.Image: Essay Types: Book Review