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

Pushing against the fences, revisionists like China and Russia threaten to break into the global commons. . . . Others like revolutionary Iran or Terror International, which respect neither fences nor rules, must be defanged, a task that demands collective action and hence a leader who harnesses and maintains the coalition.

It is particularly ironic that someone long associated with neoconservatism like Joffe should endorse a complacent view of history that makes Lockean liberal democracy a quasi-Marxist epiphenomenon of capitalism, including initially successful authoritarian state capitalism. After all, the neoconservative school has been defined by its opposition to “appeasement” and its emphasis on the willpower of nations and alliances rather than on material resources and constraints. If economic growth would have inevitably produced liberalism and democracy anyway, and if “totalitarian lapses” were temporary deviations from “benign historical experience,” then perhaps Americans could have saved much blood and treasure by forgoing participation in the world wars and the Cold War and waiting patiently for prosperous, confident consumers to take to the streets demanding multiparty democracy and civil rights from the mellowing heirs of Hitler, Tojo, Mussolini, Stalin and Mao.

JOFFE IS largely right in his critique of what might be called “premature declinists.” However, from the fact that earlier prophecies of American decline were followed by American resurgences, it does not follow that Joffe’s Decline 5.0 will necessarily be succeeded by a new, Reaganesque “Morning in America.” Chicken Little was wrong to claim that the sky was falling. But in Aesop’s fable about the boy who cried wolf, it should be recalled, a genuine wolf eventually showed up. What if this time things really are different?

All of America’s previous would-be “peer competitors”—Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan and the Soviet Union—had economies smaller than that of the United States and succumbed, directly or indirectly, to American strategies of economic attrition. Depending on whether one prefers purchasing-power parity or other comparisons, Chinese GDP will surpass U.S. GDP in the near- or medium-term future. Even if, as seems likely, Chinese economic growth slows, a world in which the United States has the second-biggest economy after China (if disunited Europe is not treated as a single power) presents challenges which are fundamentally different from those of the twentieth century.

And while it is true that the United States has been the only great power with global reach since the end of the Cold War, that global reach may be a wasting asset. To cut the United States down to size, regional great powers like China need not develop global navies and air forces of their own. They need merely overmatch the United States in their own regions by means of what the U.S. military calls “antiaccess” forces, converting the United States from a truly global superpower to a less exalted regional or multiregional power.

Even then, the United States would remain part of the great-power club. All other things being equal, a First World country with a large population will be more powerful and influential than less developed large-population nations and less populous developed nations. Even if its long-term population growth is lower than expected, because of less immigration or lower fertility or both, the United States, along with China and India, will be one of the most populous nation-states in the world.

But it is not clear that immigration-driven population growth creates more opportunities than it solves. Nor is it clear that the United States—the most unequal society in the Western world, with the lowest rates of intergenerational mobility—is capable, in the twenty-first century, of providing rapid assimilation and mobility for low-skilled immigrants, now that the frontier is closed and good wages for unskilled and semiskilled jobs are a thing of the past.

Joffe’s affection for America is plain, but it has misled him into becoming its cheerleader at a moment when the flaws in the American model are increasingly visible. His mistake is to present excessive optimism about America’s relative standing in the world as the alternative to excessive pessimism. There is an alternative to both declinism and triumphalism: realism.

Michael Lind is cofounder of the New America Foundation and author of Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States (Harper, 2012).

Image:U.S. Department of Defense/Flickr.

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