In his State of the Union address in January, US President Barack Obama disputed the notion that America is in decline. “Anyone who tells you that America is in decline or that our influence has waned doesn’t know what they’re talking about”, he declared. “America remains the one indispensable nation in world affairs”. Declinist historians, along with 69 per cent of Americans, beg to differ though.
American declinists, whose morbid role in the world of academe is to look for universal rhythms that accompany the rise and fall of civilisations, have had a field day since the 1980s, pondering their nation’s potential fall from grace as a big power. Perhaps, in historical times, even imminent fall.
When the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) collapsed in 1991, no one mourned its demise, not even its own leaders. Come to think of it, Russian communism’s greatest contribution to humanity was to go out of business. It was terminated as if by “extreme prejudice”, an untimely death brought on by implosive forces that had progressively corroded the system from within. Nothing new here, you say, the USSR was a big power and all big powers in history have a life span — they rise, flower, decline and finally collapse, though in this case the rise was short, the flowering wilted, the decline painful (recall the image of Muscovites in the 1980s standing in long queues outside bakeries) and the collapse sudden.
After all, if Sparta and Rome perished, as Jean Jacques Rousseau observed in the Social Contract, what state can hope to last forever?
To be sure, declinists have been around for a long time, from Edward Gibbon to Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee. It’s well and good when you look back in the cold light of hindsight and speculate on the rise and fall of long-lost empires, but what tell-tale signs do you look for when a big power is still ascendant but at a subterranean level is beginning to lose, as the Arab philosopher of history, Ibn Khaldun, called it, its “assabiyeh” — in short, to lose its elan, its sense of direction and its mind?
Modern-day American declinists abound and have, for the last three decades, addressed the issue of whether the US is headed to the wayside. Scholars like Paul Kennedy, ‘The Rise and Fall of Great Powers’, 1987, Joseph Nye, ‘Soft Power’, 2004, and Cullen Murphy, ‘Are We Rome? The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America’, 2007, come to mind. Their argument in a nutshell is this: America is a hegemon in decay set on a course that will see it fall to stronger rivals, perhaps not as crudely as Rome had fallen to barbarian tribes in the third century, but falling it is.
The longevity, or lack of it, of empires, they argue, is contingent on how they use or misuse the power that, by a trick of fate, history had endowed them with. In that regard, American declinists appear in agreement with Toynbee who suggested that “civilisations die from suicide, not murder”.
Soon after the conclusion of the Second World War, the US sat astride the world as a colossus whose military and economic might was unparalleled and whose popular culture had unmatched appeal. If big powers, like human beings, begin to die the moment they are born, the US ominously began to face the prospect of its decay soon after it had to deal with the “loss of China” and defeat in the wars of Indochina. It’s nation-building efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan were a farce. Its “war on terror” — a post-9/11 obsession with the “Islamist threat” that morphed into a catastrophic national distraction — brought with it Guantanamo Bay, waterboarding, black sites, rendion and drones. Its influence in the Middle East, most recently in Syria, was of dubious value. The ongoing war in South Asia was sabotaged from the outset not so much by Taliban resilience or Pakistani recalcitrance, but by American cluelessness. And a big power that cannot convince a little client state like Israel to cease and desist from breaking international law, leaves unanswered questions about the kind of influence it wields in the world.
Hubris cannot save America nor can its notion of “American exceptionalism”, a smug theory about the US being “different” from other countries in that it has a specific world mission to spread liberty, democracy, egalitarianism, laissez-faire and the rest of it. Nor can it be saved by the neo-conservative grandiose belief that the US is the “shining city on a hill” exempt from historical forces that had affected other nations.
It is a legacy borrowed from European bluster that defined the belle epoque, when Frenchmen were motivated by their notion of la mission civilizatrice and the British by theirs of “the white man’s burden”. And what could touch people imbued with the complacent pride of la belle epoque, the zenith of European ascendancy?
Yet it did not take long for the outward serenity of that era to show the anarchic compulsions lurking beneath its garden surface, compulsions that exploded, in the words of W.B. Yates, in “the blood-dimmed tide” of 1914.
How is one, in this case a lowly columnist with no training in a professional historian’s methodology, to address one’s self, to the issue of American decline, without a nagging feeling of fatuity? But if you have spent your entire adult life in the US, and you bring with you a teleological sense of history from the old country — where you and the very ethos of teleology were born — you feel it when the curtains are being drawn. Just as beneath the surface of la belle epoque lurked a corrosive ennui, there lurks beneath the surface of “American exceptionalism” a grey lassitude, a nervous fatigue, at crucial nerve ends of culture’s self-definitions.
Unlike Europe, whose old order died in a conflagration unprecedented in scale, America’s pre-eminent role as global arbiter will end, well, not with a bang but a whimper. And yes, as Toynbee suggested, civilizatios die from self-inflicted wounds, not the caprice of murderers.
Fawaz Turki is a journalist, lecturer and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.