American decline has become basic to the debate about international relations. It is and will become a ubiquitous claim as the federal government moves toward the “fiscal cliff” soon after the 113th Congress is sworn in. Declinism is increasingly central to American self-perceptions and how scholars, here and abroad, study the Republic. Some expect, others hope for, decline. Let me suggest ten reasons why the United States, whether you favoured Obama or Romney on November 6, may have much further to run.
The United States is a nation. We know it was conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all people have rights that cannot be invaded by government but often forget just how powerful an idea that remains for many Americans. To be American is not to assert a racial, ethnic or tribal identity but to sign up to a written constitution which says these accidental affiliations don’t matter. Unlike the early story of Australian immigration, most foreigners went on purpose to the new nation in order to escape badges of inferiority in their birth-lands. A formal attachment to the US Constitution – not to a class or race – makes American nationalism a source of remarkable unity and diversity. Consider how German nationalism pollutes its history and it gives you a clearer sense of the benefits of the American version. That nationalism is not contingent on economic peaks and troughs. It endures and will endure.
It is an experiment is the capacity of men and women to rule themselves without falling into the tyranny of the majority (the condition all democracies tend toward but must somehow avoid). More than an experiment, the United States is grounded in a “science of politics”. Its government is constructed according to mechanical laws – with separated institutions sharing and competing for power – so that no one part of it can have too much. This political science has remained essentially unaltered for 225 years – years in which the United States went from irrelevance to being the greatest political, economic and cultural power in world history.
Its geography still represents a considerable advantage. Like Australia, the US occupies a benign part of the globe. Its neighbours are friendly. It is protected by oceans east and west. Despite foreign invasion soon after its birth, the US remains essentially “uninvadable”. Other great revolutionary states – France, Russia, China – have had their revolutions fatally undermined by their neighbourhoods – making territorial integrity their first order of business. The US can look outward. It will continue to do so.
Its British colonial legacy still offers it distinct advantages. It’s not academically fashionable to posit the benefits of once being subject to British imperialism but that does not make those benefits not real. The US has the rule of law, property rights, it believes unabashedly in the moral power of the free market, invests significantly in the maintenance of a world order conducive to trade, and it speaks English. These British attributes offer it advantage’s that China, for example, does not resent but seeks to emulate.
Its religiosity is a good thing. It keeps the pursuit of wealth grounded in a moral framework. The US is the world’s most devout liberal democracy. Rather than provoking religious war – a phenomenon basic to the history of Europe – faith offers a powerful social glue. Without religion, civic engagement would be much less. It provides a moral context to politics and economics which atheistic progressivism has yet to replicate.
It is a nation being constantly remade by immigration. America is by definition a land of foreigners. “American” is not an ethnic type. Immigrants will keep the average age of the American at 35 in 2050. In the same year, the average age of the European will be 53. The US will continue to produce taxpayers, the EU tax-consumers.
“Declinism” has been a sub-field of academic scholarship for decades. The decline of the United States has been predicted since at least the 1970s but the American power of recovery has proved more durable. The malaise of the 1970s gave way to the renewed purpose and wealth of the 1980s. It would be wrong to underestimate the transformative power of the American political system. Who would have predicted on the morning of September 12, 2001 that an African American with an Arab middle name and a Muslim father would be begin his second term as president in 2013.
Its military power is and will remain parallelled for the next several decades. It spends more than the next fifteen states combined and invests in research and development sufficient that no rival could hope to compete with it on a technological level. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan did not bankrupt the US treasury; it was a credit bubble and increasing welfare spending that threatens a debt default.
Who are the enemies that might seek to benefit from US decline? Count them: Syria, Cuba, North Korea, Iran and Venezuela. If this is the balancing coalition that will check American power it leaves a lot to be desired. No serious state has an interest in US decline.
Even if the foregoing don’t suggest longevity, what will replace US power? The European Union? It faces a much harder economic test and lacks most of the foregoing American strengths in dealing with it. China? It has an interest in the maintenance of US power in its backyard.
In conclusion, we should recall America’s capacity to transform its fortunes. In 1861, Americans replaced the worst president in their history with the best. In 1933, Herbert Hoover’s perceived inaction was replaced by the most activist and longest-serving president in US history. In 1981, Carter’s malaise gave way to Reagan’s morning in America. Love him or hate him, Barack Obama’s pitch in 2008 was “change” – capturing his country’s essential optimism and capacity to get back on track.