There are some questions that have two answers, both of which can seem equally obvious sometimes. The question “Is America in decline?” seems to be one of those.
On one hand you have the camp that believes America is the world’s “indispensable nation,” in the famous phrasing of Madeline Albright, pointing to the world’s largest economy, strongest military, dynamic record of innovation and unmatched cultural sway abroad, and see that lasting as long as Americans try to maintain it.
On the other you have those who see a nation stuck in an economic quagmire, hemorrhaging jobs, with a broken educational system, something with cultural and political polarization, beset with debt, with a military worn out by unnecessary war and generally without bearings.
With Mitt Romney and President Obama bickering publicly over which of them thinks that America is not declining more, now seems as good a time as any to answer that question and see how important that question really is.
Though both sides are right in many ways. America paradoxically has both a track record of innovation coupled with a terrible education system and a world-class military that is exhausted by two foreign wars. However, the battle goes to the declinists for simple historical reasons.
It’s a real pity that comparative history hasn’t been a popular discipline in decades. The study of the rise and fall of civilizations might come in handy these days. Historians such as Oswald Spengler used to be able to take a long view of things and talk about the lifespan of civilizations lasting over centuries.
We don’t do much of that anymore, but if we did, we would see that every great nation that becomes the most powerful in the world comes down eventually. America has been the world’s most powerful country for at least 60 years, which is a long time by modern standards. It would be very unusual if it weren’t to start going downhill one of these days, and is downhill where we are going.
Rome is the example that everyone enjoys throwing around, but the more relevant examples would be the European states that used to be great powers but now are middling powers at best, Britain being the case in point.
Though Britain has undoubtedly declined over the last hundred years from the empire over which the sun never set, to a country whose most important colonies couldn’t be located on a map by the average person, the standard of living of the average citizen has actually improved. In terms of health care, educational access, class distinctions and a wide variety of other social indicators, I would much rather be an Englishman in 2012 than in 1912. This could go equally for the French or Germans as well.
Even the Russians, whose communist system did more than a little declining and falling of its own in quite a short amount of time, are arguably better off these days than they were during the Soviet period, although their nation has been reduced to a shadow of its former self on the world stage.
The question of whether or not America is in decline is of little relevant importance. Our role on the world stage may be set to shrink, but that doesn’t mean it’s going anywhere for a long time. Even if it does, the average American will be able to live their life just as well as they ever did. The moon just after it is full is still bright, as is America’s future, declining or not.