Russia? The demographic deformation of Czar Putin’s new empire is even more severe than Beijing’s. Russia is a global power only to the extent of the mischief it can make on its acceleration into a death spiral.
The new Caliphate? Even if every dime-store jihadist’s dreams came true, almost by definition an Islamic imperium would be in decline from Day One.
So there’s no plausible new kid on the block? Isn’t that good news? Not exactly. Much of the timing of American decline depends on Beijing, which will make the final determination on such matters as when the dollar ceases to be the world’s reserve currency. Given that they hold at least the schedule of our fate in their hands, it would be rather reassuring if they had the capability to assume America’s role as the global order-maker. But they don’t and they never will. The most likely future is not a world under a new order but a world with no order — in which pipsqueak states go nuclear while the planet’s wealthiest nations, from New Zealand to Norway, are unable to defend their borders and are forced to adjust to the post-American era as they can. Yet, in such a geopolitical scene, the United States will still be the most inviting target — first because it’s big, and second because, as Britain knows, the durbar moves on but imperial resentments linger long after imperial grandeur.
One sympathizes with Americans weary of global responsibilities that they, unlike the European empires, never sought. The United States now spends more on its military than the next 40 or so nations combined. Yet in two rinky-dink no-account semi-colonial policing campaigns, it doesn’t feel like that, does it? A lot of bucks, but not much of a bang. You can understand why the entire Left and an increasing chunk of the Right would rather vote for a quiet life. But that’s not an option. The first victims of American retreat will be the many corners of the world that have benefited from an unusually benign hegemon. But the consequences of retreat will come home, too. In a more dangerous world, American decline will be steeper, faster, and more devastating than Britain’s — and something far closer to Rome’s.
In the modern era, the two halves of “the West” form a mirror image. “The Old World” has thousand-year-old churches and medieval street plans and ancient hedgerows but has been distressingly susceptible to every insane political fad, from Communism to Fascism to European Union. “The New World” has a superficial novelty — you can have your macchiato tweeted directly to your iPod — but underneath the surface noise it has remained truer to old political ideas than “the Old World” ever has. Economic dynamism and political continuity seem far more central to America’s sense of itself than they are to most nations’. Which is why it’s easier to contemplate Spain or Germany as a backwater than America. In a fundamental sense, an America in eclipse would no longer be America.
But, as Charles Krauthammer said recently, “decline is a choice.” The Democrats are offering it to the American people, and a certain proportion of them seem minded to accept. Enough to make decline inevitable? To return to the young schoolboy on his uncle’s shoulders watching the Queen-Empress’s jubilee, in the words of Arnold Toynbee: “Civilizations die from suicide, not from murder.”
– This article first appeared in the January 25, 2010, issue of National Review as “Welcome to Rome.”