When the think-tank chappies ponder “decline,” they tend to see it in geopolitical terms. Great powers gradually being shunted off the world stage have increasing difficulties getting their way: Itsy-bitsy colonial policing operations in dusty ramshackle outposts drag on for years and putter out to no obvious conclusion. If that sounds vaguely familiar, well, the State Department reported last month that the last Christian church in Afghanistan was razed to the ground in 2010. This intriguing factoid came deep within their “International Religious Freedom Report.” It is not, in any meaningful sense of that word, “international”: For the last decade, Afghanistan has been a U.S. client state; its repulsive and corrupt leader is kept alive only by NATO arms; according to the World Bank, the Western military/aid presence accounts for 97 percent of the country’s economy. American taxpayers have spent the best part of half a trillion dollars and lost many brave warriors in that benighted land, and all we have to show for it is a regime openly contemptuous of the global sugar daddy that created and sustained it. In another American client state, the Iraqi government is publicly supporting the murderous goon in Syria and supplying him with essential aid as he attempts to maintain his dictatorship. Your tax dollars at work.
As America sinks into a multi-trillion-dollar debt pit, it is fascinating to listen to so many of my friends on the right fret about potential cuts to the Pentagon budget. The problem in Iraq and Afghanistan is not that we are spending insufficient money, but that so much of that money has been utterly wasted. Dominant powers often wind up with thankless tasks, but the trick is to keep it within budget: London administered the vast sprawling fractious tribal dump of Sudan with about 200 British civil servants for what, with hindsight, was the least worst two-thirds of a century in that country’s existence. These days I doubt 200 civil servants would be enough for the average branch office of the Federal Department of Community Organizer Grant Applications. Abroad as at home, the United States urgently needs to start learning how to do more with less.
As I said, these are more or less conventional symptoms of geopolitical decline: Great powers still go through the motions but increasingly ineffectually. But what the Council on Foreign Relations types often miss is that, for the man in the street, decline can be very pleasant. In Britain, France, Spain, and the Netherlands, the average citizen lives better than he ever did at the height of Empire. Today’s Europeans enjoy more comfortable lives, have better health, and take more vacations than their grandparents did. The state went into decline, but its subjects enjoyed immense upward mobility. Americans could be forgiven for concluding that, if this is “decline,” bring it on.
But it’s not going to be like that for the United States: Unlike Europe, geopolitical decline and mass downward mobility will go hand in hand. Indeed, they’re already underway. Whenever the economy goes south, experts talk of the housing “bubble,” the tech “bubble,” the credit “bubble.” But the real bubble is the 1950 “American moment,” and our failure to understand that moments are not permanent. The United States emerged from the Second World War as the only industrial power with its factories intact and its cities not reduced to rubble, and assumed that that unprecedented preeminence would last forever: We would always be so far ahead and so flush with cash that we could do anything and spend anything and we would still be Number One. That was the thinking of Detroit’s automakers when they figured they could afford to buy off the unions. The industrial powerhouse of 1950 is now a crime-ridden wasteland with a functioning literacy rate equivalent to West African basket-cases. And yes, Detroit is an outlier, but look at the assumptions its rulers made, and then wonder whether it will seem quite such an outlier in the future.
Take, for example, the complaints of the young Americans currently “occupying” Wall Street. Many protesters have told sympathetic reporters that “it’s our Arab Spring.” Put aside the differences between brutal totalitarian dictatorships and a republic of biennial elections, and simply consider it in economic terms: At the “Occupy” demonstrations, not-so-young college students are demanding that their tuition debt be forgiven. In Egypt, half the population lives in poverty; the country imports more wheat than any other nation on the planet, and the funds to do that will dry up in a couple months’ time. They’re worrying about starvation, not how to fund half a decade of Whatever Studies at Complacency U.