Sometimes you do live to see it. In my book America Alone, I point out that, to a five-year-old boy waving his flag as Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee procession marched down the Mall in 1897, it would have been inconceivable that by the time of his 80th birthday the greatest empire the world had ever known would have shriveled to an economically moribund strike-bound socialist slough of despond, one in which (stop me if this sounds familiar) the government ran the hospitals, the automobile industry, and much of the housing stock, and, partly as a consequence thereof, had permanent high unemployment and confiscatory tax rates that drove its best talents to seek refuge abroad.
A number of readers, disputing the relevance of this comparison, sent me mocking letters pointing out, for example, Britain’s balance of payments and other deteriorating economic indicators from the early 20th century on. True. Great powers do not decline for identical reasons and one would not expect Britain’s imperial overstretch to lead to the same consequences as America’s imperial understretch. Nonetheless, my correspondents are perhaps too sophisticated and nuanced to grasp the somewhat more basic point I was making. Perched on his uncle’s shoulders that day was a young lad who grew up to become the historian Arnold Toynbee. He recalled the mood of Her Majesty’s jubilee as follows: “There is, of course, a thing called history, but history is something unpleasant that happens to other people. We are comfortably outside all of that I am sure.” The end of history, 1897 version.
Permanence is an illusion — and you would be surprised at how fast mighty nations can be entirely transformed. But, more important, national decline is psychological — and therefore what matters is accepting the psychology of decline. Within two generations, for example, the German people became just as obnoxiously pacifist as they once were obnoxiously militarist, and as avowedly “European” as they once were menacingly nationalist. Well, who can blame ’em? You’d hardly be receptive to pitches for national greatness after half a century of Kaiser Bill, Weimar, the Third Reich, and the Holocaust.
But what are we to make of the British? They were on the right side of all the great conflicts of the last century; and they have been, in the scales of history, a force for good in the world. Even as their colonies advanced to independence, they retained the English language and English legal system, not to mention cricket and all kinds of other cultural ties. And even in imperial retreat, there is no rational basis for late-20th-century Britain’s conclusion that it had no future other than as an outlying province of a centralized Euro nanny state dominated by nations whose political, legal, and cultural traditions are entirely alien to its own. The embrace of such a fate is a psychological condition, not an economic one.
Is America set for decline? It’s been a grand run. The country’s been the leading economic power since it overtook Britain in the 1880s. That’s impressive. Nevertheless, over the course of that century and a quarter, Detroit went from the world’s industrial powerhouse to an urban wasteland, and the once-golden state of California atrophied into a land of government run by the government for the government. What happens when the policies that brought ruin to Detroit and sclerosis to California become the basis for the nation at large? Strictly on the numbers, the United States is in the express lane to Declinistan: unsustainable entitlements, the remorseless governmentalization of the economy and individual liberty, and a centralization of power that will cripple a nation of this size. Decline is the way to bet. But what will ensure it is if the American people accept decline as a price worth paying for European social democracy.
Is that so hard to imagine? Every time I retail the latest indignity imposed upon the “citizen” by some or other Continental apparatchik, I receive e-mails from the heartland pointing out, with much reference to the Second Amendment, that it couldn’t happen here because Americans aren’t Euro-weenies. But nor were Euro-weenies once upon a time. Hayek’s greatest insight in The Road to Serfdom is psychological: “There is one aspect of the change in moral values brought about by the advance of collectivism which at the present time provides special food for thought,” he wrote with an immigrant’s eye on the Britain of 1944. “It is that the virtues which are held less and less in esteem and which consequently become rarer are precisely those on which the British people justly prided themselves and in which they were generally agreed to excel. The virtues possessed by Anglo-Saxons in a higher degree than most other people, excepting only a few of the smaller nations, like the Swiss and the Dutch, were independence and self-reliance, individual initiative and local responsibility, the successful reliance on voluntary activity, noninterference with one’s neighbor and tolerance of the different and queer, respect for custom and tradition, and a healthy suspicion of power and authority.” Two-thirds of a century on, almost every item on the list has been abandoned, from “independence and self-reliance” (40 percent of people receive state handouts) to “a healthy suspicion of power and authority” — the reflex response now to almost any passing inconvenience is to demand the government “do something,” the cost to individual liberty be damned. American exceptionalism would have to be awfully exceptional to suffer a similar expansion of government and not witness, in enough of the populace, the same descent into dependency and fatalism. As Europe demonstrates, a determined state can change the character of a people in the space of a generation or two. Look at what the Great Society did to the black family and imagine it applied to the general population: That’s what happened in Britain.
But that’s to cast decline in its least favorable light, after it’s had a couple of generations to work its dark magic. As it’s happening, incremental decline is extremely seductive. Great powers aren’t Chad or Rwanda, where you’re sliding from the Dump category to the Even Crummier Dump category. Take a city like Vienna. Once upon a time it was an imperial capital. The empire busted up, but the capital still had magnificent architecture, handsome palaces, treasure houses of great art, a world-class orchestra, fabulous restaurants . . . who wouldn’t enjoy such “decline”? You benefit from all the accumulated capital of the past without being troubled by any of the tedious responsibilities. Have another coffee and a piece of strudel and watch the world go by. To be sure, everything new — or, at any rate, everything new that works — is invented and made elsewhere. But genteel decline from the heights can be eminently civilized, especially to those of a leftish bent. Francophile Americans passing through bucolic villages with their charmingly state-regulated charcuteries and farmland wholly subsidized by the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy can be forgiven for wondering whether global hegemony is all it’s cracked up to be.
Whether decline will seem quite so bucolic viewed from a Jersey strip mall rather than the Dordogne remains to be seen. Yet in the geopolitical sense it can be marvelously liberating. You still go to all the best parties and have a seat at the top table — Britain and France are members of the U.N. Security Council and the G7 and every other group that counts — and even better, when the check comes, you’re not the one stuck with the tab. You can preen and pose on the world stage secure in the knowledge that nobody expects you to do anything about it: It’s no surprise to find that the post-great powers of Europe are the noisiest promoters of every fashionable nostrum, from the iniquities of the Zionist Entity to the perils of “climate change.” The European Union has attitudes rather than policies. A couple of years back, Bret Stephens, then editor of the Jerusalem Post, opened his mail to find a copy of something called “Conclusions of the European Council,” a summary of the work done during the six months of Ireland’s “Euro-presidency.” A braver man than I, he read it, at least as far as Item 80: “The European Council expresses its deep concern at the recent events in the Eastern Congo, which could jeopardise the transition process.”
And that and a couple euros will get you a café au lait. The EU is free to flaunt its “concern” — whoops, “deep concern” — over events in the Eastern Congo precisely because nobody in the Eastern Congo or anywhere else expects Europe to do a thing about it. The Continent increasingly resembles those insulated celebrities being shuttled around town from one humanitarian gala to another — like Barbra Streisand and Leonardo DiCaprio jetting in to join Barack Obama and Al Gore in bemoaning Joe Sixpack’s carbon footprint.
And when you put it like that, what’s the downside?
Okay, since you ask, here’s my prediction: American decline will not be like France’s or Austria’s. For one thing, we don’t appreciate how unusual the last transfer of power was. If you’re not quite sure when that took place, the British historian Andrew Roberts likes to pinpoint it to the middle of 1943: One month, the British had more men under arms than the Americans. The next month, the Americans had more men under arms than the British. The baton of global leadership had been passed. And, if it didn’t seem that way at the time, that’s because it was as near a seamless transition as could be devised — although it was hardly “devised” at all. Yet we live with the benefits of that transition to this day: To take a minor but not inconsequential example, one of the critical links in the Afghan campaign was the British Indian Ocean Territory. As its name would suggest, that’s a British dependency, but it has a U.S. military base — just one of many pinpricks on the map where the Royal Navy’s Pax Britannica evolved into Washington’s Pax Americana with nary a thought: From U.S. naval bases in Bermuda to the ANZUS alliance Down Under to NORAD close to home, London’s military ties with its empire were assumed by the United States. Britain’s eclipse by its transatlantic progeny is one of the smoothest transfers of power in history — and unlikely to be repeated.
Now look beyond the Anglosphere. Why did decline prove so pleasant in Europe? Because it was cushioned by American power. The United States is such a perversely non-imperial power that it garrisons not ramshackle colonies but its wealthiest “allies,” from Germany to Japan. For most of its members, “the Free World” has been a free ride. And that, too, is unprecedented. Even the few NATO members that can still project meaningful force around the world have been able to arrange their affairs on the assumption of the American security umbrella: In the United Kingdom, between 1951 and 1997 the proportion of government expenditure on defense fell from 24 percent to 7, while the proportion on health and welfare rose from 22 percent to 53. And that’s before New Labour came along to widen the gap further.
Those British numbers are a bald statement of reality: You can have Euro-sized entitlements or a global military, but not both. What’s easier to do if you’re a democratic government that’s made promises it can’t afford — cut back on nanny-state lollipops, or shrug off thankless military commitments for which the electorate has minimal appetite? A Continental might take the view that this is democracy’s safeguard against an old temptation. After all, declining powers frequently turned to war to arrest their own decline or another’s rise — see the Franco–Prussian, the Austro–Prussian, the Napoleonic Wars, and many others. But those were the days when traditional great-power rivalry was resolved on the battlefield. Today we have postmodern post-great-power rivalry, in which America envies the way the beneficiaries of its post-war largesse have been able to opt out of the great game entirely. In reality-TV terms, the Great Satan would like to vote itself off the battlefield. On its present course, as Dennis Prager put it, America “will be a large Sweden, and just as influential as the smaller one.”
And that’s the optimistic scenario — because the only reason Sweden can be Sweden and Germany Germany and France France is that America is America. Who will cushion America’s decline as America cushioned Europe’s?
Furthermore, is “a large Sweden” even possible? Insofar as it works at all, Big Government works best in small countries, with a sufficiently homogeneous population to have common interests. There’s a fascinating book by Alberto Alesina and Enrico Spolaore called The Size of Nations, in which the authors note that, of the ten richest countries in the world, only four have populations above 1 million: America (300 million people), Switzerland (7 million), Norway (4 million), and Singapore (3 million). Small nations, they argue, are more cohesive and have less need for buying off ethnic and regional factions. America has been the exception that proves the rule because it’s a highly decentralized federation. But, as Messrs. Alesina and Spolaore put it, if America were as centrally governed as France, it would break up. That theory is now being tested by the Obamacare Democrats, and, as we see with the wretched Ben Nelson’s cornhusker kickback or the blank check given to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, when American-style Big Government starts “buying off ethnic and regional factions,” the sky’s the limit. To attempt to impose European-style centralized government on a third of a billion people from Maine to Hawaii is to invite failure on a scale unknown to history. Which is to say that, domestically, Washington’s retreat from la gloire will be of an entirely different order of business from Paris’s.
And overseas? If America becomes Europe in its domestic disposition and geopolitical decline, then who will be America? Of the many competing schools of declinism, perhaps the most gleeful are those that salivate over the rise of China. For years, Sinophiles have been penning orgasmic fantasies of a mid-century when China will bestride the world and America will be consigned to the trash heap of history. It will never happen: As I’ve been saying for years, China has profound structural problems. It will get old before it gets rich.
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.”