The current debt, recession, wars, and political infighting have depressed Americans into thinking their country soon will be overtaken by more vigorous rivals abroad. Yet this is an American fear as old as it is improbable.
In the 1930s, the Great Depression supposedly marked the end of freewheeling American capitalism. The 1950s were caricatured as a period of mindless American conformity, McCarthyism, and obsequious company men.
By the late 1960s, the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., along with the Vietnam War, had fueled a hippie counterculture that purportedly was going to replace a toxic American establishment. In the 1970s, oil shocks, gas lines, Watergate, and new rustbelts were said to be symptomatic of a post-industrial, has-been America.
At the same time, other nations, we were typically told, were doing far better.
In the late 1940s, with the rise of a postwar Soviet Union that had crushed Hitler’s Wehrmacht on the eastern front during World War II, Communism promised a New Man as it swept through Eastern Europe.
Mao Zedong took power in China and inspired Communist revolutions from North Korea to Cuba. Statist central planning was going to replace the unfairness and inefficiency of Western-style capitalism. Yet just a half-century later, Communism had either imploded or been superseded in most of the world.
By the early 1980s, Japan’s state capitalism along with emphasis on the group rather than the individual was being touted as the ideal balance between the public and private sectors. Japan Inc. continually outpaced the growth of the American economy. Then, in the 1990s, a real-estate bubble and a lack of fiscal transparency led to a collapse of property prices and a general recession. A shrinking and aging Japanese population, led by a secretive government, has been struggling ever since to recover the old magic.
At the beginning of the 21st century, the European Union was hailed as the proper Western paradigm of the future. The euro soared over the dollar. Europe practiced a sophisticated “soft power,” while American cowboyism was derided for getting us into wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Civilized cradle-to-grave benefits were contrasted with the frontier, every-man-for-himself American system.
Now Europe limps from crisis to crisis. Its undemocratic union, coupled with socialist entitlements, is proving unsustainable. Symptoms of the ossified European system appear in everything from a shrinking population and a growing atheism to an inability to integrate Muslim immigrants or field a credible military.
As we enter this new decade, we are being lectured that China is soon to be the global colossus. Its economy is now second only to America’s, but with a far faster rate of growth and with budget surpluses rather than debt. Few seem to mention that China’s mounting social tensions, mercantilism, environmental degradation, and state bosses belong more to a 19th- than a 21st-century nation.
Amid all this doom and gloom, two factors are constant over the decades. First, America goes through periodic bouts of neurotic self-doubt, only to wake up and snap out of it. Indeed, indebted Americans are already bracing for fiscal restraint and parsimony as an antidote to past profligacy.
Second, decline is relative and does not occur in a vacuum. As Western economic and scientific values ripple out from Europe and the United States, it is understandable that developing countries like China, India, and Brazil can catapult right into the 21st century. But that said, national strength is still measured by the underlying hardiness of the patient — its demography, culture, and institutions — rather than by occasional symptoms of ill health.
In that regard, America integrates immigrants and assimilates races and ethnicities in a way Europe cannot. Russia, China, and Japan are simply not culturally equipped to deal with millions who do not look Slavic, Chinese, or Japanese. The Islamic world cannot ensure religious parity to Christians, Jews, or Hindus — or political equality to women.
The American Constitution has been tested over 223 years. In contrast, China, the European Union, India, Japan, Russia, and South Korea have constitutional pedigrees of not much more than 60 years. The last time Americans killed each other in large numbers was nearly a century and a half ago; most of our rivals have seen millions of their own destroyed in civil strife and internecine warring just this past century.
In short, a nation’s health is gauged not by bouts of recession and self-doubt, but by the durability of its political, economic, military, and social foundations. A temporarily ill-seeming America is nevertheless still growing, stable, multiethnic, transparent, individualistic, self-critical, and meritocratic; almost all of its apparently healthy rivals, by contrast, are not.
— Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author, most recently, of The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern. You can reach him by e-mailing email@example.com.