THE WORRIES AND warnings come from across the political spectrum and across the oceans. New York Times critic Nicolai Ouroussoff calls America "an empire enthralled with its own power and unaware that it is fading." Former Clinton administration official Charles Kupchan concludes that "American primacy is already past its peak." According to Joseph Nye, who served under Presidents Carter and Clinton, America's "soft power--its ability to attract others by the legitimacy of U.S. policies and the values that underlie them--is in decline."
Peggy Noonan, speechwriter for the most optimistic of presidents, Ronald Reagan, asserts that "in some deep fundamental way things have broken down and can't be fixed." Ivan Eland of the Independent Institute warns that America's military "overextension could hasten the decline of the United States as a superpower."
Matthew Parris of the London Sunday Times reports that the United States is "overstretched," romantically recalling the Kennedy presidency, when "America had the best arguments" and could use moral suasion rather than force to have its way in the world. From his vantage point in Shanghai, the International Herald Tribune's Howard French worries about "the declining moral influence of the United States" over an emergent China. (1)
Are the declinists right about America's impending demise? Perhaps. But perhaps they're wrong: After all, declinism has a long history and a strange way of rearing its head when the U.S. is riding the waves of what Churchill called the "primacy of power." Indeed, it is during periods of U.S. ascendance--or perhaps better said, periods that subsequently are recognized as having been ascendant--that the declinists usually start sounding the (false) alarms. The "decline and fall of America" mantra has become an almost-decennial prophecy.
By the mid-eighteenth century, the University of Virginia's James Ceaser has written, it was widely accepted in Europe that "due chiefly to atmospheric conditions, in particular excessive humidity, all living things in the Americas were not only inferior to those found in Europe but also in a condition of decline." (2) Not surprisingly, the men who forged the American republic took issue with this early form of declinism. In fact, Ceaser notes, Alexander Hamilton rebutted Europe's pseudoscientific slander in Federalist No. 11. Pointing to "the arrogant pretensions" of Europe, Hamilton observed that "men admired as profound philosophers have in direct terms attributed to her inhabitants a physical superiority and have gravely asserted that all animals, and with them the human species, degenerate in America." He called on his countrymen to "vindicate the honor of the human race" by building "one great American system superior to the control of all transatlantic force or influence, able to dictate the terms of the connection between the old and the new world!"
Descending and ascending
THE 13 COLONIES hugging the Atlantic seaboard would rally behind Hamilton's vision and redefine the nature of their connection with the Old World, but the revolutionary moment was shortlived. After defeating the British Empire in a brutal war for independence, the young republic was soundly swatted back into its place less than 30 years later during the War of 1812. The war saw U.S. forces routed in Canada, U.S. sailors captured and impressed into duty on British warships, U.S. ports blockaded, and the U.S. Capitol and White House set ablaze by a British invasion force. When measured against Great Britain--and against its own position just a generation earlier--it appeared that the United States had declined drastically.
Two generations later, the Civil War would decapitate the national government and deform the nation. As Jay Winik's April 1865 (HarperCollins, 2001) reminds us, the war not only called into question almost a hundred years of independent self-government, but also embodied decline in its purest sense. …