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That sinking feeling

The view that America is on the skids is on the rise. But does the new declinism tell us anything about how we live?

ADDRESSING THE NATION last Sunday night, President Bush offered the following explanation, not for the first time, of the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington: "The terrorists became convinced that free nations were decadent and weak. And they grew bolder, thinking that history was on their side."

Over the last two years, many commentators have accepted the premise that Al Qaeda attacked the United States because it believed the country was weak. Where they disagree is over the accuracy of the terrorists' presumed perception. Was the United States, as the president implied, merely a sleeping giant which, once roused, would demonstrate a fearsome power? Or was the United States in fact tired, decadent, adrift -- its military might only a hollow shell, inside of which its vaunted economy, culture, and political system were rotting?

Even during the booming `90s, doubts about America's future were widespread. Cultural critics as far flung as right-wing presidential candidate Pat Buchanan, neo-Victorian moralist Gertrude Himmelfarb, Cold War strategist Edward Luttwak, and Nixon aide turned populist author Kevin Phillips argued that the United States had entered a decadent phase. Whether it was multiculturalism, consumerism, or economic inequality, some kind of centrifugal force was weakening American power and American values from within. After Sept. 11, 2001, talk of decline turned definitively to the arena of foreign affairs. The United States might look like an overweening superpower with an expanding empire, the declinists admonish, but actually its star is fading even now.

The declinists, we might say, will always be with us. Wherever anyone believes in progress, someone, possibly the same one, believes in decline. Declinism emerges today from the triumphalism of the right: In our greatness, conservatives say, there is much to lose, and many who threaten us. So, too, does it emerge from the pessimism of the left: Power corrupts, and the corrupt will get their comeuppance. At present, both impulses -- triumphalist and pessimistic, chest-beating and self-lacerating -- are on the upsurge. So too, then, declinism.

It is impossible to know for how long American power will endure. But whatever today's declinists have to tell us about the real state of American might, it's worth recalling that they draw on a bank of metaphors, and a mode of thought, as old as history itself.

. . .Many of those who argue that US power is currently ebbing draw on the pathbreaking work of Yale historian Paul Kennedy. In his 1987 classic, "The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers," Kennedy analyzed former great powers such as the Netherlands, Austria-Hungary, and Spain. He observed that historically, wars were won and empires sustained by those who possessed superior economic, rather than simply military, strength, and that an excess of foreign commitments left great powers particularly vulnerable.

The trouble was that military and economic priorities ended up clashing. Kennedy wrote: "A low investment in armaments may, for a globally overstretched Power like the United States, leave it feeling vulnerable everywhere; but a very heavy investment in armaments, while bringing greater security in the short term, may so erode the commercial competitiveness of the American economy that the nation will be less secure in the long term."

And so, even at the height of the bipolar rivalry between the US and the USSR, Kennedy believed the emergence of multiple centers of power was inevitable. The United States, he averred, must find a way to manage this transition, which it was helpless to prevent.

But barely had Kennedy published "The Rise and Fall" when the Soviet Union collapsed, the Japanese economy entered a terminal recession, and the United States emerged stronger than ever. Kennedy's pessimism was irrelevant, scoffed foreign affairs pundits; China might be rising, they said, but true multipolarity was a dim prospect, in no danger of return. In fact, the world was moving in the opposite direction. The American economy boomed, to the point where Alan Greenspan, the Federal Reserve chairman, suggested that traditional constraints on growth had been repealed. There was no serious political rival on the international scene; and the majority of the world's nations adopted forms of government modeled on our own. Writing in the summer of 1989, the political scientist Francis Fukuyama already glimpsed the end of history. Others called it Pax Americana, or the dawn of the true American century.

Of course, this new age didn't last. Sept. 11 marked a sharp turn, both for the US economy and for the country's standing abroad. Direct foreign investment in the United States dropped from $300 billion in 2000 to $23 billion in 2002. Anti-Americanism seemed to be on the rise, not just in the Arab world, where it had long been a problem, but in Europe as well. Traditional US allies dramatically broke with America's Iraq policy. Suddenly, Kennedy's vision doesn't seem so anachronistic. In fact, it has become the standard challenge to the neoconservative view that American primacy is sustainable.

In books released in the last 12 months, the leftist SUNY-Binghamton sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein, Clinton security advisor and Georgetown international relations specialist Charles A. Kupchan, and French demographer Emmanuel Todd contend, for very different reasons, but each with a debt to Kennedy, that Pax Americana has come to a close. America, writes Wallerstein in "The Decline of American Power" (July 2003), is "a lone superpower that lacks true power, a world leader nobody follows and few respect, and a nation drifting dangerously amidst a global chaos it cannot control." That the United States has come unmoored is evident, writes Kupchan in "The End of the American Era" (October 2002), from its "contradictory and incoherent behavior" since the end of the Cold War. And as Todd, author of the French bestseller "Apres l'Empire" (forthcoming in English translation from Columbia University Press), told the British magazine Prospect, in Iraq the United States "used military means in response to a nonmilitary problem. I believe this shows it has lost its omnipotence."

Kupchan does not believe a unipolar system can last: Rival powers will inevitably emerge to balance American preeminence. But that is all the more reason America needs a grand strategy, which it has sorely lacked since the Cold War ended. What we have now, and are wasting, writes Kupchan (echoing Kennedy), is the opportunity to manage gracefully the return to a multipolar world at minimal loss to our interests.

Wallerstein's picture is darker. The world economy as a whole has stagnated -- but when the global slump ends, Europe and Japan will quickly surpass the United States. Meanwhile, Wallerstein contends that Sept. 11 itself, as well as the conflagrations in the Middle East and the Balkans, laid bare the real impotence of the US military.

Todd, like Wallerstein, sees the trouble facing America as primarily economic. With its trade deficits, dependency on foreign capital, and emerging plutocracy, the United States has squandered its "soft power" (that is, its ability to persuade by example) while becoming soft in other ways -- economically dependent on a world that it increasingly antagonizes. Soon enough, Todd argues, even the British will distance themselves from the United States and realize that they belong instead to the "European community of values."

. . .Is the American economy really in such dire straits, compared to its closest competitors? As Todd notes, American manufacturing has deteriorated. And the US trade deficit, combined with the drop in foreign investment, is cause for real worry. Meanwhile, income inequality has been rising since the early 1970s. But according to the latest figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, US productivity still far outstrips that of Europe or Japan, while our rate of unemployment, even at its peak, has been typically half that of many European countries.

Predictions of future economic strength necessarily rest on murky data and contestable extrapolations. But the argument for decline has something else going for it: an intuitive appeal that derives from the world of ordinary things. In physics, what goes up comes down. In biology, an organism reaches its prime, then declines until it dies. Do nations, empires, and cultures follow the laws of physics or the stages of the life cycle? To say that they do is intuitively appealing -- and unfalsifiable.

Todd, for one, predicted the fall of the Soviet Union back in 1975, and was hailed for his clairvoyance 16 years later. But these days nobody's talking about another prediction of Todd's: "What we are seeing," Todd told Time magazine in December of 1995, "is the death of the European idea and the ineluctable return to the idea of the nation."

What goes up must come down. If not now, someday. It happened to the Romans. Surely it will happen to us. And when it does, you can't say nobody saw it coming.. . .

The belief that nations and belief systems inevitably decay has as many sources as it does uses. Conservative historian Arthur Herman begins his 1997 book, "The Idea of Decline in Western History," with a tale from "The Iliad": Homer relates that Ajax needed only one hand to lift a stone "which the sturdiest youngster of our generation would have found difficult to lift with both hands."

Herman traces the earliest declinism to the Greco-Roman cyclical vision of time. All things pass through the revolving stages of birth, flourishing, decline, death, and rebirth. That wheel would reappear in the Medieval era as a figure for fortune: Part of the wheel is up, part down, and their positions reverse as the wheel rotates. In modern times, Herman sees declinism in the racial pessimism of proto-Nazi thinkers such as the 19th-century French writer Arthur de Gobineau, not to mention French existentialists, contemporary multiculturalists, and "eco-pessimists," among whom he includes Al Gore and the Unabomber.

Largely absent from Herman's rogues' gallery are contemporary conservative declinists such as Buchanan, Himmelfarb, or Allan Bloom. Like many of the thinkers Herman sketches, such critics believe that Western civilization attained a pinnacle of greatness in a recently bygone era and that its achievements must be protected against a decay in values that others (multiculturalists, say) might laud as progress. By contrast, declinists of the left -- from Kirkpatrick Sale to Noam Chomsky-- tend to insist that Western culture must be transformed, not protected. Otherwise, the West's rapacious drive for profit and expansion threatens to bring about its own demise, and the demise of others as well.

There is something subjective, one suspects, and in the end too simple, about these notions of progress and strength, decline and weakness. Is it really the case that Al Qaeda attacked the United States because it perceived decadence and weakness? What about the point we so often heard stressed after the attacksthat terrorism is the weapon of the weak against the strong? Even the strong, after all, have places of vulnerability. Sometimes, as we also often heard that fall, strengths (civil liberties, say) can be exploited as weaknesses.

Maybe civilizations do not devolve, as theorists of decline fear, but rather evolve, as from Darwin's tangled bank where there is no perfection, merely complexity and fluxand where there is always something growing where something else has died. That might mean that what grows here is not the greatest, strongest, most perfect life that ever lived. But it also means that there's such a thing as change that's neither progress nor decline.

Laura Secor is the staff writer for Ideas.

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