I love international relations. I also love overly ponderous German philosophy. You can thus imagine how happy I was to take a glance at the most recent issue of the National Interest and see none other than the much-maligned ponderous German philosopher Oswald Spengler on the cover with the foreboding words “Spengler’s Ghost: The Fate of America as the West’s Last Nation.”
The rather ominous looking cover addresses a dominant theme in the national zeitgeist. America is an aging starlet increasingly looking herself in the mirror, seeing the wrinkles where they weren’t before and wondering if her best roles are all behind her.
We remain the most powerful country in the world right now and will remain so for the foreseeable future, but a time when that will not be the case anymore is easier to imagine now than it used to be. That the powerful cannot stay powerful forever is as close to a law of history as can exist.
We will still hang on for some time, mostly because of the lack of replacements available. There are only two actors, China and the European Union, who are capable of assuming the burden of global leadership, but neither of them is without their own share of serious issues.
The Europeans suffer foremost from the awkward fact that Europe is not a country. A common European foreign policy is still a long way off, if it is even in the offing. A lackluster birthrate and the ongoing economic crisis would also present serious challenges to a European bid for leadership. They can hardly be expected to save the world if they cannot save Greece.
The Chinese are a popular pick, but it can be easy to be blinded by the hype. There are still very serious structural problems in China, from a rotten banking sector to horrific pollution, any one of which could derail China’s spectacular growth rates and throw the rule of the Communist Party into question. No one really knows what China looks like without the Party, but there is no reason why it should just be assumed that it will still be able to take up America’s mantle.
But eventually, economic stagnation, budgetary pressures, weariness with being the world’s policeman from the American public or some combination thereof will force us to draw back. Time and chance happenth to all countries.
There will be no Gotterdammerung along the lines of fifth century Rome or even the Soviet Union in 1991. Conflict is not impossible, especially with a rising China over some territorial dispute that spins out of control in the East China Sea, but more likely there will be an anticlimactic event like the Suez crisis of 1956 where the British and the French were revealed to all the world they would no longer be the superpowers that they once were.
If you’ll forgive me for extending my actress metaphor a bit longer (I will never write a column during the Oscars again. I promise), aging does not necessarily have to be a bad thing. We can be the Meryl Streep of declining empires, not taking the lead everywhere but still staying active and still taking on roles where we can really make a difference.
Most importantly, America can still maintain her moral example to the world. It’s no secret that we have often been terrible at living up to the values of our Constitution and Declaration of Independence, but the idea that all men are created equal and are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights is going to retain vibrancy.
As the late Christopher Hitchens was fond of pointing out, the American Revolution still possesses ideological dynamism that none of the great 20th century revolutions were able to match. That won’t change because of lackluster GDP growth or a slashed Pentagon budget.
Decline, in the end, is nothing but what we make it.