Not Your Father's (Relative) Decline

I’ve been meaning to write something about this topic for some time, a follow-up to something I wrote a year and a half ago, about Obama’s (and America’s) tricky role at a moment of national retrenchment:

The Obama Administration’s situation may be compared with that of the Nixon Administration. Both Presidents were trying to manage a period of retrenchment in foreign affairs, dealing with a situation in which American influence and leverage had significantly contracted, and facing the prospect of further contraction that needed to be carefully managed. They were also both dealing with a period of traumatic economic change (accelerating inflation in Nixon’s case, a near-depression in Obama’s); with foreign wars that they did not initiate but had committed to winning and, in some manner, escalating in order to win (Vietnam, Afghanistan); and with a radical change in the global currency regime (in Nixon’s case, the demise of the gold standard; in Obama’s, the coming demise of the dollar as global reserve currency) – all of which provides some context for why each period was a period of retrenchment.

We should expect that there are going to be a lot of “concessions to reality and common sense” in the next few years, and the frustrating part is that we’re not going to get anything obvious for these concessions. Russia, for example, is going to keep pursuing its interests – and the aggressiveness with which they pursue them will probably mostly relate to their internal political situation rather than their perception of either American “will” to oppose them or American “goodwill” towards them. That’s going to make it very easy for the administration’s political opponents to make the argument that “if you give ‘em an inch, they’ll take the yard” even if no actual yards are literally taken.

It will be interesting to see how President Obama handles the tricky domestic politics of the tricky international situation he finds himself in.

I stand by that analysis, but I wanted to point out that the larger context of “relative decline” talk today is quite different from the superficially similar talk from the 1970s, and it’s worth highlighting that difference.

Declinist talk in the 1970s (which continued well into the 1980s) took place in the context of three trends that raised questions among serious people about whether the American system was “winning the future” as you might put it. Those three trends were: the apparently robust expansion of the Soviet bloc through the 1970s, culminating with the Nicaraguan revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; the rise of OPEC and the huge spikes in the price of oil in 1973 and 1979; and the rise of Japanese manufacturing prowess (American electronics manufacturers began to collapse in the face of Japanese competition in the 1970s). All three trends raised the specter of real pessimism about America’s prospects. Communism was antithetical to the American way of life; if Communism was on the march, then that implied real deficiencies in our own system. America had been blessed with abundant natural resources, oil being one of the most crucial; if we were now reliant on imported oil, what did that mean for the viability of the American system? Particularly when the Japanese, who had few natural resources of their own, appeared to be eating our lunch following an apparently mercantilist economic model. (To these trends, one might add arguably the most important social trend of the 1970s, the enormous rise in urban crime.)

Projection of American decline, then, was pessimistic; a prediction that our way was failing, and that foreign ways were (increasingly) more successful.

But that is only peripherally the case for declinist talk today. Rather, today’s projections of relative decline are based on optimistic projections – specifically, projections that other major parts of the world will achieve economic and political success by copying us. China has not only abandoned Communist economic policies, but to a very considerable extent its economic success reflects a shift to a very familiar economic model (heavy government involvement in infrastructure development and education, coupled with a very entrepreneurial culture and an openness to foreign investment and integration into global manufacturing chains) – a much more familiar model than Japan’s, by the way. India has followed a different path, but their huge jump in growth has followed a liberalizing turn that was very much inspired by American economic advice. And in the political sphere, Europe has followed both American advice and the American model, evolving fitfully towards something resembling a United States of Europe. They may not get there – indeed, most people would say the odds are they won’t get there – but the point is that those same people would probably acknowledge that if they do get there, a truly united Europe would swing a whole lot more weight in global affairs.

For America to remain the global hegemon that it tries to be today, all these trend lines would have to go dramatically negative. China’s and India’s economic advances would have to stall out, leaving most of their two and a half billion people permanently mired in poverty. And Europe’s political project would have to collapse in failure as well. And such developments would represent not only failure for the human race, but failure for America inasmuch as the positive developments we’ve already seen on these fronts represent (in part) attempts to follow the American example and American advice. (Not to mention that they would represent a worse absolute result for American citizens than the alternative – we would have benefited from higher Chinese and Indian productivity much more than we would from their poverty, and a strong and united Europe would be a much more useful ally than a fractious and divided one, even if more independent-minded.)

A refusal to prepare for relative (not absolute) decline, then, represents some combination of a willful failure of imagination and a kind of jealous pessimism. America, in this way of thinking, isn’t an example and an inspiration to the world. Rather, America has some distinctive grace that the rest of the world lacks – and will always lack, no matter what they do.

That might, in fact, be what partisans of “American exceptionalism” mean when they use that phrase. But it’s a pretty ugly idea when you think about it.