To listen to Republicans, the United States of America has fallen on hard times. Game over, some of them say. Whether it is because “God had withdrawn his mantle of protection” or because Democrats refuse to fight the endless wars Republicans feel necessary to prove America is the toughest kid in the neighborhood, those who see any hope at all see it in only God or conservatism.
In “Is The American Century Over?” foreign policy analyst Joseph S. Nye, Jr. looks at the question of American dominance. In doing so, he examines not only what this dominance means, when it might have begun, and when decline might have set in, but he looks at America’s neighbors, and likely successors to America’s pre-eminent position since the fall of the Soviet Union.
China, a Donald Trump bogeyman, is often held up to be America’s biggest challenger, but Nye points out that right as the Soviet Union was about to collapse, books were comparing America’s situation to that of Phillip II’s Spain, which is to say, things were about to go downhill very rapidly indeed. Instead, the Soviet Union collapsed, and America became the world’s only superpower.
Apparently, things are not as simple as they seem. First of all, when did the American century begin? (There is no agreement). When did the decline begin? (Again, there is no agreement). How do you define decline? What sorts of power are we talking about? And is power absolute or is it more a relative thing, in balance with the other countries of the world? Donald Trump, like all totalitarian demagogues, likes simple problems and answers, but Nye shows the world to be a very complex thing indeed.
As it turns out, there are different sorts of power. The very terminology we use to define and understand the world bedevils us, as is often the case. “Hegemony,” Nye tells us, is a misleading term, and points out that, “there is no general agreement on how much inequality and what types of power sources constitute hegemony.” If so, we should hardly be tossing such a loaded term around, let alone comparing it to another loaded term, “imperial,” because “a formal empire is not a requirement for hegemony.” Has America imposed its system on the world, or has it invited others in? The answer is by no means clear.
Besides, the largest countries in the world have never been members of whatever it is we are talking about, limiting the extent to which we can talk of hegemony at all. Hegemony, Nye decides, is not a useful term because it is too imprecise. And you begin to see now just how difficult a topic this is. We must first define the “American Century” if we are to understand whether or not it is in decline.
But not so fast! What is “decline”? Is it another ambiguous word and encompasses not only a loss of external power, but domestic decay (think Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire if you’re pressed for examples). Nye calls the first “relative” decline and the latter, “absolute” decline.
Nye – who talks about pop psychology and geo- and partisan politics, two of which are more about perception than absolutes – draws on other examples from history’s other empires, Venice, Portugal, Netherlands, Britain, and Spain – even Rome. You can have external loss of power yet, like Venice, flourish domestically. If America is in decline, what kind of decline are we experiencing?
America could be in absolute decline (you definitely get this idea from the Religious Right) or in relative decline “because of the rise of others.” In other words, even though no single country might become more powerful than the United States, we might decline because we are no longer pre-eminent and are unable to continue the American order, however that might be defined.
Nye looks at the most likely candidates, including, of course, China, the European Union, Japan, Russia, India, and Brazil. There are many factors to consider and Nye looks at them all. He devotes one full chapter to China (and I won’t give away any details here) before moving on to ask the big question: is America like Rome.
I have always found comparisons to Rome weak. Rome declined for far longer than America has even existed. We have not earned the right to compare ourselves to Rome. When we have inspired some far distant generation to create a nation of liberty, then we can talk about a comparison to Rome.
However, Nye dispassionately examines the subject, as he does all others, looking carefully at our society and culture (and our culture wars) and, of course, the economy, as well as our political institutions.
It becomes apparent as you read this book that it is careless and self-serving for ideologues and religious fanatics to bandy about talk of America’s decline and fall. It says a great deal more about their purposes than America’s situation.
Which only goes to show how useful and important books like this are. Fortunately, this is not a daunting tome of many hundreds of pages, but a slim volume of only 146, including notes and suggestions for further reading. If you want to understand America’s place in the world, and possible futures, this book is essential reading.
Hrafnkell Haraldsson, a social liberal with leanings toward centrist politics has degrees in history and philosophy. His interests include, besides history and philosophy, human rights issues, freedom of choice, religion, and the precarious dichotomy of freedom of speech and intolerance. He brings a slightly different perspective to his writing, being that he is neither a follower of an Abrahamic faith nor an atheist but a polytheist, a modern-day Heathen who follows the customs and traditions of his Norse ancestors. He maintains his own blog, A Heathen’s Day, which deals with Heathen and Pagan matters, and Mos Maiorum Foundation www.mosmaiorum.org, dedicated to ethnic religion. He has also contributed to NewsJunkiePost, GodsOwnParty and Pagan+Politics.