Is The American Century Over?

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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 Whether it is because “God had withdrawn his mantle of protection” or because Democrats refuse to fight the endless wars Republicans feel necessary to prove America is the toughest kid in the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.

27 Replies to “Is The American Century Over?”

  1. Interesting. Just my opinion but if the United States is in decline I would say it started with the right wing christen churches entering politics with the purpose of destroying reasoning and education.

  2. We were at our peak between 1942 and 1980, after which we have plummeted into a sanctimonious version of anti-intellectualism and Randroidism.

  3. Sounds like your typical Snake Oil sales tactic.

    Invent a problem, connect a few points that are at best loosely related, and then sell a fantastically overpriced P.O.S. as a cure.

    From snake oil to Modern day Pharma; from that Old Time Religion, to modern day Evangelism.

    According to them- we/you need to prove our manhood by beating up all of the other kids on the block.

  4. Our relatively young nation hasn’t even begun to show
    the world what’s possible when freedom is nurtured.
    Once we clear the room of fear, greed, and hatred(yes it
    ain’t gonna be easy), the sky’s the limit. Don’t tell me
    Uncle Sam has shot his wad. That kind of pessimism is
    best left to your drunk uncle who loves fux “news”.

  5. The American Century? Does anybody else but me recognize the arrogance and peacefulness in that sentence? First comes pride, followed by the fall. That statement, “the American Century,” states why we are in freefall.

    As for the GOP saying we are in freefall, they should know, they’re leading the way with their backwardness

  6. If we can survive this current conservative waves of religious politics, I agree whole-heartedly. The one thing I’m very hopeful about is that our minority populations will hopefully be the ones that save this country from these white religious assholes.

    Oh, and we have got to stop interfering overseas. The USA is a clusterf**k when it comes to foreign policy.

  7. You’re absolutely right Dj. Leave it to religion to screw up everything. How long before humanity evolves out of believing in fantasies, fairy tales and imaginary friends?

  8. Just maybe the President has ushered in a new American century one based on diplomacy instead of militarism

    Cuba’s blue, red and white-starred flag was hoisted Monday at the country’s embassy in Washington in a symbolic move signaling the start of a new post-Cold War era in U.S.-Cuba relations.

    Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez presided over the flag-raising ceremony hours after full diplomatic relations with the United States were restored at the stroke of midnight, when an agreement to resume normal ties on July 20 took effect. Earlier, without ceremony, the Cuban flag was hung in the lobby of the State Department alongside those of other countries with which the U.S. has diplomatic ties. U.S. and Cuban diplomats in Washington and Havana had also noted the upgrade in social media posts.

  9. I find it interesting that the “christians” are complaining that the country is in decline. Apparently we have not gotten down on our knees to surrender our free will to their desire for a theocratic rule.

    They tell the GOP/TP that they are in office because their God put them there and they should b grateful to “Him”. On one hand, ok, on the other, how do they explain President Obama being elected, not once, but twice. Didn’t their God not put him there too?

    Justice Scalia gives speeches telling his listeners that the hand of God guided the writers of the Constitution. I would like him to explain why, then, he guided their hands to write the Establishment Clause, the 1st Amendment separating government and churches?

    And what about Article 6 – no religious test to be required as qualification for office?

    Frankly, I think we, without those fanatical tie to religion, are going to make it an outstanding century.

  10. On one hand, ok, on the other, how do they explain President Obama being elected, not once, but twice. Didn’t their God not put him there too?

    By and large they’ve tended to quote Psalms 109: 8-10

    Which I’ve seen on bumperstickers in reference to Obama.
    The kind of bumpersticker that makes me wonder if an arrest for vandalism would be worth the time and trouble.

  11. The American christian century is ending. America isn’t on the decline. American christianity is on the decline as millennials abandon religion and especially christianity in droves.

  12. Religion was invented when the first fool met the first charlatan.

    Truth and reason have been going downhill ever since like a snowball in a snowjob.

    There are NO stirrups on dinosaurs.

  13. immediately after Roe v Wade when the church decided to restrict contraception and education in an attempt to instruct followers to “do as I say, but not as I do”? All young people in relationships have sex if not married promptly, period. I guess you could also add the insanity of oppressing Gay Americans into hetro-sexuality ? Of course that was in the beginning of believing Conservatism actually mimics something in definition and similarity to “being conservative”? Now they cling to their God and their Guns against all common sense and reality even cutting off their children’s noses in an attempt to climb over new comers attempting to join the middle class fantasy, all fading faster than Ronald Reagan could say Rich People create jobs and should be rewarded with the Worlds suffering? Peace

  14. Un-F8cking believable! U.S. Chamber of Com. rally fomenting end-times paranoia
    …another domestic terrorist org we have to keep our eyes on?!

  15. Decline is relative to the views of others.

    In the case of the Religious Right, decline is relative to the Old Testament verses that they pick and choose that reflects their views. Issues that they are preoccupied with are same-sex marriage and women’s rights.

    The Religious Right generally avoid the New Testament’s teachings because it undercuts the Old Testament verses that they so often preach.

    Hence, from their Religious Right, Old Testament dominated perspective, America is in decline.

    But if the biblical message of liberty is looked at, America is on the rise, and theologically speaking, it is God’s blessings on America, which includes same-sex marriage and women’s rights.

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