The American greatness debate

A leitmotif of this election year has become American greatness. As with much else, Donald Trump set the terms of the conversation by making his rallying cry “Make American Great Again.” That cry has not only resonated in his campaign but also featured prominently during the Republican convention. The country had fallen from grace and who else but Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were responsible. The Democrats had, of course, to respond to the gauntlet Trump had thrown down. America, according to party luminaries, is great and has to be kept that way by making sure that Clinton follows Obama in the White House. Clinton in her acceptance speech returned to the theme already sounded by earlier speakers at the Democratic National Convention: “American is great — because America is good.” Every generation, she explained, has made the country freer, fairer, and stronger. She promised that if Americans continued to work together “America will be greater than ever.”

What is most striking about this nationalistically charged exchange is how empty the Democratic response has been — more a knee-jerk denial that the country has been on a downward slide than a considered appraisal of where the country is and where it ought to go. Trump’s bill of particulars supporting his charge are, to be sure, simplistic whether considered in relation to the economy, immigration, or international affairs. But to respond with blanket denials seems not the most compelling route to take, especially when the a substantial part of the electorate appears to share with Trump the sense that all is not well in the American house. The same doubts afflict Democrats who fervently backed Bernie Sanders. Denial and empty rhetoric doesn’t seem a good strategy for winning anxious Republicans and fervent Sanders supporters, and they don’t seem a good basis for governance were Clinton to win the election.

Let’s step back and consider where in reality the country stands. How great in fact is the United States? Scholars and pundits have been contemplating that very question for a decade and a half. They have come to a rough consensus that the U.S. position in the world has declined. Shaping their conclusion was the doleful outcome of interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, a general Islamist upsurge in the Middle East, and the growing resistance to U.S. leadership on the part of emerging regional powers (from Iran and Russia to China and North Korea). The consequences of the neo-liberal experiment in freeing the market caste an additional pall over the U.S. global position. The broadly damaging 2008 economic crisis began with upheaval in the financial markets, plunging the United States into the Great Recession and pushing Europe into its own prolonged and painful troubles. These mishaps mushrooming during the Bush administration and burdening the Obama presidency have shaken the confidence of many in the future of the country and renewed debate over whether the “American century” has come to an end.

Where these observers differ is on the prospects for American greatness though they hardly follow the lines drawn by Republicans and Democrats. Their division is over whether the decline is so marked that it cannot be easily overcome or whether by determination and skillful leadership U.S. dominance can be restored.

Historians joined by political scientists with a historical bent have presented the more distinctly pessimistic case. A comprehensive and compelling survey of an eroding U.S. position flatly predicts: “At a minimum, the United States will suffer decline in wealth, standard of living, and global influence.” (David S. Mason, The End of the American Century [2009], 215.) Deepening difficulties suggested to those in the pessimist camp that the United States was already caught in a downward spiral of deteriorating national morale and diminishing material power.

On the other side, prominent political leaders, influential commentators, and students of international relations (political scientists for the most part) have questioned the depth of the U.S. slide and even expressed optimism about reinvigorating global dominance. The United States, they pointed out, sat astride the largest of the national economies and commanded a military force of unrivaled potency. Whatever ground had been lost in recent years could, so they argued, be made up by smart grand strategy directed by astute leaders. Sustaining the country’s premier international position was important in its own right but also to global stability, world peace, and human progress.

The optimists’ position was weakened by the narrow way it was framed. It imagined reversing decline without paying serious attention to the domestic foundations on which the U.S. international position has depended. The optimists thus missed the role of socio-cultural and ideological forces such as rising individual preoccupation with consumption or a fractured sense of national purpose that polarized politics and debilitated governance. Calls for smarter grand strategy to revive U.S. fortunes seem in this light facile, wishful thinking. The optimist position is further compromised by its understanding of dominance in terms of military force and to a lesser degree economic prowess, with little weight given to the international limits of U.S. influence. Claims to international leadership depend for legitimacy on more than military and economic prowess. Those claims are deeply discounted when they issue from a society that fails to inspire admiration and emulation and a polity that falls short even by its own standards. The rise of strong regional powers and competitive economies reflects not a world homogenized; rather they sustain multipolar and multicultural trends that make the exercise of U.S. dominance inherently difficult in a way omitted from the calculation of the optimists.

The optimists have also suffered from weak historical perspective. They take a drastically foreshortened view of the evolution of U.S. dominance, ignoring the long period of preparation before 1945 and the erosion of that dominance since the 1970s while fixating on the Cold War triumph as confirmation of enduring U.S. strength. When they do invoke history by drawing comparisons between Britain’s dominance during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and the subsequent American rise, the case they make is thin and tendentious. The optimists contended that the British case could offer lessons and inspiration for Americans striving to stay on top. But theirs was a distinctly dated school boy version of the British position that failed to recognize how significantly different was the British case from that of the United States in regard to both national power and the international context in which each operated.

“Is America great — or what?” That’s the simple-minded way the question has been posed in the current political season. What neither Trump the Restorer nor Clinton the Cheerleader are willing to confront is the fundamentally paradoxical position the United States is in. The country can fairly claim a strong military and a robust economy. But it also cannot hide a compromised democracy and a people divided on multiple and fundamental lines including the basic ones of identity and wealth. Sloganeering on either side of the political divide is not going to alter these circumstances. Facing reality would, so some smart people who have given the matter some thought, be a good first step.

 

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Those interested in recent works on American standing in the world will find them split fairly neatly between optimists and pessimists. Good examples of the latter include Mason’s The End of the American Century (noted above); Vaclav Smil, Made in the USA: the Rise and Retreat of American Manufacturing (2013), especially chaps. 4-6; and Andrew Bacevich, ed., The Short American Century: A Postmortem (2012). My own views, which are distinctly on the side of the pessimists, are spelled out in a July 2011 post that is, I think, still pertinent. On the other side, Robert J. Lieber, Power and Willpower in the American Future: Why the United States Is Not Destined to Decline (2012); Zaki Laïdi, Limited Achievements: Obama’s Foreign Policy, trans. Carolyn Avery (2012); Steven Weber and Bruce W. Jentleson, The End of Arrogance: America in the Global Competition of Ideas (2010); and G. John Ikenberry, Liberal Leviathan: The Origins, Crisis, and Transformation of the American World Order (2011), all profess optimism that the United States can retain its dominance. Vaclav Smil, Why America Is Not a New Rome (2010), makes a compelling case against those on both sides of the decline argument who invoke imperial comparisons.