Is America's role as a global leader over, given inevitable decline at home? Americans are running up a $1.6 trillion budget deficit this year. The use of food stamps and unemployment benefits remains at record levels. In the last two years, unemployment rarely has dipped below 9 percent. The housing market is moribund. Gasoline is at a nationwide average of $4 a gallon. Our aggregate debt exceeds $14 trillion, up $5 trillion alone since 2009. Medicare and Social Security will soon be insolvent at the current rates of disbursement. States like California, Illinois, Michigan, and New York are almost insolvent.
These depressing indicators—coupled with the rise of a confident 1 billion person India and China—have convinced the Obama administration that America is neither ‘exceptional’ nor able to assert its accustomed preeminent leadership. Decline, not American ascendance, is the administration’s buzzword, a pathology shared with the imploding welfare state of the European Union that can no longer afford the redistribution of wealth to its Mediterranean members.
In response to these perceptions, presidential assistants who were quoted in a recent New Yorker essay characterized the new Obama foreign-relations style as "leading from behind." An advisor explained further that American decline and unpopularity necessitate such withdrawal from the world stage: "It’s so at odds with the John Wayne expectation for what America is in the world," the adviser said. "But it’s necessary for shepherding us through this phase." Left unsaid was that "phase" implies the transition from former power and influence to a new sort of global impotence that reflects a nation in senescence.
The president himself is said to agree with observers such as Fareed Zakaria and Tom Friedman, who have often gleefully outlined the dimensions of what the inevitable post-American world would look like. At times environmentalists, internationalists, and progressives even welcome such an envisioned new role for the United States—its reduced global profile will be a sort of bookend to a lower carbon footprint at home that would come with a reduced American lifestyle, greater government regulations, cap-and-trade legislation, more taxes, and higher energy prices. We would become an equality of results society at home, and not particularly distinguishable from many nations abroad.
But such pessimism raises two unanswered questions: is the United States really doomed to decline—and what would be the consequences abroad of a retrenchment of American leadership? We can answer the second question first, and quite easily, because America’s global preeminence is a relatively recent phenomenon. It followed the Allied victory in 1945 and came in response to the rise of Soviet-led global communism. A post-American world, then, would probably resemble what things were like before America assumed its present responsibilities—when a Depression-era United States was just one of many powers and either reluctant or incapable of asserting leadership abroad during the 1930s.
Yet in that vacuum, some eighty years ago, an ascendant, newly Westernized, and virulently anti-democratic Japan bullied and occupied China and Korea, as it carved out a pan-Asiatic Co-prosperity Sphere—all on the supposition that a Depression-era, insolvent America had neither the fiscal means nor will to play a prominent role in the Pacific.
Decline, not American ascendance, is the administration’s buzzword.Most Americans, remember, then (as now) were fed up with overseas commitments. Our ancestors lamented that their considerable sacrifices in World War I either had gone unappreciated by ungrateful allies or had solved little in preventing new aggression on the European
Elsewhere, a recently defeated, but newly confident, united, and ascendant Germany was growing angry at other European countries. It nursed a long list of financial grievances, real and imagined, over feeling used and abused by countries that either drew unfairly on its financial resources or did not accord it global influence commensurate with its industrial might. Does that sound familiar? In contrast, a weak Britain and France had almost no confidence in their own declining militaries—sort of like the sad spectacle of their impotence in Libya that we have witnessed over the last two months.
Much-vaunted international institutions, like the bankrupt League of Nations, were about as effective in the role of world watchdogs as the corrupt United Nations is today. Europe and America were emerging from the nightmare of financial insolvency, and praised international bodies as much as they failed to participate fully in them.
The so-called international community cared as much in the 1930s about rising, aggressive totalitarian states in Germany, Italy, Japan, and Russia as it does today about a rising autocratic China or soon to be nuclear Iran. Millions of Jews, then as now, heard crackpot threats of their annihilation, and desperately—and usually in vain—looked to the protection of the United States, which tried to reassure them that the danger was more imagined than real.
In other words, the Obama administration’s much anticipated post-American world might appear a lot like the rather terrifying pre-American version of seven decades past. So why in the world would we wish to return to it? That is a question that brings us back to our first point— namely, that decline, to the Obama administration, seems to be fated and inevitable, rather than a matter of choice or will power.
Yet there is little historical evidence that any nation’s downturn was predicated on an inevitable set of political, economic, military, or cultural circumstances. There was no reason that Athens at 338 B.C. needed to lose to Philip of Macedon at the battle of Chaironeia, or even that the loss there meant the end of the freedom of the Greek city-states. Macedonian forces were a fraction of the size of a far larger Persian force that had swept down from the north into a far weaker Athens a century-and-half-earlier in 480 BC, and were soundly defeated. In terms of culture, no law in stone decreed that drama of the quality of the Orestia, Oedipus, Ajax, Bacchae, and Medea had to give way to the lesser sitcoms of Middle and New comedy of the fourth century BC. Complacency and collective loss of confidence, brought on by affluence, leisure, and poor leadership far better explain retrenchment than environmental catastrophe, foreign invasion, or financial implosion—the latter are all symptomatic of societies that have lost the confidence to respond to natural and manmade challenges.
Our current mood of despair could be reversed almost instantaneously—if it is recognized as a pathology, a sort of degeneration of the spirit.
Consider the case of a victorious Great Britain in September 1945. England had far more of its industrial base intact than had Germany or Japan, suffering far fewer losses, both material and human, since 1939 than either of the defeated Axis powers. Both of the latter were in ashes, their national ideologies rendered bankrupt and their people reduced to global pariahs.
Why, then, did a nation that produced a Churchill and the sort of four-engine bomber en masse that its wartime adversaries could not, or a Spitfire fighter plane better than any produced by Japan or Germany until the advent of the jet, end up decades later with unsold Jaguars while Mercedes and Lexus swept world automobile markets?
And why did a bombed out Frankfurt and Tokyo (200,000 incinerated in March 1945 alone) rather quickly out-produce a less damaged Liverpool (4,000 killed in the blitz) or another former industrial hub at Manchester? Between 1945-1949, the United Kingdom chose a path of deliberate retrenchment, redistributive large government, high taxes, and socialism that a once flattened, and suddenly desperate Germany and Japan did not.
If Rome was supposedly "doomed" by the 5th century AD, why did the Eastern Empire at Constantinople last another 1,000 years? Why was 1978 America a very different place from that of 1985 or 1996? How had gas lines, stagflation, and Jimmy Carter’s "malaise" led to the booming confidence of the Reagan and Clinton years that saw the end of the Soviet Union, balanced budgets, and a booming high-tech renaissance?
By every benchmark, this present age should be an American century, here and abroad. Our known fossil fuel reserves are soaring. New finds of coal, natural gas, oil, tar sands, and oil shale keep growing, not declining. Demographically, we are expanding. In comparison, Europe, Japan, and China are shrinking, unsure of how to address an aging population, single-child families, and scores of unassimilated immigrants. America remains a free religious society; in contrast, China is religiously atheistic, Europe agnostic, and the Middle East intolerant.
We do not have the strikes of Europe. There is nothing in America like the violence of the Middle East, much less the state oppression of China. Russia is a failed state, kept on life support by oil revenues and Western petro-science and technology. India has religious, social, and caste tensions unknown in the U.S. We have been speaking of the potential, rather than the reality, of an Africa or Brazil for a half-century.
In an increasingly hungry world, American farmland is the most productive on the planet. Our farmers are surely the most gifted and innovative. The United States has inherited a vast, developed infrastructure; our duty is to improve and expand it, not, as our ancestors had to, start from scratch by building a Hoover Dam, intercontinental railroad, or port facilities in Oakland.
By every benchmark, this present age should be an American century, here and abroad.
Google, iPhones, Facebook, and Microsoft are culturally American to the core. Construction, computers, and oil drilling and refining are still American premier sciences. For all the talk of China, it would take the Chinese thirty years to acquire the expertise to launch and employ ten effective carrier groups. And to the degree an India or China is successful economically, it is because of emulation of the West, and the United States in particular.
We see in the misadventure in Libya how the Europeans flounder without the U.S. military. Japan’s dense population and centralized mode of transportation, housing, and industry make it serially vulnerable to natural disasters—like the latest tragic tsunami and nuclear meltdown—in a way a dispersed, decentralized, and huge America is not.
Why, then, does the Obama administration envision and accept decline at home and retrenchment abroad? Is such uncertainty a wish rather than a descriptive assessment? Consider the following areas in which America is said to be in trouble, but in fact could easily surmount the present difficulties.
Debt. In 1999 Americans worried about the specter of paying off the debt and transmogrifying to creditor status. There are trillions of dollars produced annually in this country; it is a matter of redirecting the economy from consumption to savings, and to wealth creation from redistribution. The years 2004-2005 seemed bountiful when the federal budget was a mere $2.3 trillion. Go back to those spending levels and the administration could more or less balance the budget. If we had a leader willing to cut expenditures and ignore the furor, we could pile up surpluses rather quickly. The present fiscal policy is a choice to embrace redistribution and decline, not a result of innate unproductivity, resource depletion, strikes, and factional strife.
Energy. Known reserves of natural gas just keep getting larger. The amount of oil in the Dakotas, in Texas, in Alaska, and offshore climbs too, even as cars are getting more efficient and new hybrids become more practical. There is enough natural gas (and its derivatives) to quite easily power a quarter of our fleet for a century or more. Should Americans have a president who wished to drill, utilize natural gas as a transportation fuel, and downplay subsidizing "millions of green jobs," the nation could do wonders on the energy front. Each barrel produced here rather than imported from Saudi Arabia means more money, more jobs, and enhanced national security. Asking other governments to pump more oil, whether Brazil or Saudi Arabia, even as we insist that drilling and supply have no effect on prices, shows that Americans prefer to become more indebted and dependent. Again, that is a choice, not a fate.
National security. Despite all the talk of al Qaeda, the Bush anti-terrorism protocols—derided and then embraced and expanded by Obama—coupled with the terrible toll we took on Islamists in Anbar, Iraq, and in Afghanistan, have meant that radical Islam is far weaker than it was in 2001, and we far stronger. Osama bin Laden is now dead; and his organization in disarray. We are still spending less than 5 percent of GDP on defense. If we were to develop a strategic, consistent policy of bestowing our alliances and friendship on those who shared either our values or our notion of security, we could easily regain our strategic preeminence, rather than "leading from behind."
Immigration. Close the border, before addressing other immigration issues. We should institutionalize employer fines, finish the fence—and predicate legal entry into the US not on race, nearness to the border, or the number of relatives in America, but on skills and capital. America would experience a renaissance if it were to end 500,000 illegal entries and replace them with 250,000 legal entries based on education and expertise, not national origin, proximity, or family connection. Immigration could be one of our greatest strengths, rather than a continual effort to bolster political constituencies. Apparently, self-supporting, highly educated, confident immigrants from all regions of the globe are not this administration’s natural constituents, and therefore of no value politically.
Entitlements. Whether we adopt the Simpson-Bowles commission’s analysis, raise the retirement age, or follow Rep. Paul Ryan’s recommendations, there is a little discussed truth: with reasonable reforms, we can make Social Security solvent and still support retired citizens in finer fashion than was true ten years ago. Borrowing to spend is a mood, a state of mind, not a death sentence.
"Leading from behind" is like a person choosing to stay home from work—occasionally calling in to do a bit of business and usually being ignored. That too is a decision, not destiny. In short, our current mood of despair could be reversed almost instantaneously—if it is recognized as a pathology, a sort of degeneration of the spirit.
We may well decline, and pass on a weaker, more divided, more insolvent and at-risk America to our children. But that is entirely our volition, not our destiny. It is a decision that many prosperous, but tired and squabbling societies—4th-century BC Athens, 5th-century AD Rome, 1950s Britain, 1970s America—chose willingly when they redistributed rather than created wealth, embraced envy rather than emulation of success as their collective creed, and whined about not being liked rather than unapologetically assuming leadership in the world. Unpopularity is always the price of leadership and jealousy its constant twin. Decline is the choice that once successful societies made when they talked of rationing, lectured on what they could not—rather than could—do, and made bickering between the generations, the sexes, the races, the classes, and the tribes a national sport, rather than collectively and confidently looking forward to creating new sources of wealth.
America during the Obama administration may choose to become unexceptional abroad and a redistributive rather than productive society at home. Should that become our choice, we will be collectively far poorer—and the world a far more dangerous place.
Victor Davis Hanson, the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, is a classicist and an expert on the history of war. He is a syndicated Tribune Media Services columnist and a regular contributor to National Review Online, as well as many other national and international publications; he has written or edited twenty-one books, including the New York Times best seller Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power. His most recent book, The Savior Generals, will appear in 2013. He was awarded a National Humanities Medal by President Bush in 2007 and the Bradley Prize in 2008 and has been a visiting professor at the US Naval Academy, Stanford University, Hillsdale College, and Pepperdine University. Hanson received a PhD in classics from Stanford University in 1980.