August 25, 2017

Is the US in decline?

Fears of American decline are untrue. The country still leads the world economically, militarily, and often culturally. Rather, insecurity over the country’s long-term prosperity is a symptom of American inequality and a reactionary media, argues Samuel Edgington.

A key theme of the recently successful Trump campaign was monopolising upon the concern of American decline. The call to “make America great again” only resonated because it reflected a genuine feeling in the U.S. regarding domestic and international decline; there is a pervading sense that something has been lost. The majority of Americans now believe that the U.S. is less powerful than 10 years ago. It has become commonplace for people to prophesise that China will soon overtake the U.S. certainly economically and perhaps even militarily. Such an emotive narrative can be utilised by political outsiders like Trump to great effect, but is it true?

If one looks at raw statistics, there is ample evidence of American “greatness”. However, such data is usually ignored or dismissed particularly in this era of “post-truth” politics (it is no real surprise that “post-truth” was recently made the word of 2016 by the Oxford Dictionaries). The data is indeed quite encouraging for America; it remains by far the leading economy globally, contributing almost a quarter of the world’s entire GDP. This was reflected in the 2008 Crash which originated in America but quickly engulfed the rest of the world. Admittedly, America’s economic growth has been sluggish in recent years, particularly in comparison to China, but it has still been faster than many European economies. This wealth enables the U.S. to maintain its colossal defence budget which cements America’s place as a world superpower. This is important because it can impose its will on others either via “soft” economic power (sanctions on Russia have shown this to be at least partially effective) or by force using their remarkably powerful military. Permanent status on the UN security council and de-facto leadership of NATO, demonstrated by the panic caused by Trump’s lukewarm feelings to the institution, further strengthen America’s hand as does the informal influence American foreign policy has on its allies like the UK. If anything, militarily, the U.S. is more powerful now than at any time in its history as it no longer has another real superpower like the USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) to compete with.

In less obvious ways too, America remains dominant. Most ground-breaking technology originates from Silicon Valley and American culture, from Hollywood to McDonalds, has spread throughout much of the globe. Bearing all this in mind, how can so many Americans feel that their country is no longer powerful?

Some may argue that the election of Trump itself signals an American decline; electing a misogynistic demagogue with no political experience and few realistic proposals to the most powerful post in the land hardly demonstrates a flourishing democracy. His election also continues the loss of moral authority which Iraq and the torture revelations brought particularly into focus. These discoveries harmed the standing of the American government and military both in the eyes of the world and in the view of many of their own citizens. Of course, America has always had some devious foreign policies (Vietnam and the Iran-Contra Scandal come to mind) but never has an American president so openly scorned so much of the world. His attitude to the outside world has proven popular not solely because of a preoccupation with domestic affairs. Many Americans feel slighted by the rest of the world. The refusal of the UN to grant permission to invade Iraq in 2003 led to some of its traditional allies, such as France, failing to join the American “coalition of the willing”. This stung. The re-naming of French fries as “freedom fries” in some eateries reflected this bitterness. Likewise, Washington’s insistence that NATO members spend at least 2% of GDP on defence has been ignored by most European countries (the UK is an exception). Many Americans have taken this either as a sign of disrespect or of European “freeloading”. Trump recognised this feeling and exploited it in his campaign. This scorn, or apathy, which fuels his America-First rhetoric will hardly make America great again on the world stage particularly if crises like Syria worsen while America watches on from the side-lines.

A feeling of vulnerability, previously almost absent, is now present in the American psyche. Before 9/11, America felt almost invulnerable to foreign attack on its mainland owing to its size and distance from hostile countries. Unlike Europe, American civilians suffered relatively little in WWII. This feeling of safety was shattered both by 9/11 and then, less dramatically, the 2008 financial crisis since which real wages for the vast majority of Americans have either stagnated or declined. American optimism suddenly went out of fashion with paranoia taking its place- as draconian legislation like the PATRIOT act shows. The media played a role in this by disproportionately representing the threats posed both by terror and crime; to the extent that Americans perceptions of crime are consistently higher than reality. One only needs to watch Fox News to notice this phenomenon. Therefore, it is perhaps not surprising that many Americans feel as though they are under siege.

America is growing more slowly than economies like China (who, it must be noted, have their own domestic problems too). In this sense, they are in decline. Nonetheless, it is indisputable that they remain the economic, military and diplomatic superpower of the world whether one likes that fact or not. Since the end of the Cold War there has been no real rival superpower to challenge American hegemony. These feelings of decline, understandable but perhaps not well-founded, stem primarily from an economy which does not work for most Americans, a media obsessed with violence and fear and from the rhetoric of politicians who use this narrative for their own purposes.

3.40 avg. rating (69% score) - 15 votes
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Samuel Edgington
Sam is a second year history and politics student originally from Merseyside. He is actively involved in the Labour Party.
  • SonofBoudica

    The publisher is a well-known Green campaigning organisation whose viewpoint is interesting but not balanced.

  • SonofBoudica

    You need to study the actual history of shale development, and how the Crude Oil bloc (including Russia and Saudi Arabia) tried to bankrupt shale extraction by cutting the price of oil, but actually shale has become more efficient and it is shale that has now driven down the price of crude oil.

  • therealguyfaux ✓ᵛᵉʳᶦᶠᶦᵉᵈ

    “Naïve” is VERY charitable of you.

  • Wally-Jumblatt

    This might be worth a read
    type a search for “why-shale-oil-miracle-becoming-debacle”
    you should find a zerohedge article

  • Nivek Ecyoj

    Its a ponzi scheme – shale oil is dependent on the oil price remaining high, and at the same time has huge debt obligations.

  • PendaBrittaniX

    Sam is a second year history and politics student.Clearly with much to learn,preferably outside the confines of the education system.Best wishes Sam.

  • Captn P

    Its in decline for the majority of the people who live there. There is a significant minority that are doing very well. The gap between these two groups appears to me to be growing. Although mentioned you make no case for the obvious cultural decline of the US.

    And a basic observation of large US cities, DC, New York, LA etc … very large slum areas, very high crime rates.

  • Nockian

    The opposite is true, because the state has effectively replaced religion, therefore religion has become less popular. It might even be said that this was the church being too succesful in its spreading of aspects of moral dogma, namely altruism, so where the church was once the key charity, it is the state which has taken on that role with welfare/tax.

    It pointless comparing religions. Christianity did adopt Aristotlian reason/logic and has had to evolve away from its original form. Islam of course never adopted reason and never developed the technological/economic power of the West as a direct result. It’s ironic that the Muslims were the source of Aristotelian writings which the churches scholars such as Aquinus brought to the west.

    Remember that under democracy/God, the exceptional nation has sallied forth into nation after nation in a Neo-holy crusade largely driven by the religious Neo-con ideology of bringing democracy to those nations.

  • Adrian Johnson

    We still have the constitution; but we have increasingly lost the spirit with which it was instituted. Funny that this coincides with loss of traditional religion.

    –Christianity has been responsible for worse morality than Islam? The “constitution” of Islamic countries is Sharia Law.

  • Nockian

    It wasn’t, it was based on the constitution which preserved the rights to life, liberty, property and the pursuit of happiness. This put the individual before the state and any Government. The right to worship was enshrined in these rights, but they didn’t spring from Christianity, that was added much later on.

    I agree with your general summation, but it has nothing to do with Christianity. Indeed Christianity has been responsible from some of the worst excesses of bad morality.

  • Nockian

    “Things begin quite slowly and then get very fast in the end”

    The entire West is in serious decline and heading for bleak times at a hectic pace. The USA was a bastion of freedom, from which it built its wealth. The USA is still notionally less collectivist and freer than Western Europe, but there is no doubt that it is busy dismantling it’s constitution. The US economy is surviving on a central banking confidence trick reliant on the dollar as reserve currency. This hegemonic currency has allowed the country to live way beyond its productive means and this has seen the gradual destruction of rights in return for privilige.

    As Gerald Celente observes ” the business of China is business and the business of America is war”. The US lives on arms sales by promoting conflict and then picking up lucrative contracts for rebuilding. NATO is the US arms sales network. As Rome discovered, eternal war benefits a small group (read General Smedley Butler war is a racket), over everyone else, which is exactly how thieves operate. When the theft gets too great and is coupled with redistribution of productivity through a welfare system, then it can’t be long before the crunch comes for all of those paying the bills of the welfare/warfare state. Just like the parent who pays out money to a self destructive child, eventually the earnings no longer meet the outgoings and the credit cards hit the stops.

    The US is dying economically and morally, it is losing its way and is smashing at the foundations of it’s philosophic under pinnings. It has begun to hate itself as much as Europe, it hates it’s past principles and it hates it’s people. The perfect storm is coming to the West and the thunderclap will begin with what was once the most free nation on earth. When the hegemony of the dollar ends, when we see the rise of the dual reserve currency, then the US will no longer be able to sustain it’s lending, the dollar will collapse and the price of imports will rise. The USA won’t be able to sustain its spending on arms and it will begin to lose its claim to super power status much as Britain did. The speed of its moral collapse will mirror the financial collapse and without a memory of it’s core principles we will likely see a destructive introspection as those in power fight ever harder to remain there.

  • Corporate Kitten

    Yes, but then we all are & it is largely from stagnation when the other hegemonies are on the march.

  • SonofBoudica

    Trump is the symptom. Obama’s naive liberalism was the cause.

  • SonofBoudica

    “Wasted its oil wealth?”. The USA now leads the world in shale oil and is now self-sufficient in oil. It will become a major exporter in the near future.

  • SonofBoudica

    That is just the point. The EU has a single currency, but NOT a single economy. That is what has benefitted Germany and crippled Greece, Cyprus, Italy, Spain and Portugal.

  • Bill Quango MP

    I’ve read popular fiction about American decline since the 1970s.
    The Crash of ’79 being a mildly memorable one.

    Despite all predicting decline, and some even correctly predicting mid east wars and banking crisis etc, America has not declined in world status.

  • obbo12

    The idea that the US is less equal now than the 50s, or the days of the Morgans, Carnegies et Al us frankly laughable.

  • EppingBlogger

    “many European economies”?

    I think you will find there is the EU and very few non-member states. The EU claims to be and should be regarded as a single economy (heaven help them!).

  • SomeBloke

    Sam, I disagree with this article and to voice my discontent i will kidnap millie the labrador >:(

  • ScaryBiscuits

    Living standards in the West, including the USA, have been in decline since the 1990s, accelerated by uncontrolled immigration. It’s more difficult for a young person to buy a house and to make a family than at virtually any time in our history. This and this alone is why working class Americans feel let down by the political class that doesn’t even recognise the problem and why they voted for Trump.

  • Wally-Jumblatt

    The USA is most certainly in decline, and it’s decline was caused by the same reasons as it’s rise to ‘greatness’.
    Early Oil, Agriculture and Heavy Industrial wealth, and the power of being the world’s reserve currency meant they could create money any time they wanted and also throttle any competitors or upstart regimes, and the power of creating the most powerful banking system, meant they could create the rest of the money anyone could wish for, and lend it to their friends. Silicon Valley and most other US technological advances came from easy borrowing and low barriers to business risk (and small government)
    The UK Financial sector failed to grasp that notion, and instead played little games with stocks and bonds. There is no shortage of innovation in UK (and Europe) -most smart companies get bought up by international rivals- there is a shortage of banking courage. Can Brexit be seized as the great opportunity by the City -not likely.

    The USA is in its terminal decline now because it has wasted its oil wealth, increased hugely red tape and big government, exported its jobs, encouraged corruption, antagonised the rest of the world into searching for currency alternatives, expanded its military to preposterous dimensions, and run up a debt too grand to ever resolve.
    If the USA wishes to recover (apart from invading Canada) they might think if withdrawing back to their own borders and starting again.

    A pity, it could have gone so much better.

  • geo

    the entire west is in decline. with the liberal/progressives desperately selling out their own culture to prove their right on credentials … barbarism is literally being invited in to destroy from within the most successful and productive culture yet seen. at least the roman empire when it fell, fell to external pressure/internal rot after hundreds of years NOT just 20 years of woolly minded,weak liberalism culminating in a generation that would struggle to survive if it didnt have a smartphone in their hand 24/7.

  • Adrian Johnson

    American wealth, innovation, and self-confidence was based on a Christian view of christian neighbourliness and community. The USA is a proudly post-Christian, post-morality and post-ethical country, and no longer has a team-spirit of community in diversity; now, diversity is focused on winning the “victim entitlement” olympics. American superiority is rapidly degenerating in to American inferiority.

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