Saturday, September 25, 2010
Wallowing in Decline Americans have gone from gloating over their global influence to bemoaning the loss of it. They were wrong then, and they're wrong now. BY JAMES TRAUB
In Super Sad True Love Story, the novelist Gary Shteyngart imagines a not-very-remote future in which the United States, having giddily spent itself into bankruptcy, falls into the hands of Chinese bankers, who call in their T-bills, precipitating armed warfare and state collapse. The comic apocalypse conjured by Shteyngart, a wry connoisseur of baroque states of decline, induces in the reader a peculiar sense of queasiness: Is that not, in fact, what lies ahead? In a recent column titled "Too Many Hamburgers?" the New York Times' Thomas Friedman offered a particularly stomach-wrenching version of the Spenglerian nightmare, in which America is personified by an overweight and overconfident boy who loses a footrace to a fiercely competitive Chinese kid. Declinism has begun to settle into our bones.
Nothing is foretold, of course. But you wouldn't want to bet the house, or even a sofa set, that the United States will overcome the rampant triviality of its culture, the self-righteousness of its national psyche, or the ideological paralysis of its politics in order to deal with the lack of critical investment, the decline of human capital, the looming tidal wave of entitlement spending, and the like. Another generation of this squandering of national assets, and Americans may find themselves clamoring for Shteyngart's "yuan-pegged dollars."
The United States remains unmatched in economic and military might. It leads because no other country -- and certainly not China -- aspires to the job, much less has the capacity for it. But the United States no longer enjoys the deference paid it only a decade or two ago. And the country has begun to run up against the limits of its resources as international commitments become increasingly mismatched with capacities. American hegemony has thus slipped both in relative and in absolute terms. Less than a decade ago, works like Walter Russell Mead's Power, Terror, Peace, and War celebrated the triumph of "millennial capitalism" and thus of American supremacy; henceforth we will be wallowing in the literature of decline. We should, of course, be as skeptical of this new narrative as we ought to have been of the triumphalist canon that preceded it.
Posted by Michele Kearney at 11:01 AM