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Weekend reading: United States discovered alive; allies, enemies chagrined

July 19, 2008 |  6:02 am

In World Affairs Journal, Georgetown professor Robert J. Lieber takes a thorough look at the decline of the United States of America, and discovers a new version of Zeno's paradox: It turns out the end has been approaching for well more than 100 years, and yet it never seems to get any closer. Here's a taste, treating a round of decline-of-the-Yankee-empyrean talk that surfaced back during Ronald Reagan's morning in America:

In the same year, Paul Kennedy published what at the time was greeted as the summa theologica of the declinist movement—The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, in which the author implied that the cycle of rise and decline experienced in the past by the empires of Spain and Great Britain could now be discerned in the “imperial overstretch” of the United States. But Kennedy had bought in at the top: within two years of his pessimistic prediction, the Cold War ended with the Soviet Union in collapse, the Japanese economic miracle entering a trough of its own, and U.S. competitiveness and job creation far outpacing its European and Asian competitors.

Theories of America’s obsolescence aspire to the status of science. But cycles of declinism tend to have a political subtext and, however impeccable the historical methodology that generates them seems to be, they often function as ideology by other means. During the 1980s, for instance, these critiques mostly emanated from the left and focused on Reaganomics and the defense buildup. By contrast, in the Clinton era, right-of-center and realist warnings were directed against the notion of America as an “indispensable nation” whose writ required it to nation-build and spread human rights. Likewise, much of today’s resurgent declinism is propelled not only by arguments over real-world events, but also by a fierce reaction against the Bush presidency—a reaction tainted by partisanship, hyperbole, ahistoricism, and a misunderstanding of the fundamentals that underpin the robustness and staying power of the United States.

Whole article.

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