by Bruce Thronton
Looking back over 2012, one could be forgiven for thinking that if America goes on at this rate, the nation must be ruined. But as Adam Smith replied to a young man who said those same words about British losses during the American Revolution, “there is a great deal of ruin in a nation.” A mighty power will not collapse overnight, and the course of decline can always be halted by a renewal of patriotic vigor. But absent that, ruin will eventually come. As we look ahead to 2013, signs abound that we may be reaching the point where decline accelerates.
Indeed, the slow pace of national ruin is itself insidious, creating the illusion that the problems are not that great or can be solved later. The first cracks in the British Empire were starting to show even before World War I, but it wasn’t until about 1960 that the empire was gone and England had declined from a world power to a regional power at best. But for those like Churchill and Orwell with eyes to see, all the signs were there years earlier, many of them similar to the conditions in America today that point towards our own retreat from global dominance.
First and most obvious is the willingness to expand the national debt in order to finance entitlements. A liberal democratic and capitalist great power must be fiscally sound in order to afford the military assets necessary for maintaining the order required for a global economy. Yet the ever-expanding entitlement state creates competition for those funds, starving military budgets when the public demands that the state increase social welfare spending levels. All through the 1920s England drastically reduced its military spending — the defense budget was cut by four-fifths between 1919 and 1921 — partly in order to increase welfare transfers and service the national debt. By the crisis of 1938-39 that precipitated World War II, Germany was spending five times more on its military than England. The fruits of such shortsighted reductions became obvious in 1940 with the debacle of the British Expeditionary Force in France, which escaped annihilation at Dunkirk only because of Hitler’s whim.
Today America is lucky that it doesn’t face a military power as lethal as Nazi Germany — at least not yet. But there still remain numerous threats not just to our interests and security but also to the globalized economy. An increasingly aggressive Russia, an expansionary China growing it military spending by at least 10% every year, and an increasingly Islamist Middle East sitting on vast reserves of oil all will require a robust US military power. Yet for decades we have been cutting military spending at the same time we have expanded social welfare transfers. As of 2010, 3 times more money was being spent on entitlements than on defense. As a result, Nicholas Eberstadt writes in A Nation of Takers, “Our seemingly insatiable national hunger for government transfer payments to individual citizens stands to compromise our present and future capabilities for military readiness.” Thus despite our responsibilities to patrol and protect the 9 critical waterways through which global trade passes, our number of Navy vessels has shrunk to 285, compared to 529 in 1991.
Under Obama, this disparity between defense and entitlement spending has widened and promises to increase further. Between Obama’s cuts and those to come triggered by the 2011 Budget Control Act’s “sequestration” mechanism, defense faces a $1 trillion reduction in the next decade. Nor are these reductions going to be inflicted on a bloated defense budget eating up our wealth. In 2010, the national defense budget was 4.8% of current GDP, half as much as in 1961. So the point is not that we can’t afford a defense budget commensurate with our global responsibilities, but that we have other spending priorities. During the current budget crisis, Democrats have taken off the table any meaningful cuts in entitlement spending no matter how modest, even though the monstrous yearly budget deficits, the $16 trillion and growing debt, and the $75 trillion in unfunded liabilities, not defense, are driving our economy into the fiscal abyss. As Eberstadt comments, “By the calculus of American policymakers today then, US defense capabilities seem to be the primary area sacrificed to make the world safe for the unrestrained growth of American entitlements.” Meanwhile rival claimants to global power continue to expand their military capabilities and reach, and new threats like a nuclear-armed Iran loom on the geopolitical horizon.
If America continues down this road and surrenders its dominance, we can expect a more disordered and dangerous world, with dire consequences for our economy and way of life. Here we find the great difference between England in the ’50s and America today: the British knew that it was handing over the role of global policeman to a free government of laws and human rights. But what country, if any, can be trusted to take our place? At that point America’s decline, and its disastrous consequences, will be obvious.
Yet misplaced spending priorities are themselves symptoms of deeper causes for national decline — the loss of faith in the rightness and superiority of one’s country and its principles that justify its global preeminence and the sacrifices necessary to sustain it. This crisis of confidence and decline in patriotism was apparent in England among the elites even before the horrors of World War I. Churchill saw this collapse of patriotism as early as 1933: “Our difficulties come from the mood of unwarrantable self-abasement into which we have been cast by a powerful section of our own intellectuals. They come from the acceptance of defeatist doctrines by a large proportion of our politicians.” These defeatist attitudes also spread beyond intellectuals, writers, and politicians to ordinary citizens. In 1941 George Orwell wrote, “England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality. In left-wing circles it is always felt that there is something slightly disgraceful in being an Englishman and that it is a duty to snigger at every English institution.” As the ’30s progressed, Orwell went on, “left-wingers were chipping away at English morale,” and attacking the principles and values of the patriotic middle-classes, whom the elites scorned as “Blimps.” England’s enemies saw this self-loathing as signs the British were “decadent,” and the “systematic Blimp-baiting affected even the Blimps themselves and made it harder than it had been before to get intelligent young men to enter the armed forces.”
The parallels with America today are obvious. Guilt over America’s historical crimes and loathing for its institutions and principles permeate school curricula, popular culture, the media, and many churches. In those venues the sense of loyalty to and affection for our own country and its beliefs, and the willingness to sacrifice on its behalf are derided and considered “morally dangerous,” as academic philosopher Martha Nussbaum has said. Examples of these attitudes are legion, but none is as revealing as the comments President Obama has made on various trips abroad, when he has accused our country of being “arrogant, dismissive, derisive,” admitted the need for the US to work “through some of our own darker periods in our history,” confessed that “we have at times been disengaged, and at times we sought to dictate our terms,” and dismissed American exceptionalism as a parochial prejudice.
These declinist comments, moreover, are consistent with his foreign policy of “leading from behind,” his mad haste to exit Iraq and Afghanistan, his failed “reset” with Russia that has emboldened that country’s aggression, his feckless handling of Iran’s rush to obtain nuclear weapons, his delusional push for nuclear disarmament, and of course his willingness to reduce defense expenditures and continue running trillion-dollar deficits in order to keep expanding entitlement spending. The combination of retreat from global responsibilities and debt-funded social-welfare spending is the classic recipe for great-power decline.
If Obama and the Democrats continue down this road, America’s decline is assured — unless in the coming years there arises a critical mass of Americans who still believe a powerful America is a force of good in the world, and so are willing to make sacrifices to protect its deserved preeminence.
©2013 Bruce S. Thornton