Stories of Imperial Collapse Are Getting Old

by Victor Davis Hanson

New Criterion

The most recent doom-and-gloom forecast by Matthew Parris of the LondonTimes would be hilarious if it were not so hackneyed. After all, Americans long ago have learned to grin any time a British intellectual talks about the upstart’s foreordained imperial collapse. And as in the case of our own intelligentsia’s gloominess, it is not hard to distinguish the usual prophets’ pessimistic prognostications from their thinly-disguised hopes for American decline and fall.

But this country is now in its third century and assurances that the United States is about through are getting old. In the early 20th century the rage was first Spengler and then Toynbee who warned us that our crass consumer capitalism would lead to inevitable spiritual decay. Next, the Hitlerians assured the Volk that the mongrel Americans could never set foot on German-occupied soil, so decadent were these Chicago mobsters and uncouth cowboys. Existentialism and pity for the empty man in the gray flannel suit were the rage of the 1950s, as Americans, we were told, had become depressed and given up in the face of racial inequality, rapid suburbanization, and the spread of world-wide national liberationist movements.

In the 1960s and 1970s we heard of the population bomb and all sorts of catastrophes in store for the United States and the world in general that had unwisely followed its profligate paradigm of consumption; yet despite Paul Ehrlich’s strident doomsday scenario, the environment got cleaner and the people of the globe richer. And then came the historian Paul Kennedy, who, citing earlier Spanish and English implosions, “proved” that the United States had played itself out in the Cold War, ruining its economy to match the Soviet Union in a hopeless arms race–publishing his findings shortly before the Russian empire collapsed and the American economy took off (again).

In the Carter ‘malaise years,’ we were warned about the impending triumph of ‘Asian Values’ and the supposed cultural superiority of Japan, Inc., which would shortly own most of whatever lazy and ignorant Americans sold them–before the great meltdown brought on by corruption, censorship, and ossified bureaucracies in Asia.

Currently Jared Diamond is back with Collapse, another grim tale from the desk of a Westwood professor, full of remonstrations about social inequality and resource depletion that we have come to expect from the rarified habitat in which tenured full professors thrive.

All that disenchantment is the context in which Matthew Parris now warns us that our military is overstretched and our economy weak–despite the fact that our gross domestic product is larger than ever and the percentage of it devoted to military spending at historic lows, far below what was committed during WWII, Korea, or Vietnam. The American military took out Noriega, Milosevic, the Taliban, and Saddam with a minimum of effort, and what followed was far better for both the long-suffering victims and the world at large. The difficult postbellum reconstruction in Iraq is costly and heartbreaking, but so far after September 11 we have lost fewer troops in 3 years of fighting that we did in one day during the Bulge or at Normandy. While Parris decries our slow decline, the United States alone will soon have the world’s only anti-ballistic missile system and the forward basing presence to preempt would-be nuclear rogue states before they imperil Americans. Europeans may brag of soft power, but in the scary world to come let us hope that they can bribe, beg, lecture, or appease Iranians, North Koreans, Chinese, and others to appreciate the realities of their postmodern world that has supposedly transcended violence and war.

It is true that Americans are worried about high budget deficits, trade imbalances, a weak dollar, and national debt; but we are already at work to rectify these problems, convinced that the correctives are not depression and chaos, but rather a little sobriety and sacrifice in what has been a breakneck rise in the standard of living the last 20 years, prosperity unmarked in the history of civilization. Better indicators of our health are low unemployment, low inflation, low interest rates, along with high worker productivity and innovation. Hollywood movies, New York books, Silicon Valley software and gadgetry, Pentagon arms, the English language, and popular culture show no signs of fading before French film, London publishing, Indian I-pods, Chinese aircraft carriers, the global preference for Mandarin or burquas for bare-navels and Levis.

Parris cites the rise of other economies; but they, not us, have the real problems ahead. The EU does not assimilate very well its immigrants–in contrast, more come to the US every year than to all other countries combined. Enormous apartheid communities of Muslims, full of simmering resentment, reside outside Parris and in the Netherlands, Scandinavia, and Germany, not in Detroit and New York. European socialism is facing a demographic nightmare; and soon budget shortfalls to pay for its utopian agenda will be made worse once the United States begins to withdraw its 50-year subsidy of the continent’s defense. History suggests that atheism and secularism are not indicators of strength but of apathy and aimlessness. The United States–not Europe, Russia, or China— is a religious community, and, pace Michael Moore, without the fundamentalist extremism of the Middle East and reactionary Islam.

China and India are the new tigers, but their rapid industrialization and urbanization have created enormous social and civic problems long ago dealt with by the United States. Each must soon confront environmentalism, unionism, minority rights, free expression, community activism, and social entitlements that are the wages of any citizenry that begins to taste leisure and affluence. China is fueled by industrious laborers who toil at cut-rate wages for 14 hours per day, but that will begin to moderate once an empowered citizenry worries about dirty air, back backs, inadequate housing, and poor health care. The infrastructure of generations–bridges, roads, airports, universities, power grids–are well established and being constantly improved in the United States, and so there is a reason why a European would prefer to drink the water, get his appendix out, or drive in San Francisco rather than in Bombay, Beijing, Istanbul–or Paris or Rome.

Nowhere in the world is the rule of law as stable in the United States, which is the most transparent society on the globe and thus the most trusted for investors and entrepreneurs–no surprise given its hallowed Constitution and Bill of Rights. Parris notes the presence abroad of thousands of American troops, but does not ask whether any other country has, or will have, the air or sea lift capacity to project such power, force that allowed American ships and helicopters to save thousands after the tsunami when Europe’s lone Charles de Gaulle was nowhere to be seen. China and India, for all their robust economies, have neither the ability to help victims of mass disasters nor citizenries wealthy or generous enough to give hundreds of millions to strangers abroad.

All civilizations erode, but few citizenries are as sensitive to the signs of decay as Americans, who constantly innovate, experiment, and self-critique in a fashion unknown anywhere else. When we develop a class system based on British aristocratic breeding, accent, and social paralysis, or sink into a multicultural cauldron like the endemic violence of an India or Africa, or cease believing in either God or children like an Amsterdam or Brussels, or require the state coercion of a China to maintain harmony, or become a racialist state such as Japan, then it is time to worry.

But we are not there yet by a long shot.

©2005 Victor Davis Hanson

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