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Eclipse of America? You may bet on it, but don't count on it

By Daniel M. Ryan
web posted May 12, 2008

Now that the subprime crisis has been splashed all over the mainstream media, and the associated decline in housing prices has turned steep, the doom-and-disaster crowd is again having its moment in the sun. Normally confined to goldbugs, the core ethos has spread to the left-liberal circuit. The left-liberal mutation of what used to be an Old Right narrative goes a large way in explaining the cross-aisle popularity of Ron Paul, along with the evident sympathy for him in some left-liberal circles. (Some antiwar libertarians, such as Justin Raimondo, are reciprocating by expressing sympathy, if not outright support, for Barack Obama.) Rather than constructing a free-standing alternative to the goldbugs, as was the case during the so-called "Roaring ‘80s," the left-liberal doom-and-gloom set is becoming fellow travelers of them. For all I know, Professor Leftlib either has a crock of gold tucked away in his portfolio or is on his way to doing so. At least one of the long-time regulars at this goldbug forum is an obvious left-liberal.

The doom fest has also hit Newsweek, courtesy of a webbed excerpt of a book that predicts a relative decline for American fortunes: it quickly hit the #1 spot in the "Most Viewed" list. Although the excerpt, "The Rise of the Rest" by Fareed Zakaria, is far more nuanced than typical doomologies, it nevertheless has been lumped in with them. Dr. Zakaria is at heart an optimist; he presents the relative decline in American predominance as a challenge to be faced. It's actually a wise stance.

Former Vice-President Dan Quayle is remembered in popular culture for his gaffes, such as the time when he corrected a child's correct spelling of "potato" to "potatoe." He's less remembered for the statement he made more than fifteen years ago, during a time when doomstering was also popular: "The declinists are wrong." Whether or not he pronounced it correctly, he was prescient on the point.

"They Hate Us For Our Generosity"

One of the usual comparisons made by declinists is one between America and Rome. The plain-vanilla version compares present-day America to the Roman Empire before its fall. A more nuanced version compares today's America with Rome before the fall of the Republic.

Comparisons of this sort do illuminate, but they tend to degrade into soothsaying if taken too literally. The literalists ignore the profound differences between America and Rome, even in the latter's old Republic phase.

The most obvious difference is in the words that citizens of each polity hew to. America's is, of course, "Liberty." Rome's, on the other hand, was "Invictus" – victory. America stands for democratic republicanism, while Romans stood for the res publica – the "body politic." These two different values result in societies that, on certain crucial folkways, would be incomprehensible to each other.

Take the role of the Imperator, for example. The policy that a nation should suspend elections from time to time, so as to let a legislatively-appointed dictator heal the body politic with a free hand, was one of the standard policy measures of the Roman Republic. The typical American would be shocked to see that kind of "reform" being proposed and taken seriously by the political mainstream, let alone being implemented.

The typical Roman citizen, on the other hand, would be shocked to see America's perpetual anti-war movement…especially the religious adjunct to it. The Romans believed, with all their souls, hearts and minds, that the gods unconditionally sanctioned Victory. The idea that an authorized priest or minister would claim that a legitimate god frowns on bellicosity, would be incomprehensible to them. To the Roman pagan, casus belli would have been a descriptive term, and "war is Satanic" would have been nonsensical – even blasphemous. This one-line sub-choral snippet from the old Bob Dylan song "Chimes of Freedom," "Flashing for the warriors whose strength is not to fight," would be untranslatable into then-current Latin – unless the word "lepers" is used for "warriors."

Also shocking would be the American common-sensical solution to Rome's perpetual food crises: "just make the bums work for their food." The right of a citizen to be fed for free was clung to as tenaciously by Romans as the right to freely express one's own opinion is by Americans. This American freedom is precisely the one that is most galling to those who "hate [Americans] for [their] freedoms." It not only suggests incipient blasphemy to those more jealous of order and tradition, but also the horrific spectacle of youngsters defying custom and authority once they got jobs or independent incomes. Given the custom of paterfamilias, Rome itself would be one of the states that would hate us for our freedoms.

Of course, the Romans were too insular to descend to that kind of hate. Rather than indulging in it, the Romans would proclaim that Americans "hate us for our generosity" once they got wind of workfare.

Anti-Imperial Overstretch

Uncle SamYes, the wolf does come sometimes. Eventually, the boy who cries "wolf" is vindicated. But not after a whole series of false alarms.

The people who point to American meddlesomeness, not American freedoms, as the precipitating cause of world anti-Americanism do have a point. A good case could be made for the thesis that the Soviet bloc named its member states "Democratic Republics" solely to forestall future American invasions of them. The person who was raised to admire war and despise the free economy can't help but think of the American economy as reserve materiel. The person who lacks admiration for American democracy will wonder why America seeks to export "contained anarchy" out of good will and in good faith. Both groups of people, as well as those infused with simple-minded but stout-hearted pride in their own homeland(s), would rather see the Yankee American troops stay home. Given widespread world unpopularity of America's most cherished ideals, it's actually counterintuitive that globalization would have proceeded as far as it has.

The "anti-imperial overstretch" point comes when current American war difficulties are magnified into signs that America is all-but-through as a world power. The truth of the matter is closer to the opposite. Comparing full-bore American mobilization levels to the current level makes it clear that America "has not yet begun to fight." It's the above-mentioned reverence for peace and liberty, along with derived distress at causing civilian casualties, that's getting the U.S. "war machine" into quasi-quagmires. Should that reverence be eroded, the American military will be quite capable at winning a fourth-generation war by using a second- (or even first-)generation fighting force. What they would have to do is use the same means that the Union forces used to win against the Confederacy. The Union forces weren't the first to do so, either: Julius Caesar was feted for besting the fourth-generation warriors of ancient Gaul through more "organized" means. All it takes for a predominant power to beat a fourth-generation fighting force is a generally-held conviction in the former that civilian casualties (except for one's own) mean nowt.

Granted that it takes a lot of outrages before that kind of callousness emerges in the White House and Pentagon, but that line has been crossed beforehand. (Amongst Americans, only the committed antiwar activist calls Truman a "war criminal" for authorizing the use of the atomic bomb.) The imperial-overstretch argument depends upon the continuation of the current American practice of politically isolating full-blown warmongers as "cranks." It will collapse into closet nostalgia if those warmongers ever get the reins voted into their hands.   

Economic Arguments

Those arguments, such as the one made here, center on the seemingly perpetual American trade and budget deficits causing the American economy to become more and more vulnerable. Others focus on permanent inflation and credit-bubble-induced warping of the economy. They often make sense in isolation, but not when linked to the "imperial overstretch" declinist argument. Far from being a sign of hollowness at the core, the continual acquiescence of foreigners to subsidizing both American consumption and war efforts may very well evince a nascent tribute system. Great powers that can exact even disguised tribute from other powers are not ones in decline.

Conclusion

The declinist case for American eclipse has its points, and is strongest when confined to slow rot in the economy, but it's weakest when confined to geopolitics. The reason for this weakness is declinists' ironically healthy habit of factoring in American decency without saying so. No matter how salutary, though, a value judgment is a value judgment. Less salubrious is the continual declinist habit of underestimating American resourcefulness in a crisis. As this more homely item indicates, Americans do turn when conditions finally warrant. ESR

Daniel M. Ryan is a regular columnist for LewRockwell.com, and has an undamaged mail address here.


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