Americans have a long history of predicting the demise of their nation, only to be proven wrong. However, with a gridlocked government and the rise of China, some observers believe the United States may actually be entering a period of long-term decline, writes Antony Funnell.
Six simple words may come to define the second term of the Obama presidency.
In response to a question about his administration’s policy toward Islamic State insurgents, the president of the United States—a position that once carried the moniker ‘leader of the free world’—gave a metaphoric shrug of his shoulders.
‘We don’t have a strategy yet,’ he said.
The president’s public admission of cluelessness in late August immediately became international news. While the statement was shocking in nature, it was also seen to confirm a suspicion held by many that the United States and its leadership is no longer at—or anywhere near—the peak of its game.
From the Middle East to north Asia to western Ukraine, American leadership is being tested and found wanting. Significantly, among those most disconcerted with the current state of American leadership are Americans themselves.
Nick Bryant is the BBC’s New York correspondent and he says the United States continues to lead in times of international crisis simply because no one else is prepared to put themselves forward.
However, Bryant believes the nation appears to have lost its appetite for global command and may be in a ‘national funk’. The country, he says, has lost faith in itself and crucially, in its institutions of power.
‘If you look at American confidence in its democratic institutions, whether it's Congress which has an approval rating now of 7 per cent which is the lowest on record, the Supreme Court which has a historically low approval rating, and also the presidency, where approval has slumped to 29 per cent which is a six-year low—there is a real crisis of faith in American democracy at the moment,’ he says.
For Bryant, there’s irony in the Obama presidency increasingly coming to symbolise the limits and decline of American power, as the president was once a symbol of hope and national renewal.
‘Six years into his presidency he looks exhausted, he looks weary, he looks like a politician who has almost run out of the will to govern,’ he says.
Could America’s ‘funk’ be a temporary ailment, or does it represent something far more serious and long-term?
While the United States usually likes to put forward a confident face, the country has a long history of talking down its future.
Since the early years of European settlement, Americans have regularly predicted their own demise, only to bounce back, better and stronger than ever. Historians and political analysts even have a name for the phenomenon—they call it 'American Declinism'.
With the current political deadlock in Washington, a hapless president, frustrated allies and a failing sense of national self-confidence, some are now starting to suggest that this time the decline might be real.
‘I’m certainly far more pessimistic than I was two years ago, even 10 years ago,’ says Bryant. ‘America still boasts powerhouse universities ... it still has the technological smarts of Silicon Valley. It still has the financial acumen of Wall Street.’
‘What I think has changed is the American spirit. That's something much harder to quantify, but it no longer seems—to me at least—to be anywhere near as optimistic or as hopeful. And you see it in poll after poll.’
According to a national survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute, only 42 per cent of respondents still believe in the ‘American Dream’, compared to the 53 per cent of two years ago.
Bryant also points to a recent Wall Street Journal poll that found that only a fifth of respondents felt confident that the life experienced by their children would be better than their own.
‘The American Dream really has meant something for successive generations of Americans, they really have grown up to believe that their lives will be made better if they work harder, and crucially their children's lives will be more abundant as well.’
‘I think that's what makes this current national funk a bit different from national funks of the past. There is this concern right now that people don't have the same sense of belief in the American Dream.’
Tom Switzer is another keen observer of US politics and culture, and is the editor of American Review, published by the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.
Like Bryant, he was once a firm believer in the idea of American Declinism—that the United States would always bounce back from its regular bouts of introspective gloom.
However, just like Bryant, he too believes that things are different this time around.
‘I think the United States remains by far the pre-eminent power in the world. It still has enormous demonstrated capacity for change and renewal,’ he says. ‘But I think ultimately the American people themselves are tired of the world, and the big question I think over the next decade or so is to what extent is this just a short to medium-term phenomenon, or is it reflective of a more enduring reality?’
‘If it is indeed the latter, then I think that has huge implications for American foreign policy in the next decade or two and, of course, that also means big complications for many of its allies around the world.’
Complications made increasingly urgent by the rise of China as an economic and political power, according to Switzer.
‘The rise of China means different things for the United States and Australia,’ he says. ‘For the United States it's the rise of a potential geopolitical challenger in the region. For Australia it is a rise of a commercial and investment partner.’
‘Increasingly this means that policymakers and politicians will need to learn to be more nuanced, ambiguous and, if you like, to ride two horses simultaneously. That is a very difficult diplomatic feat.’
According to Switzer, China’s growing economic influence could even weaken the ANZUS alliance—the security arrangement that exists between the United States and its antipodean allies.
‘David Johnston, the Defence Minister, told Tony Jones on Lateline just before the president met Prime Minister Abbott last June, that the ANZUS alliance would not apply in the event of a stoush between Washington and Beijing in East Asia,’ he recalls.
‘He actually said that publicly. I think he let the cat out of the bag. That has huge implications for our security relationship with the United States.’
But whether or not American power really is in decline, in the same way that Britain was in 1956 after the Suez Crisis, remains a moot point.
Harvard University's Joseph Nye knows all the arguments in favour of a long-term decline but doesn't accept them. In fact, he's currently finishing a book titled Is the American Era Over?
His answer to that question is no, however Professor Nye does acknowledge that what lies ahead for the United States is a very different international era. He also believes that it will no longer be the hegemon it has been.
‘The United States always has problems and it always has this cyclical concern about decline. In the 1960s or the late ‘50s everybody thought the Soviets were 10 feet tall. That didn't turn out to be the case. In the 1980s it was the Japanese who were 10 feet tall.’
‘Now it is the Chinese who are 10 feet tall. I think China is doing well, but I don't think that even when it passes the United States in the total size of its economy, it won't pass the United States in per capita income for decades to come—and per capita income is a better measure of the sophistication of an economy.’
According to Professor Nye, too many political pundits confuse ‘absolute’ decline with ‘relative’ decline when assessing America’s political woes and current pessimistic frame of mind.
‘Absolute decline is what happened to Ancient Rome. It wasn't another country that passed Ancient Rome or another empire, Rome decayed from within, and it succumbed to hordes of barbarians,’ says Nye.
‘Relative decline is what happened to the Netherlands in the 17th century. The Netherlands continued to do well, but Britain did even better. They passed them.’
‘We are not like Ancient Rome. Relative decline is more appropriate, but it's better phrased as “the rise of the rest”.'
In a world where other nations are rising and America’s economy continues to face ongoing challenges, does America’s habit of foreseeing its own decline risk becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy?
Once again, Professor Nye argues to the contrary.
‘My former colleague at Harvard Sam Huntington used to say that it was self-curing rather than self-fulfilling, that the worry about decline would make Americans try harder. That may be a bit too optimistic,’ he says.
‘What we do know is that worry about decline hasn't had much to do with what actually turns out or what happens. These polls are better as an indication of psychology than they are of capacity.’
This article was originally published at ABC Online