The Australian

By Josef Joffe

MORE than half a century ago, on October 4, 1957, the US was on the way out. On that day, the Soviet Union became the first space power in history, launching its Sputnik into orbit and terror into the American soul. It "gave us a shock which hit many people as hard as Pearl Harbor", was a typical reaction. No 1 in everything -- the US was losing to the Soviet upstart.

Soul-searching and self-doubt turned into an obsession and, as the century advanced, into a national pastime. Call it "declinism". The basic theme - the country as has-been - has been recycled every 10 years. Just as regularly, the angst attack expands into Spenglerian visions of decay-as-destiny.

What may be concluded from half a century of American has-beenism? First, doom comes in cycles, as it has done since the birth of the Republic. The periodic rise and demise of declinism ought to be good news, for what comes and goes cannot lead straight to the eighth circle of geopolitical hell. Cycles, by definition, do not a trend make. Nor does the lapping tide announce the deluge; it just recedes. But this is just a logical point. More apropos is the psychology of declinism.

Ever since the US was discovered, it "has been an object of the imagination. Long before the 13 colonies gelled into union, America was a construct more than a country - a canvas on to which (the world) would endlessly project its fondest dreams and fiercest nightmares". The US is either a dystopia like Brave New World or a heavenly place on earth like Thomas More's Utopia. Projection - fear or fantasy - is the name of the game. On the American canvas, Babylon lurks right next to the New Jerusalem.

Finis Americae also comes in two schools: glee and gloom. Glee is mostly celebrated abroad, and for good reason. Wanting the US to stumble comes naturally to those who must co-exist with this Gulliver, for he irks by just being there, and terrifies when he throws his weight around. To find comfort, the lesser players will magnify the giant's warts and count each new one as proof of terminal disease. Every decade, hope springs anew that the US will be cut down to size by a mightier rival, be it Russia or Japan, Europe or China.

Such fantasies are actually a perverse way of paying homage to the giant's fearsome strength. Small powers are never diagnosed with debility; nor do they provoke schadenfreude when they stumble. The declinist literature on Britain fills small libraries.

The gloom is mainly "Made in USA", and then with a very different tone. On the jejune, practical level, there is the Kennedy-Reagan variant: paint the country in hellish colours and then offer yourself as a guide to heaven. The country will rise again - if only you will anoint me as your leader. Jimmy Carter's "malaise" pursued a similar purpose by invoking the nation's "crisis of confidence". A related variant was Richard Nixon's. He drew the country smaller than it was in order to prepare the electorate for the U-turn in grand strategy: detente with the Soviet Union and the opening towards China.

The suggestive message was: "If we are sinking, and they are rising, there is no shame in accommodation."

"Come home, America," was George McGovern's battle cry against Nixon in the 1972 campaign. For this school, weakness comes from imperial arrogance and over-commitment. Genuine strength demands less militarism and more welfare; the New Jerusalem of the post-Truman Left is not a bristling armoury but the citadel of an exemplary nation. "Imperial overstretch," which suffuses so much of liberal declinism, is at heart not about the US's standing abroad but about redistribution and social justice at home.

Declinism is about prophesies that must not come true so that righteousness can triumph. Hence, declinism is never just an empirical exercise such as counting guns and measuring GDP. Nor can it be empirically refuted. How to gainsay those who either cheer or fear the US's fall? No soothsayer has ever been silenced by facts because prophesy is inherently unverifiable. If the horror does not arrive today, it will tomorrow, and so the doomsayers always come back. They are often the same persons, repeating what they predicted 10, 20 years before. During the "Crash of 08", a New Yorker cartoon gently poked fun at such recidivists. It showed a penitent with a placard proclaiming: "The End Is Still Coming," and has a passerby ask: "Wasn't that Paul Krugman," the perennial Cassandra of The New York Times op-ed page.

"Decline time in America" is didactic repertoire theatre, played out left, right and centre not to analyse but to agitate - like a Brechtian drama. But to invoke cycles and expose agendas does not dispatch the larger issue. Because all past prophecies of decline have not come true does not mean they never will. History is full of empires whose decline was terminal. In 1897, at the peak of British power, Rudyard Kipling penned this little elegy to empire: "Far-called, our navies melt away; On dunes and headlands sinks the fire; Lo, all our pomp of yesterday; Is one with Niniveh and Tyre!"

He was off by only 20 years. Britain never recovered from the bloodletting of the Great War. Sometimes, prophets are proven right. So as we peer into the 21st century, the problem persists: what is the US's standing in the world, and what might topple No 1 - or not?

Josef Joffe editor, Die Zeit, and senior fellow of the Freeman-Spogli Institute for International Studies and Abramowitz Fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. This is an extract from an essay in American Review published by the US Studies Centre, University of Sydney.