American decline has been exaggerated – by David Olive (Toronto Star – June 8, 2013)

The Toronto Star has the largest circulation in Canada. The paper has an enormous impact on federal and Ontario politics as well as shaping public opinion.

Pundits who say America is on the decline are wrong, says David Olive.

The timing could have been better for Madeleine Albright’s assertion that “We are the indispensable nation. We stand taller. We see further into the future.”

That description of America by the Clinton-era secretary of state was followed, in the 2000s, by an epic foreign-policy blunder in Iraq; riotous greed culminating in a Wall Street meltdown and resulting Great Recession; and tragic incompetence by which New York and Washington were naked to their 9/11 enemies, and Hurricane Katrina destroyed a large portion of a great city, New Orleans.

Add in America’s more recent flirtation with defaulting on its unprecedented, staggering debt, and the U.S. display of varied ineptitude for all the world to see was bound to raise doubts about the shelf life of Pax Americana.

And that’s the context in which the superb American author Cullen Murphy, in his 2007 bestseller Are We Rome? The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America, wrote ominously that “Whenever I see the space shuttle…I think back to the Rome of Hadrian’s day, and the gargantuan statue of the Sun-God, as tall as the shuttle, being dragged into place by 24 elephants.”

In his recently published Flight of the Eagle: The Grand Strategies That Brought America from Colonial Dependence to World Leadership, a Conrad Black whose admiration for America once knew no bounds writes: “American exceptionality, which was always to a degree a fraud (because of the mistreatment of African Americans and the comparable rights of the British, Dutch, Swiss, and Scandinavians), is now only a matter of the country’s immense scale, and of the credulity and dedication of the American masses.”

Neither Cullen nor Black make a case for irreversible American decline. But they each offer more than a little evidence for a fretful many who currently do. An empire can inflict upon itself only so much hubris before the way is made clear for the Visigoths.

Yet we’re nowhere near that point, and America may never reach it, certainly not in this century. The myth of American decline is firmly rooted in what historians disparage as “presentism,” the tendency to base projections solely on current conditions, without regard to history or context.

American history is marked by episodic declinist sentiment dating from the Revolution, which has served it well as a guard against complacency. And context finds that America, despite the harrowing fallout of a lost decade, remains far more likely to dominate this century, as it did much of the 20th, than any of its rivals.

China, for instance, will struggle futilely to gain hegemony in its sphere of influence against Japan, Russia, South Korea and Taiwan which will try to block Beijing at every turn — with U.S. backing, of course. That assumes the centre holds in China, a sucker’s bet given the unsustainability both of its autocracy and suppression of diverse ethnicities.

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