America’s biggest growth industry: declinism

October 17, 2011

By Susan Glasser
The opinions expressed are her own.

The Amerislump is upon us.

Conservative agitator Pat Buchanan’s new book says America might not survive until 2025; it’s called “The Suicide of a Superpower.” Even less alarmist observers are suddenly sounding a lot like Buchanan, as economists now predict that China may surpass the United States as the world’s largest economy a lot sooner than we thought, and important conferences are convened to deal with what Fareed Zakaria memorably dubbed “the post-American world.”

Over at Foreign Policy, my colleague Joshua Keating (coiner of the “Amerislump” phrase) has taken to tracking all the gloom-and-doom punditry under the heading “Decline Watch” on our website—and not a day goes by without a classic example, from the poverty-stricken new muppet on Sesame Street who doesn’t have enough to eat, to the supposed cocaine slump on Wall Street and the new government initiative to attract Chinese shoppers here — so they can buy Made in China goods, but at the cheap prices caused by our undervalued dollar.

The zeitgeist about America is so bleak that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton even begins her speeches these days being forced to remind audiences that the U.S. economy is still the world’s largest and its workers by far the most productive. Clinton, no declinist, invariably does her best to convince us that America is not retreating from the world at a time of national angst. Or at least that it should not.

“Beyond our borders,” she wrote in a recent piece for Foreign Policy that argued that the United States should make a strategic pivot away from the wars of the Middle East and toward the economic opportunities of Asia, many now question “America’s intentions — our willingness to remain engaged and to lead. In Asia, they ask whether we are really there to stay, whether we are likely to be distracted again by events elsewhere, whether we can make — and keep credible economic and strategic commitments, and whether we can back those commitments with action.”

Clinton’s answer is a resounding yes, but the questions themselves are revealing — even extraordinary — coming from a sitting Secretary of State, and the context is pretty clear: These are angst-ridden times to be an unabashed advocate of America’s role in the world, when everyone from Tea Partiers at home to financial markets abroad wonders about the staying power of this humbled superpower.

Sixteen years ago, when another sitting Secretary of State wrote for Foreign Policy, the world looked like a starkly different place to a top American official — a post-Cold War mix of opportunities and threats, bound together not so much by anything except the promise of American leadership. Indeed, said Warren Christopher, “the simple fact is that if we do not lead, no one else will.” It was an age, and one that now seems quaintly outdated, of America the indispensable nation.

Flash forward to today, when the United States struggles to assert its continued leadership in the world — or even its commitment to remaining there.  Which makes it all the more depressing to listen to the early debates of the 2012 presidential campaign, where the rest of the world by and large doesn’t figure at all — except for the increasingly shrill protestations of some Republican candidates about their belief in America’s special destiny to lead the planet.

Consider Mitt Romney’s recent speech on foreign policy, before an audience of cadets at The Citadel, there to serve as an enthusiastic, uniform-clad backdrop while he questioned President Barack Obama’s patriotism. “God,” Romney lectured, “did not create this country to be a nation of followers.” Obama’s supposed sin? Not being sufficiently believing in the high church of American greatness, because, in 2009, he said, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect the Brits believed in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.”

In the reductionist boilerplate of presidential politics, this has been translated into an alleged lack of faith in America. “I believe we are an exceptional country with a unique destiny and role in the world,” said Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who has enlisted a who’s who of Republican foreign policy heavyweights drawn heavily from the Bush administration to support his candidacy and casts himself as a classic GOP politician of the muscular internationalist type. “In Barack Obama’s profoundly mistaken view, there is nothing unique about the United States.”

Now, this might seem like a difficult charge to make stick against Barack Hussein Obama, the African-American son of a single mother who rose against all odds to become the nation’s first black president. But no matter: the more depressing point to me is simply that this is the debate Romney and others are determined to have, following in a long line of patriotic chest-thumping, rather than offering a real robust conversation over what to do for America at this time of troubles—or what sort of role America should play in the world.

But Romney’s problem is not just Obama and his multilateralist-loving, we’re-not-number-one-anymore-and-it’s-okay party, but many inside his own GOP. Americans in both parties, as surveys have consistently found, are simply fed up with bearing the costs of global security that come with being the world’s only superpower. Tell an audience that the United States currently spends more on defense than all the other countries in the world combined, and see what the reaction is. It’s no accident that the biggest applause lines at the GOP debates this year have been when candidates like Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman call for withdrawal from Afghanistan — as soon as possible.

But even if Americans can be convinced to keep bearing the costs — and that is very likely, given that this extraordinarily rich nation still spends just under 4 percent of GDP on defense and has had to make few sacrifices to maintain its military through a decade of post-9/11 wars in Afghanistan and Iraq — it’s still got a huge, and growing, image problem in a world where the decline narrative has set in. Recently, we asked a group of foreign writers and thinkers to play a game of Madlibs, and fill in the blank on this question: “The United States is…..”  Here’s a sampling of what they said: “Not the promised land anymore.” “A sick superpower—but still a superpower.” “Facing a long spell of painful adjustments.” “Its own worst enemy because it refuses to recognize its most severe flaws and then address them.”

The last comment may be the most relevant of all. There’s much that ails America today, from schools that stink to collapsing infrastructure and a bloated financial system nowhere near finished dealing with the results of the burst housing bubble. But the bigger problem may be this: a political system that rewards bloviating over American greatness but not those whose hard work or big ideas might ensure Americans actually still have something to crow about.

PHOTO: A man waves an American flag in the upside-down distress position in front of a U.S. Bank building as Occupy Los Angeles protesters march in the Protest Against Corporate Greed on their International Day of Action in Los Angeles, California October 15, 2011. REUTERS/David McNew


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Is it really so important to be top dog? Americans worried about decline should learn from people in countries that have never been superpowers or even enviable regional powers. The sun will come out tomorrow, regardless of whether America is number 1 or not. Even when China’s GDP overtakes America’s, the U.S. will still be able to lord it over Canada and Mexico.

Posted by pheebel_wimpe | Report as abusive

Pain causes change. It takes pain to make a human being pay attention to what needs to be addressed. Performance is the way human beings judge how weak or strong a person, a business, or country is. Mr. Romney needs to understand that folks like me have no faith in politicians. Mr. Cain is gaining attention in this election simply because he is trying to bring a solution to the table (whether it is feasible or not, notwithstanding) rather than blaming this person or that policy for the woes all Americans suffer today. Complaining and blaming is useless. The question is: What ideas are the candidates bringing to the table to help the US regain its foothold in the world structure? Aside from Mr. Cain, I haven’t heard any. I welcome any enlightenment.

Posted by alwayslearning | Report as abusive

America IS exceptional:

American natural resources, demographic strengths, family values, ideological unity and fundamental marketplace strengths are matched by no other country on Earth today. On that pragmatic basis, America IS EXCEPTIONAL.

All America needs to be exceptional for more than another 20 years, is a course-correction: with rational economic, education and immigration policies; America will be exceptional for a VERY long time to come.

Will American politicians have the vision to resist the lobby groups’ campaign finance, and do the right thing?

Posted by matthewslyman | Report as abusive

Tick Tock……

Posted by Crash866 | Report as abusive

There are positives to this. We will not be exxpected to bail out the rest of the planet; with fewer resources, handouts to the parasite classes will have to be reduced, thus reducing their birth rate and perhaps result in our closing our borders for 10-20 years. This could actually be a good thing.

Posted by majorkrell | Report as abusive

America has fallen into gross disunity even more than decline. Weekly, the conflict internal to the USA increases. This is fundamental conflict over whether the majority rules in this country or not. So far the answer is clearly “No” it does not. These months, internally, are much like the late Nixon years when a determined class of ideologues clung to a neo-religious belief that they could do no wrong. Now, their children run this place with the same dogged determination of infallibility as the Nixonites.

Much like the Nixon years, this leadership, and there is only one, feels it can do no wrong. And if by some cosmic snafu they actually did make an error, then Divinity would ride down in some sort of golden (literally) chariot and correct its own error. The public gets to watch the orchestrated Punch and Judy Show that passes for political debate in the USA.

This must end in a catastrophe even greater than Nixon’s, for the country is much less unified and homogeneous than the one Nixon wrecked. It will, without doubt, set off a power struggle that will end the USA as we have known it. Perhaps that will be a small loss to humanity.

Posted by txgadfly | Report as abusive

Ms Glasser’s hidden game here is that Obama has it right because he’s black (almost) and worked his way up and thus personifies American ideals vs the right wingers (why else to use O’Reily’s term ‘bloviate’) who are just talking about it. Clever of her, but porous as Obama’s resume’.

Posted by NormanB | Report as abusive

Political garbage in, political garbage out. Why bother.

Posted by calexandre | Report as abusive

@majorkrell: “There are positives to this. We will not be expected to bail out the rest of the planet; with fewer resources, handouts to the parasite classes will have to be reduced, thus reducing their birth rate and perhaps result in our closing our borders for 10-20 years. This could actually be a good thing.”

I presume by “parasite classes”, you mean the economically disadvantaged who receive government assistance to keep them in the game of economic competition.
I have news for you:
1. PROVEN FACT: Economic disadvantage is positively correlated to birth rate. There are obvious mechanisms connecting these factors together. Pressing the economic underclasses into worsening economic disadvantage will INCREASE their birth-rate.
2. If America keeps declining in the manner it has been doing for the last ten years; the only way to fix the problem will be to allow a massive influx of young, skilled immigrants from the rest of the world.

Only the legendary American work-ethic, combined with a rebalanced economy with higher tax-rates and more equitable assistance for the disadvantaged; will save America’s people. You need to tax much more and spend significantly more on education (not just for the rich, or the highest bidder), or the Chinese will leave you for dust in a few decades. Shanghai already has the best education in the world…

Before I sign off… One more way in which America is exceptional: a-15288865

Posted by matthewslyman | Report as abusive

Dear Sir and Madam:
Most people have already knew the answer of the question but the implementation need every one suffering now for the future benefit.American have Abraham Lincoln,Mather Luther King,Steve Jobs…I believe they can survive if they want.Thank you.
Sincerely yours:
18 Oct 2011 Singapore

Posted by pranotoo | Report as abusive

Declinism is nothing new.

A very long time ago — the late 1980s — the Washington Post book reviewer Jonathan Yardley accused several prominent public intellectuals/authors (including Richard Rorty) of belonging to the “America Sucks Sweepstakes” in which participants competed to find better, bitterer ways of describing the United States.

What’s notable today is how crowded this field has become with members of the political right-wing, though Pat Buchanan has always had a lot in common with the declinism of Nietzsche, Heidegger & Foucault (though not with Rorty). He just didn’t know it.

Posted by dedalus | Report as abusive

I think it is deeper than a simple political problem, We have lost our moral compass which was our Judeo-Christian belief in God. Whether you believe in God our not the teachings of the bible made good citizens. As we lose these teachings we lose our exceptionalism. Things like help your neighbor, go to work and work hard, pay your bills, do not murder, do not steal, make ethical decisions in local and business decisions.

Posted by jjmciny | Report as abusive

Everything that lives dies. Matter and energy transform. America has had it’s day like every other self-righteous “superpower” and will decline for the same reasons they all did. Greed, arrogance, delusions of grandiosity, and a political/religious/financial system so incestuously perverted as to make Nero blush.

Get used to it.

Posted by Lonecia | Report as abusive

There is only one thing that the US cannot recover from and that is demographic destruction brought on by open borders, massive immigration and MultiCulturalism. Sadly, this is exactly what has happened in the US. For several generations Jewish activists have worked to overturn American culture via demographic changes, cultural revolutions and Cultural Marxism. Again, sadly, they have won. Demography is destiny, and this cake is already baked.

Posted by KyleAddison | Report as abusive

The truth hurts: The only industry America leads in is, invading other countries looking for weapons of mass destruction that don’t exist, and invading countries for regime change…. THAT’s the ONLY thing America leads in now-a-days…. Truly Sad. The Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave, became the Land of the Haters, and the Home of Invaders….

Posted by edgyinchina | Report as abusive

@dedalus is right. Back then it was Japan that was to overtake us.

Posted by LEEDAP | Report as abusive

‘Declinism?’…in any case with guys like Immelt running around dispensing American technology to the Chinese no wonder their economy is surging. Biggest is not always best. I have several Chinese products in my home – they look good but they are of poor quality. Just this weekend I was working in my garden – my Chinese made razor knife came apart in my hand and my Chinese made snippers broke up. Rather than declinism we need to have a new and thorough type of protectionism so we don’t get overtaken by Communism.

Posted by Bagwa | Report as abusive

The assessment of @txgadfly is fair and seemingly correct. From the shrill voices of politicians hellbent on knocking down the leader and his caucus to the muckraking yellow journalists of radio and TV, energies that could be used to steward a recovery are instead drawing the nation to a halt. America is down as it has happened in times past. But the nation is hardly ready to expire.

Posted by SanPa | Report as abusive

Oy, SanPa, journalists are not here to boost America, they are here to use their critical faculties. Alas, all the boosters over the past decades have merely hidden the fact that America was declining, declining. Whenever I told that to my fellow Americans, they’d say “If you don’t like it here, leave”…. That prehensile attitude is what killed the country, nothing else. I left in 1985, haven’t looked back. Had a moment of doubt when Obama was elected, but as soon as he started pulling in all those Wall Streeters and that ghastly, vulgar Rahm Emmanuel, I knew the country had reached the end. Corporate fascism took over, and from the other side we are getting Captialist Maoism…

We are …. I am not allowed to use the word…

Posted by Talleyrand | Report as abusive

The Chinese workers (and all other cheap labor spots) will eventually demand higher wages and drive our labor force back to America. This is already occuring. It is the same evolution of greed that occured in America that will equalize the labor force.

Posted by Jrob | Report as abusive

In Keynes, the real world is in desequilibrium. Why? According to my math proof, change in savings is a function of income growth. If income growth is growing but declining then wealth and the economy is NOT in equilibrium and in decline. So, unless industry and government fix the underlying causes of the decline, U.S. economy will continue its declinism. See wth#

Posted by cwucnspt | Report as abusive

America is on the decline because of the choices it has made. If I may quote E. Franklin Frazier, noted sociologist and author of “The Black Bourgeoise” “when you make a choice, that indicates your values.” America continues to make choices, that truly indicates our values. Let the electorate decide our choices

Posted by underwater555 | Report as abusive

Some good points in this article–Most alarming is that we are at debt of 100pct GDP right now and at the current pace will be where Greece is in 5 yrs at 1 trillion plus per year. That is what we need to address and fast. China, on the other hand is not the threat it is purported to be. Ask anybody who has ever gotten burned by a Chinese stock-China is one massive accounting bubble, shadow banking bubble, and realestate bubble getting ready to burst in the worst way. More importantly, China is not able to feed its people without foreign food that we supply. My opinion is that for every 1pct less treasuries they decide to buy than we might want to send 1pct less food to foreign markets. America still holds exceptional influence in commodities. What we need to do is fix our debt problems by first finding where the military is spending all of our money and reign that in. The time of off balance sheet emergency budget for wars is way past over. Then we can tackle the socialist cancer of entitlements and get this ship back on course!

Posted by sculpin73 | Report as abusive

The muslim terrorist have cost us Trillions this last decade! Imagine our opportunity cost-what we could have done with the money/the muliplier effect of say 2 Trillion for job creation and tax revenue! Makes me think these countries should be forced to give up resources and pay us back for lives/services rendered and it’s THE reason to carry a big stick instead of walking softly! Evil cost all of us dearly -socially and finacially! The countries unwilling to step up and do their part to combat evil, should be isolated from the rest-it’s the only way to get them to conform!

Posted by DrJJJJ | Report as abusive

Our government is 40% of US GDP now, that’s completely unsustainable and the reason conservatives have been screaming bloody murder regarding blowing a monster government bubble these last few decades! Asking what your country can do for you isn’t working-the results are in! Also, poor morals/ethics are beind most of this and a result of secualrization of church and state! When you invite hell into your country, don’t be suprised when all hell breaks loose!

Posted by DrJJJJ | Report as abusive

Minimum wage in most of our cities pays more than 90+% of all those working on planet earth make and we’re whining for more!

Posted by DrJJJJ | Report as abusive

America cannot overcome it’s own inertia anymore. I for one am very glad to see the greedy , gas guzzling, FAT nation called America , lose a bit of weight in all it’s areas. This earth which is in shambles , mostly due to the consumerism which is American, driven by americans and consumed by Americans. America consumed itself, with the biggest contributor being your government.

The baby boomers are coming home to roost as well, 10 000 a day for 10 years will start claiming social security and medicare/medicaid…. I liked the one comment “bailing out the rest of the planet” The rest of the planet is the only thing keeping America going , AMERICA does not make anything anymore….. The only thing America makes is debt, and more debt….

There is no such thing as too big to fail…..

Posted by evisu | Report as abusive

Let’s review the past 2 decades. One can see a whole of lot bubbles, debt, .com & .house, recklessness, other runaway cancerous growths such as health care cost, etc.

What is the basis of all these ‘growths”?

I will pin the whole thing down to one thing. After the fall of the USSR, America got religious. Really religious. Yes there are TV evangelicals galore, Christian fundamentalism, Creationism, God this and Jesus that. But one religion, as it turns out, trump them all and contributed towards the sure path of national suicide.

Americans began to worship themselves. And when you worship yourself, you believe you can get away with anything. ANYTHING.

Posted by TomKi | Report as abusive