Great powers, both past and present, are haunted by three interconnected preoccupations: they are tempted by a sense of national superiority and claims to manifest historic destiny. Those pretensions tend to provoke fears of decline, which then give rise to projects of rebirth.
The European empires that once fancied themselves great, most notably the British and French, are extreme examples. As France decolonised after 1945, Charles de Gaulle made “grandeur” a watchword of national policy. For the British elite, despite the increase in standards of living, decline was an obsession throughout the postwar period. Under the sign of “cool Britannia” and Tony Blair’s embrace of Europe in the 1990s, that shadow lifted. But since the banking crisis of 2008 and the Brexit referendum of 2016, the question has returned with ever-greater force. While the Brexiteers promise a “global Britain”, the average standard of living in Britain is declining for the first time in modern history. Nationalist bluster about “Britannia unchained” obfuscates a cool-eyed and practical appraisal of Britain’s actual position in the world.
After 1945, the United States superseded the European empires as the hegemon of the non-communist world. The question the English literature professor Jed Esty asks in his new book, The Future of Decline: Anglo-American Culture at its Limits, is whether the US has now succumbed to the same British malady. Is the US so haunted by preoccupation with relative decline that it can’t adjust to the realities of an increasingly multipolar world?
In making his argument, Esty distinguishes the fact of the US’s diminishing superiority in economic and military terms, which he considers undeniable and inevitable, and the ideological preoccupation of declinism. As Esty puts it, it isn’t just data that matters, but the story you tell with it. It is in deciphering this complex weave of reality and narrative that Esty’s expertise as a literature professor takes effect. Ranging widely across genres, he reads cinema, TV shows and literature, from The West Wing to the Yale historian Paul Kennedy and Marvel’s Black Panther, as examples of a culture of decline.
As far as America’s relative standing is concerned, there are some uncontroversial facts. In 1945 the US share of global GDP was almost 50 per cent. By 2020 its share had fallen to 16 per cent. Military spending is one of the few categories in which the US remains supreme, but China is catching up. Around these facts, as Esty show us, American analysts weave a variety of diagnoses, ranging from technocratic reformism, to conservative appeals for moral renewal and a reassertion of faith in the US’s mission.
What is characteristic of these modes of thought is that they are remedial. Within the diagnosis of decline there lingers the desire to restore greatness, to Make America Great Again. That was Donald Trump’s slogan. But under the Democrats, the aspiration to restore US to world leadership is, if anything, even more clear cut. Unlike Trump, whose grim warning of “American carnage” suggested real doubts about US pre-eminence, Joe Biden takes a sunnier view. For him America’s status as the number one power is an article of faith. His instinct has always been to breezily dismiss claims that China might be closing the gap.
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As Esty points out, the assumption of national pre-eminence is shared by much of the American left. The Green New Deal was motivated by a vision of America’s unique productive power that harked back to Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the Second World War. Talk of turning the US’s world-bestriding arsenal of democracy into the motor of a sustainable energy transition is not merely window dressing. When in August this year Congress passed the Inflation Reduction Act – a much diminished nationalist green industrial policy in austerian garb – it was declared to be the bill that would “save the planet”. This despite America’s responsibility for, at most, 13.5 per cent of global CO2 emissions – less than half China’s share. By all accounts, the US delegation to Cop27 in Egypt was surprised that they were not greeted with rounds of applause for having delivered what they hail as “the biggest climate package in history”.
For Esty, the swirling dialectic of national exceptionalism, fear of decline and the promise of national revival delivers a cockeyed view of the world, which will be painfully familiar to British readers. The preoccupation with great power status results in too much military spending and not enough money for education and infrastructure. Global posturing distracts from sensibly-scaled civic initiatives to make the US a more liveable place for the vast majority of its population.
Like many American reformers before him, Esty proposes that to break out of this cycle of power-obsessed thinking, US political culture needs a new sense of proportion. And as Esty sees it, that would be best instilled by a suitably redesigned programme of humanities education. A proper appreciation of the West’s entangled and violent history will deflate the exceptionalist balloon and invite more sobriety and realism. Reversing the priorities that once motivated British critics of decline, Esty argues that America’s contemporary focus on tech solutionism and Stem education (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) is both a symptom and a cause of the malaise.
This is hardly new. Since the early 20th century, US reformers have identified education as a means to instill a more pragmatic and realistic understanding of the world. Esty, however, proposes to break with America’s national traditions. His suggestion is that in crafting a new curriculum for an age beyond great power hubris, US educators and intellectuals should take inspiration, of all places, from Britain. What he has in mind is not the Kiplingesque punditry of the likes of the historian Niall Ferguson, but its opposite. Esty’s inspiration is the British New Left, which he sees as exemplary in its efforts to come to terms with the end of imperial greatness.
It is a charming, if implausible suggestion. No one could disagree with the need to revisit classics such as Policing the Crisis (1978), a landmark work headed by Stuart Hall that used the moral panic over mugging in 1970s Britain to decipher a power structure under threat. But the suggestion that a curriculum drawn from 1970s cultural studies and back issues of the New Left Review can offer an antidote to Maga ideology is far-fetched. Apart from anything else Esty’s basic conceit, that the US’s imperial decline is analogous to that of the UK’s, does not stand up to close scrutiny. The British empire never wielded the firepower commanded by Washington today. The UK never confronted a nuclear armed Soviet Union or the rise of modern China. On the other hand, America’s domestic problems are far more severe, violent and entrenched than anything confronting postwar Britain in the 1950s, 1960s or 1970s, or today. Though they may share a common history in Atlantic slavery, Britain is a post-colonial not a post-emancipation society. There is no British equivalent to mass incarceration, Jim Crow or the Ku Klux Klan. In the 1960s and 1970s, the heyday of declinism, the UK was building a welfare state. Half a century later, as the richest and most powerful nation on Earth, the US still lacks a decent public healthcare system. Life expectancy in America lags significantly behind that in Britain.
Even if Esty’s analogy between Britain in the 1950s and 1960s and modern day America made sense, can one really say that the British New Left offered a coherent reading of the UK’s predicament, or one that helped British society or politics to accept its own decline? Indeed, one might wonder whether the British New Left was ever truly reconciled to its country’s diminished standing. With the significant exception of Hall, they wrote as the self-conscious heirs of a fallen empire. Still today, Perry Anderson, the power behind the New Left Review and repeatedly invoked by Esty, writes as if from the Olympian heights. Recently he has concentrated most of his attention on the logics of American power. If the aim is to propose a more democratic and modest approach to history would it not make more sense to draw inspiration from grassroots efforts such as the History Workshop Journal or Raphael Samuel’s remarkably capacious understanding of popular history?
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If the US today is to craft a new political culture less obsessed with grandeur and more in touch with 21st-century realities, should our efforts not start with the young Americans who will grow into that world? Rather than needing a new academic curriculum to immunise them against delusions of national grandeur, the consistent result of opinion polls taken in recent decades suggest that younger Americans have defected of their own accord from US exceptionalism. Solid majorities of millennials and Gen Z refuse the idea that their country is the greatest on Earth, which is hardly surprising given their experience of it. After the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, their interest in military adventures is mainly confined to the computer screen. And more young Americans today evince sympathy for the idea of socialism than for capitalism.
If anyone is failing to grasp modern realities it is not younger Americans, who are presumably the targets of Esty’s programme, but their parents and grandparents. Faced with a rapidly changing world, Americans over 60 – the so-called silent generation (born between 1928 and 1945) and the boomers (1945-64) – remain addicted to the claim of American greatness. In the elections of 2016 and 2020 they voted solidly for Trump. And the Democratic Party’s own gerontocrats – with Biden and Nancy Pelosi in the lead – are unabashed exceptionalists. Their animating idea is to wage a global power struggle with Russia and China in which the ideological stakes resemble those of the Cold War. In so doing, they strike a pose that not only discards the idea of US national decline but puts in question the very terms of declinist discourse.
Declinist discourse is full of anxiety, imagining a world in competitive terms, with countries racing each other to have the largest economy or the best scores in educational rankings. This vision of competition, however, is tempered by reference to third-party standard, which in the modern era has been the primary yardstick of economic performance. This economic logic both defines national decline and relativises it. It is, after all, not surprising that China should catch up with the US at least to some degree, any more than it was surprising that West Germany caught up with Britain after 1945. Decline defined in economic terms is relative underperformance. It is not defeat. This is the common sense that Esty wants America to adjust to.
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But it is precisely that logic that has over the past decade been upended by the US’s policy elite. Starting with the pivot to Asia in 2011 under Barack Obama and moving into a more aggressive gear during Trump’s presidency, the Biden administration is clear that in the critical fields of industrial policy, the US is no longer competing with China as if on a playing field, or as though they were measured against a common yardstick. Nor is it a matter of protecting property rights or opening markets for American exports. As far as the cutting edge of microelectronics and AI are concerned, the declared aim of US policy is to cap China’s development both in absolute and relative terms and by means of aggressive “sanctions” to sustain America’s military superiority. To achieve this extraordinarily aggressive techno-military objective the US is not only seeking to deny China access to America’s own technology, it is also endeavouring to block exports to China of key technologies by businesses from Taiwan, South Korea, the Netherlands and Japan. This is not competition, nor the rhetoric of declinism. This is the logic of economic war.
In historical terms it is quite hard to think of any analogy to this moment. The Soviet Union was never as entangled with the Western economies as China is today. For all its commitment to the economic weapon and blockade, the British empire never pursued a policy as deliberately destructive of any particular commercial competitor as the one that the US has pursued against China’s Huawei. Read against the current mood in Washington, Esty’s critique of declinism and his well-meaning appeal for common sense and realism feel almost escapist. It would be comforting to imagine that America today is in a situation analogous to that of Britain in the 1950s or the 1960s, where the worst that could be unleashed is a bloody but localised post-colonial expedition. In its unipolar moment, the United States created havoc enough, in Iraq and Libya. But today the stakes are higher even than that. Rather than the Suez debacle of 1956 the relevant historical example today is the Cuban missile crisis. As tension with Russia mounts over Ukraine and with China over Taiwan, the question that overshadows our time is not American national decline, but the risk that a second Cold War might unleash a Third World War.
The Future of Decline: Anglo-American Culture at its Limits
Standford University Press, 164pp, £11.99