Victor Davis Hanson on the American Decline

My politics and world view differ greatly from that of Victor Davis Hanson, but I think he is on to something in this column:

Books by liberals assure us that our “empire” is kaput. Brace for the inevitable fate of Rome. Conservatives are just as glum. For them, we are also Romans — but the more decadent variety, eaten away from the inside.

. . .

Yet American Cassandras are old stuff. Grim Charles Lindberg in the late 1930s lectured a Depression-era America that Hitler’s new order in Germany could only be appeased, never opposed.

After World War II, it wasn’t long before the Soviet Union ended our short-lived status as sole nuclear superpower. And when Eastern Europe and China were lost to communism, it was proof, for many, that democratic capitalism was passé. “We will bury you,” Nikita Khrushchev promised us.

After the collapse of the Soviet Empire in 1991, America proclaimed itself at the “end of history” — meaning that the spread of our style of democratic capitalism was now inevitable. Now a mere 16 years later, some are just as sure we approach our own end.

But our rivals are weaker and America is far stronger than many think.

. . .

A better way to assess our chances at maintaining our preeminence is simply to ask the same questions that are the historical barometers of our nation’s success or failure: Does any nation have a constitution comparable to ours? Does merit — or religion, tribe, or class — mostly gauge success or failure in America? What nation is as free, stable, and transparent as the U.S.?

Try becoming a fully accepted citizen of China or Japan if you were not born Chinese or Japanese. Try running for national office in India from the lower caste. Try writing a critical oped in Russia or hiring a brilliant female to run a mosque, university, or hospital in most of the Middle East. Ask where MRI scans, Wal-Mart, iPods, the Internet, or F-18s came from.

In the last 60 years, we have been warned in succession that new paradigms in racially pure Germany, the Soviet workers’ paradise, Japan Inc., and now 24/7 China all were about to displace the United States. None did. All have had relative moments of amazing success — but in the end none proved as resilient, flexible, and adaptable as America.

That brings us to the greatest strength of the United States: radical self-critique. We Americans are worrywarts, always believing we’re on the verge of extinction. And so, to “renew,” “reinvent,” or “save” America, we whip ourselves up about “wars” on poverty, drugs, and cancer; space “races;” missile “gaps;” literacy “crusades;” and “campaigns” against litter, waste, and smoking.

In other words, we nail-biters have always been paranoid that we must change and improve in order to survive. And thus we usually do — just in time.

Read it all.

The truth is that the current U.S. dominance in the world will erode. The rise of China, India, and yes the European Union, will mean that we will live in a more multi-polar world than the U.S.-dominated post-Cold War period that we now live in. Given the hubris of the current Administration, this may very well be a good thing. At the very least, it suggests that we need to be better prepared to live in a multi-polar world.

Nonetheless, I agree with Hanson that one of America's strengths is our capacity for self-criticism. Is it inevitable that this self-criticism will save us every time? No, but it is a virtue that we had best continue to nurture.


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