Brian Birdnow
Back in 1987 Professor Paul Kennedy penned an influential tract on the decline and failure of the great powers of the past. Dr. Kennedy’s book stirred up a great deal of interest in the literate classes and, while it did not merit comparison with Edward Gibbon when it came to discussing the decline and fall thesis, it certainly provided food for intellectual musing on the nature of national power and greatness. Kennedy argued that the USA was following the British example and could fall into what he called “imperial overstretch” if we weren’t careful. Many people today remember Kennedy’s book and have taken to heart his warnings about an “inevitable” American decline, although few people seem to remember that Dr. Kennedy revised his thesis in early 2002, claiming that subsequent events had confirmed the omnipotence of American power and undermined his original arguments.

Many influential individuals, including some prominent figures in our national security and diplomatic elites, academics, journalists, and opinion makers began to speak openly and serenely of a relative American decline, as though this is was inevitable as death, taxes, gay marriage, Chicago Cubs futility, and Hillary Clinton. Those who postulated the certainty of American decline have ramped up their arguments since the war on terror began to show some age and the great recession of 2007-09 has turned into the non-recovery of 2010-12. Many of our elites who have been predicting decline for the last quarter-century think that they finally have it right.

This thinking has now seeped into the Presidential campaign with the two candidates throwing political barbs at each other based on variations of this theme. Governor Romney has seized on polls showing the American public is pessimistic about the near future and says he is the man who can restore America to glory. President Obama counters, however, that he is the candidate of true American values and national greatness. GOP Vice-Presidential candidate Paul Ryan argues that four consecutive trillion-dollar deficits signify a nation in decline, while Vice-President Joe Biden, like a good lawyer, attempts to change the subject.

Brian Birdnow

Brian E. Birdnow is a historian and teaches at a university in the St. Louis area.