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.

Since the elites now believe in the inevitability of American decline the next question that must be answered is simply: Who will succeed the United States as the new superpower? The field of candidates is actually quite narrow. While the Russian strongman Vladimir Putin longs for the good old days of the 1970s the current Russian demographic crisis and shrinking population mitigate against a return to Muscovite glory anytime soon. India is probably not quite ready for world power yet, and Brazil has great potential but is hamstrung at the moment with seemingly insoluble domestic problems including endemic corruption among the political class. This leaves one country that actively seeks and fully expects to inherit world leadership in the wake of American retreat. That nation, of course, is the People’s Republic China. All aboard for the Chinese Century!

The fact that the question of American decline (and “decline” is only a possibility, not yet a certainty) turning into a quasi-political issue was bound to happen and it is, of course, freighted with a great deal of ideological baggage. The American Left has been leading cheers for this prospect since the late 1960s and continues to believe that a diminution of American power will, perversely, lead to a more peaceful world. American conservatives have long suspected that the liberals hope to instigate an American decline and play a connect-the-dots game when they see instances of such decline, which they believe confirms their suspicions. The temptation exists, therefore, to ignore the political aspect of this debate and to dismiss the candidates posturing as mere election time hot air. The question, though, is and will remain one of great significance. Is America in decline and is China destined to become the superpower of tomorrow?

When attempting to sort out such a complex question it is useful to identify and employ a historical parallel. Granted, historical parallels are never foolproof because no two eras play out in precise patterns, and historical developments often turn on the capricious whims of individual actors. Still, historical parallels offer a certain perspective, and in order to frame the growing Sino-American friction we must look back to the early twentieth-century and the Anglo-German rivalry that helped ignite the two world wars that marked that bloody epoch.

At the dawn of the twentieth-century Britain bestrode the world like a colossus, the only real superpower, to borrow a phrase from a later age. Queen Victoria had celebrated her “Diamond Jubilee”, her sixtieth year on the throne, in 1897. The British Empire and Commonwealth covered 23% of the earth and totaled roughly 450,000,000 people. London stood alone as the international financial center and British capital fueled the world’s recent industrial boom. The British universities produced superb scholars and scholarship, British cultural forms were the accepted standards, and life in Britain, even for the working classes, had never been better.

Still, behind the carefree gaiety of the Diamond Jubilee celebration a slight murmur of concern could be felt, almost like a low rumble of thunder on a clear summer night. Certified members of the establishment intelligentsia like Rudyard Kipling began to voice their concerns that the Pax Britannica, a modern golden age much like that of imperial Rome, was closing and that the new century heralded an era of British contraction and relative decline. Queen Victoria’s death in January of 1901, and Britain’s difficulties in defeating a tenacious foe in a nasty little war in South Africa fed the nascent idea that Britain had passed her peak and had entered a period of inevitable retrenchment. This became the accepted cliché among the chattering classes by 1913, and the talk shifted from maintaining British preeminence to how best to “manage” British decline.

The rest of the world observed this melodrama of British splendor intermingled with a nagging self-doubt in an uncertain fashion. Britain’s traditional enemies like France and Russia showed little sympathy for her growing sense of burden, but they did not try to take advantage of the situation. Germany, a new and ambitious power, saw things differently. The German Empire, forged, in 1871 after startlingly easy military defeats of the Austrian Empire in 1866 and the Second French Empire in 1870, saw the British decline as a golden opportunity to assert her own claim to world power. Kaiser Wilhelm and the German leadership saw themselves as the natural inheritors of the British mantle of power, and, rather than wait for this ripe fruit to fall into their laps in due time, they decided to speed the process by engaging in spirited “competition” with the British Lion. This could be seen everywhere in German efforts to colonize distant stretches of Africa and the Pacific, in the intellectual realm where the German universities sought to reclaim their primacy and German scientists contributed greatly to the world’s storehouse of knowledge, in the industrial sector where German steelmakers, chemists, and electrical manufacturers increasingly outpaced their British competitors, and, most alarmingly in a naval arms race.

The German leaders, especially the erratic and unstable Kaiser Wilhelm, had read Admiral Mahan, and decided that Germany needed a strong blue-water navy. They believed that this would complete German military dominance in terms of pairing a strong naval force as a complement to their superb army. The process of building a strong naval force proceeded haltingly at first, but by 1901 the German marine capacity had improved considerably with the development of a very professional officer corps, capable seamanship, and excellent naval gunnery. Britain, correctly, saw the German naval challenge as a direct threat.

The rest of the story is fairly well known. The Anglo-German rivalry heated up during the Edwardian Age and exploded into war in 1914. The Great War precipitated the British decline that Kipling and others feared by leaving Britain gravely weakened, even though she ended up on the winning side. During the postwar period the English people, themselves, willed British decline, and the end of empire, when they consciously elected Labor-Socialist governments who ran for office by promising to slash military budgets and reallocate those monies toward the building of the modern welfare state.

If the reader fast-forwards to 2012 he will see some startling parallels. The United States plays the role formerly held by Britain, and China lines up as Imperial Germany. The Americans, we are told, no longer relish our responsibilities as the world power, and yearn for a break from the grind. Our industrial base is aging and our manufacturers can’t compete with cheap Chinese labor. Our education system is an incoherent mess and we aren’t training a future generation of leaders. On the other side the Chinese leadership sees a golden opportunity to catch and surpass the USA and to make the coming epoch the “Chinese Century”. They see themselves narrowing the GDP gap and possibly exceeding America as the world’s most productive economy by 2020, if one accepts as true the questionable official Chinese government figures. Finally, the Chinese have all but declared that they are challenging America for dominance in outer space and on the high seas, while they consider their homeland invulnerable due to their size and 13,000,000 man army. The Chinese sense the conviction of substantial segments of the American opinion elite that the USA is in decline and they intend to strike while the iron is hot.

This is now the point where the issue enters the political arena. If the twentieth-century parallel has any lesson for today the 2012 election may prove pivotal. The current bickering among the candidates masks a real division between the parties in their respective visions for the United States. Obama and the Democrats have stated openly that they intend to create a welfare state of the British-type in America. The model for this state would fall somewhat short of outright socialism in the sense that there would be no government expropriation of the means of production, but the Democrats have promised a vast expansion of the welfare state (see: Obamacare) and plan to pay for it by tax increases, trillion dollar deficits, and major reductions in defense spending. Romney and the Republicans are generally comfortable with the status quo of America as the world power. They ridicule the liberal notion that American strength is harmful to the world, and certainly contest the idea that America is in terminal decay and can only “manage our decline” with grace and dignity. The will not willingly surrender American preeminence without a second thought.

We can see that the partisan sniping of last week is not mere election year hot air. The political angle actually illustrates a great ideological divide between the parties and their respective visions for America. One vision is perfectly comfortable with American power and sees this as a positive and stabilizing force in an unpredictable and dangerous world. The other vision sees American power as a source of oppression and dominance wielded by an arrogant and willful nation. The voters would do well to remember this trenchant fact on Tuesday, November 6th.


Brian Birdnow

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