LONDON — We hold these truths to be self-evident: The United States is the world's original and still-greatest political experiment, founded upon a creed of liberty for all in a land of unprecedented, unparalleled opportunity. This land's manifest destiny is to be a shining city on a hill, a light by which the rest of the world may see the glories of a new and better world. If the journey, approved by Providence, has been long and hard, it is all the more noble for being so. This is, was, and always shall be an exceptional nation, the envy and wonder of the world. America is, like, awesome.
That, at any rate, is the message coming from Tampa, Florida,
this week. The Republican Party's convention is, like all such gatherings, a
moment in which the promise of America is called to renewal and American
greatness is reaffirmed as the country's guiding star. If the United States is not
exceptional, then what is it and what is its purpose?
As former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice put it in her speech on Wednesday, Aug. 29, "The essence of America, what really unites us, is not nationality or ethnicity or religion. It is an idea. And what an idea it is. That you can come from humble circumstances and you can do great things; that it does not matter where you came from -- it matters where you are going."
Viewed from this side of the pond, it is easy -- and perhaps often tempting -- to view this as just so much baloney and balderdash. This doctrinal declaration that America rocks has all the heft and seriousness of a slogan culled from Team America: World Police.
Calls for, as New Jersey governor and keynote speaker Chris Christie put it, a "second American century" cannot quite silence the suspicion that, for all America's great strengths, time and history are against the United States -- and, worse still, Americans know it. Just as the glories of the Roman republic were never so keenly hailed as when the republic was dying, so there is a fin de siècle whiff of decay about this week's paeans to American exceptionalism. The warnings are there. As Rudyard Kipling put it in his great poem "Recessional":
Far-called our navies melt away --
On dune and headland sinks the fire --
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,
Lest we forget -- lest we forget!
Britons can give you chapter and verse on these matters. One of the lessons is that absolute decline of the sort Britain endured for half a century is not as terrifying as it may seem. The comparative decline the United States may face this century is an altogether smaller problem.