I've been thinking in recent days about doctrines of national decline. The fact that at the eleventh hour the U.S. Senate managed to paddle the canoe of state away from the thunderous cataract of default is hardly a sign that the United States has preserved its global standing. For one thing, Americans will find themselves witnessing the same melodrama in three months unless Congress agrees on a long-term fiscal plan, which seems, to put it gently, damn unlikely. For another, Americans have been stumbling in a fog of their own devising for the last generation or so. The end is not nigh; but the decline is.
The United States is exhibiting extremely idiosyncratic symptoms of great-power decline. Take the classic account of the subject, Paul Kennedy's The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. Kennedy describes a syndrome, which afflicted the Roman Empire, imperial Spain, and Victorian England, among others, in which regional or global aspirations outstrip national capacities. Writing in 1987, Kennedy projected the United States as the latest victim of "imperial overstretch," because "the sum total of the United States' global interests and obligations is nowadays far larger than the country's power to defend them simultaneously."
That feels like the wrong diagnosis. First of all, unrestrained defense spending in the aftermath of 9/11 has not come close to bankrupting the United States, though it has certainly squandered precious resources. Second, Americans have contracted a severe case of indigestion from President George W. Bush's vain attempt to swallow significant portions of the Middle East; they are now spitting out the remnants. Empire is an unnatural condition for the United States, and withdrawal to its continental fortress is an almost inevitable response to fears of overstretch. If anything, it is the new national suspicion of engagement, the mood of sullen disenchantment, that marks the country's decline. Americans don't want to shoulder the burdens of global leadership; they want the world, along with its demands, to go away.
We need a word more like "understretch" to describe the national condition. The problem does not lie with too-muchness abroad but with too-littleness at home. And the source of the problem is not an overambitious state but an implacable hostility to the operations of the state. Kennedy also writes that while America's laissez-faire culture and economy make it better able to adjust to rapid change than are more dirigiste societies, doing so "depends upon the existence of a national leadership which can understand the larger processes at work in the world today." The deliberations of Congress -- not just in recent days but in recent years -- vividly show the danger of wrongheaded leadership.
The near default, the shutdown of the government, the sequestration of budget funds -- these are just the latest symptoms of a political, but also psychological, disease. The leadership of the Republican Party -- and not just the Tea Party faction -- believes that the federal government is bad. It has believed that at least since Newt Gingrich overthrew the party's moderate leadership in 1994. In 2012, Mitt Romney, a Republican centrist, ran for president on a platform that would have reduced federal spending to 20 percent of GDP, 2 percentage points lower than it was during the time of small-government apostle Ronald Reagan -- even though Medicare costs were a small fraction then of what they are today. (Matt Miller of the Washington Post has long been an eloquent voice on this madness, as for example here.) To accommodate deep tax cuts, Romney would have eliminated much of the federal government beyond the Pentagon. That is now the orthodoxy of one of America's two political parties.
Meanwhile, the United States is falling behind in crucial areas where it led not long ago. The national store of human capital is diminishing as average rates of literacy and numerical understanding plummet in comparison with rates in other countries, as a recent OECD report demonstrated. A smaller percentage of Americans now both attend and graduate from college than in many Western countries. Crumbling infrastructure increases transaction costs; just compare the trip to JFK airport to the commute to almost any other global airport. The United States still leads the world in spending on research and development, but China has closed much of a formerly immense gap, and many countries now spend more as a percentage of GDP.