The Myth of America’s Decline:
Politics, Economics, and a Half Century of False Prophecies
By Josef Joffe
Liveright, 352 pages
Despite its title, The Myth of America’s Decline isn’t really about America. It’s about the decline of Europe and Japan and the emptiness of Chinese power. Josef Joffe believes that the United States is the world’s “default power,” possessing “neither supremacy nor an unlimited writ across the planet,” but is in much better shape than everyone else:
Europe and Japan…have drifted into slow or no growth…Soviet Russia has simply disappeared, and its heir’s riches remain tied to the price of natural resources. China, as we peer into the second decade of this century, may be slowing, following the natural trajectory of start-up economies and bumping against the built-in limits of modernitarianism—authoritarian modernization.
As the default power, the United States is “a nation to which others look when nobody else steps forward.” Lately, as Joffe admits, we haven’t been stepping forward much.
Joffe first catalogues two and a half centuries of faulty predictions of America’s imminent doom, beginning with Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon. His De la dégénération des animaux (1766) pointed out that even animals were smaller in the New World.
Europeans, Joffe writes, love predicting America’s failure because “capitalism is the threat and America its vanguard.” The modern version of de Buffon’s smaller-animal theory begins in the 1950s with the shock of the Russians’ launching Sputnik, the first earth-orbiting satellite. Decline 2.0 comprised the civil-rights and anti-war upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s; Decline 3.0, the rise of Japan; Decline 4.0, the resurgence of the Soviet Union in the late 1970s. Decline 5.0? We’re in the middle of it now, with the economic and military threat of China and our own economic struggles.
To Joffe, who was brought up and educated in the United States and then went back to Germany to become editor and publisher of Die Zeit, all these prophecies were exaggerations and illusions, typically to advance a political agenda or sell newspapers. He makes the excellent point that declinists are not Cassandras. They don’t actually believe the United States is going down the drain. Instead, they use their predictions as a spur to some kind of action: better science education, more defense spending, higher barriers to Japanese imports. “Prophecy,” he writes, “is not about truth but about consequences—all of them instrumental…The prophet wants to be wrong.”
Joffe plants a forest of straw men—all those inaccurate predictions—and then sets it afire. But should we ignore all future prophecies of disaster because so many past ones were wrong? And what about predictions of disaster that were accurate, such as fears in the mid-19th century of an impending civil war in the United States? Hasn’t America been the subject not merely of inaccurate predictions of decline but of inaccurate predictions of success: helicopters in every garage, victories in every war, and, yes (my own, alas), the Dow soaring to 36,000?
The next part of Joffe’s argument is the most absorbing: his account of just how far ahead we are of everyone else. A GDP nearly as big as the next three countries (China, Japan, Germany) combined. Defense spending twice that of the next five countries (China, the UK, Russia, Japan, Saudi Arabia) combined. When Britain ruled the waves, its naval tonnage was half that of its next seven competitors; today, U.S. tonnage “exceeds the tonnage of the next 13 navies combined.” We have 10 aircraft carriers to China’s one and Russia’s one, 3,591 combat-capable aircraft to China’s 2,004, and 1,318 tankers and transport aircraft to Russia’s 208 and China’s 77.
These statistics set up three chapters on China (about two-fifths of the book) because “the central argument of Declinism since the Sputnik Shock of half a century ago is not about…the fall of the United States but about the rise of the rest.” And right now that means China, which Joffe believes won’t rise for long: “A nation becomes neither rich nor powerful by adding up 1.3 billion very poor people.” He sees Chinese GDP growth (now about 8 percent a year) gradually regressing to the mean, the way the economies of other countries—Germany, Japan, Korea—have after exploding off a low base.
There is also the question of China’s political system: “Can a despotic regime keep managing a feat that history says is impossible? Can it keep the people in check while unshackling one market after another according to the unspoken slogan ‘Enrich yourselves, but leave the driving to us’?”
Others have trod this territory, but Joffe’s exposition is notable for how relentlessly pessimistic he is about China’s prospects. Instead of The Myth of America’s Decline, he might have called the book “The Myth of China’s Rise.” He is skeptical that China will reach the U.S. level of GDP soon, as others such as Goldman Sachs and the economist Robert Fogel have predicted. He sees Chinese wages rising to the point where its workers become inefficient and noncompetitive. He cites China’s demographic imbalance, with more than one-fourth of the population aged 65 and older by 2050. He is unimpressed with China’s education system, its engineers, its research, its entrepreneurs, its inhospitable view of the rest of the world, and, of course, its shaky political system. China, in the Joffe narrative, is only the latest in a line of competitors—the Soviet Union and Japan being the predecessors—that move up to threaten the United States but then fall away in the stretch.
As for the United States, Joffe cites as “largely on target” an assessment of 15 components of American power by Peng Yuan, assistant president and director of the Institute of American Studies at the China Institutes for Contemporary International Relations. In 10 areas, America is clearly on top. Joffe lists them as follows: (1) population, geographic position, and natural resources; (2) military muscle; (3) high technology and education; (4) cultural/soft power; (5) cyber power; (6) allies, the United States having more than any other state; (7) geopolitical strength, as embodied in global projection forces; (8) intelligence capabilities, as demonstrated by the killing of Osama bin Laden; (9) intellectual power, fed by a plethora of U.S. think tanks and the “revolving door” between research institutions and government; and (10) strategic power, the United States being the world’s only country with a truly global strategy.
There are five areas in which the United States has lost ground. First, political power, with the breakdown of bipartisanship; second, economic power; third, financial power, due to deficits and debt; fourth, social power, with “societal polarization”; and finally, institutional power, because we can’t dominate the UN and other global institutions.
Here is where Joffe’s book falls short, for the fall-off in those five is deeply disturbing and cannot be dismissed easily by pointing out the supremacy in the other 10. Americans themselves are certainly concerned. In a poll released in December, the Pew Research Center found that 53 percent of Americans believe that the United States plays a “less important and powerful role as a world leader” than it did 10 years ago. That’s by far the highest proportion since the question was first asked in 1974, and it’s up from 41 percent in 2009 and 20 percent in 2004.
Just focus on American economic power. Gross domestic product, the output of goods and services, is the most significant expression of economic health—and lately GDP growth in the United States has been miserable. Since 2001, GDP has grown an average of 1.8 percent a year. In a literal sense, that is a decline—about half the postwar average, and it can’t be blamed on a recession that is now more than four years old. Something disturbing is happening in America, and, much as we might wish otherwise, it’s not enough to say, even as provocatively as Joffe does, that the Europeans and Japanese have the same problems and the Chinese will have them soon enough.