Diagnosing Decline

The great but underappreciated American essayist Albert J. Nock, who died in 1945 after completing one of the great autobiographical accomplishments of the past century in Memoirs of a Superfluous Man, was fascinated by the question of whether it is possible to tell whether you are living in a Dark Age or the beginning of one. It is trickier than one might think.

There are any number of obstacles to seeing what is happening in one’s own time clearly, let alone discerning trends. On one hand there seems to be a widespread human tendency to see one’s own era, in which one is able to see the foibles and follies of one’s fellow human beings up close, as almost certainly more full of idiocy than previous times must have been. This tendency often, however, involves a certain romanticization of the past, a conviction that the mistakes you yourself have seen leaders make must be more egregious than what occurred in previous times, that can do damage to objectivity.

On the other hand, most people who don’t think too deeply about such matters have a tendency to view the conditions in which they grew up as somehow normal, or close to normal, and thus to miss the characteristic errors of their times. The best-educated people of a certain time thought bleeding people was an efficacious form of medical treatment, just as many educated people in out time think that passing prohibitory laws is an efficacious way to deal with the fact that certain substances we have chosen to call drugs have ill effects on some people. I think the latter superstition will eventually be seen in the same light as the former, but I have little doubt that I have blind spots in my own perceptions about which people 20 or 50 years from now will slap their heads and wonder, "How could people have believed such a thing?"

Just to complicate matters, it is hardly unheard of for people to romanticize the past, the present and the future in a jumble of misunderstanding and emotional responses, and those of us who think our clear thinking exempts us from such confusion are undoubtedly, to some degree or another, fooling ourselves. Add the fact that we all have hopes about the future that can cloud our ability to assess things cold-bloodedly, and descrying reliable patterns in such a situation can be quite difficult.


Having qualified my musings, the question that fascinates me in this still-young century is whether the American Empire is in some stage of decline. It is well to confess at the outset that I hope it is, that I believe a decline in the empire is a necessary condition for having any hope of building a free society – or putting in place the conditions under which a free society can emerge – informed both by our traditions and by the exigencies of the present. So my analysis may well be prejudiced by my desires.

Nonetheless, I believe certain signs and portents suggest that the empire – taken to mean the desire and the ability to use military and political force to influence and determine the course of events either throughout the world or even in those areas where political leaders have chosen to try to exercise control and influence – is on the way out. The question is whether this will be a disaster or an opportunity.

For starters, look at the presidents the system has thrown to the top of the political maelstrom in recent years. Can a system in which it is more than possible that our titular commanders in chief will have been Bush-Clinton-Clinton-Bush-Bush-Clinton be viewed as one with an ability to put top talent into positions of leadership or much of a rosy future? Both families consist of third-raters intellectually, although with a certain ruthlessness nurtured by long-standing family ambition in one case and a certain roguish charm and facility for empathy (at least in Bill though one wonders about Hill) in the other.

And we haven’t yet mentioned Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan (smarter than perceived but hardly a first-tier thinker), Gerald Ford, Richard Nixon or Lyndon Johnson.

What suggests a larger malady in American society is that all these presidents, and perhaps especially the Bushes and Clintons, have attracted legions of ordinary Americans who are fiercely loyal to them. It is always dubious to be loyal to any political figure, of course, but that so many place faith and confidence in people of such unimpressive moral or intellectual character suggests a society with deep and lingering problems.

It is tempting to focus on the current occupant of the Oval Orifice, and there is certainly ample reason to do so, so I will yield for a moment.

In his fine recent book on the current crisis, The Resurgence of the Warfare State, Robert Higgs, author of the 1984 classic, Crisis and Leviathan, writes (p. 119) that "the president’s insistence on equating U.S. policy with good, freedom, and life and all alternative policies with evil, slavery, and death, represents the sort of childish bifurcation one expects to find expressed by a member of a youth gang, not by the leader of the world’s most powerful government."

After analyzing the president’s relentlessly optimistic reports on Iraq and Afghanistan and wondering how foreign occupation fits the definition of freedom, Higgs concludes, about Bush, "I get the unsettling feeling that the man inhabits another world in which things are the exact opposite of how they seem to me. Of course, I may be the one whose perspective is askew. Unlike Bush, I cannot claim that the Almighty has licensed my position. Yet I fear that time will tell in favor of my view of the matter – a view shared, of course, by most people on the planet, indeed, by nearly everybody who has not been bribed, intimidated, or blinded by partisan loyalty to the Bush administration."


That brings us to the current war, an example of the overweening hubris the keepers of an empire might be inclined to exhibit at a time when they believe their power is waxing when in fact it is nowhere near so overwhelming as they fantasize and may be on the wane. Our apostles of empire may not have cared at all whether Saddam really had WMDs or was even a threat – there’s pretty good evidence that many had seen him for more than a decade as simply the next logical target of opportunity toward realizing their lofty imperial ambitions – but they were hardly shy about making extravagant claims that almost anybody with a more mature sense of judgment knew were false or at least highly exaggerated.

That war – a war of aggression rather than defense, another sign of an empire beginning to get too ambitious for its resources – has turned out to be the opposite of a cakewalk followed by Iraqis greeting Americans effusively with bouquets. Most Americans now believe it was a mistake to begin it in the first place, and the main reasons most aren’t yet ready to endorse an immediate withdrawal have to do with a sense of responsibility along the Pottery Barn "you broke it, you own it" lines.

Although there are undoubtedly still soldiers and those in the other armed forces who are still enthusiastic and optimistic about the mission, the military is facing increasing morale and recruitment problems. It is not difficult to wonder whether the empire can even maintain its present level of commitments, let alone take on new adventures, without instituting conscription, yet both the American people and the military itself are still deeply averse to the idea

And yet some armchair warriors still babble on about the necessity of launching military action against Iran, which is much larger and more resilient, with a larger and more capable military, than Iraq.

It isn’t just the Iraqi war or the Bush administration. The Clinton administration conducted or continued incursions into Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo without significantly increasing the amount of democracy (let alone freedom) in the world and professed a sense of guilt about not intervening elsewhere. Clinton had a certain sense of prudence about the size and scope of his fool’s errands, but he never acknowledged any theoretical limits to the right of the United States to flounder about the world breaking things and then (maybe) fixing them, and demonstrated his own hubris with an ill-fated attempt to fix the Israeli-Palestinian problem by sheer force of will.

Whether or not the Iraq war and its bloody aftermath turn out to be the final straw, sooner or later the American people will get tired of being called upon to fix every problem or perceived problem in the world through force of arms and American blood and treasure.


The muscle-bound paralysis we see developing in foreign relations is apparent on the domestic scene as well. Anybody with the slightest degree of insight and even elementary ability with math can tell that the Social Security and Medicare programs (to name the two biggest examples of many) are unsustainable over the long run, and that even attempting to make them solvent will be more difficult the longer we put it off. Yet because of the array of special interests and willful blindness that characterize the political scene, it is politically impossible to do anything serious.

And then there’s the colossal scale of government incompetence, on every level, revealed by the Katrina mess. Not to mention an increasingly expensive government educational system that is increasingly incapable of performing the simplest of educational tasks but instead turns out functional illiterates, most egregiously cheating lower-income and minority children who need something resembling a decent education the most.

James Q. Wilson, one of the smartest men I’ve met, who is interesting even when he’s wrong (which is often enough), has written a provocative piece arguing that the United States is more politically polarized than it has been in decades, in the sense that Republicans and Democrats not only disagree about policy and how to divide the spoils of taxation, but believe deeply that the other side is either evil or depraved. That doesn’t leave much room for compromise or unity in the face of a common threat. A society so deeply polarized is going to have a hard time maintaining an imperial presence – let alone undertaking new initiatives – around the world.


A decline in the imperial character of the United States will not necessarily mean the end of the world. Rome, Vienna, Paris, London and other former imperial centers are still bustling cities with their own charms, attractions and expressions of high, low and middlebrow culture. They are still interesting and in many ways vital – perhaps even more interesting now that they are not trying to run the world politically. In his fascinating book, "America’s Inadvertent Empire," former Gen. William Odom makes a plausible case that demographic and economic indicators and trends are likely to keep the United States economically prosperous and perhaps even dominant for decades to come.

Judging by past history, imperial decline is inevitable. With a little perspective, however, we might find ways to enjoy it – and perhaps even hasten it just a bit.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).