Monday’s Mtg: Why Do Great Nations Fail? Will We?

Talk of the United States’ looming decline is a hardy perennial in politics and social science, especially in pop history.  These waves of declinism tend to correspond with periods of crisis, either internal to us or involving the rise of a perceived major external threat.   In the 1920s and the Depression, Marxist-oriented thinkers said the United States was archaic and doomed.  Decades later, 1970s’ stagflation, deindustrialization, and a “growing” Soviet threat led a lot of conservatives to worry the West was going to lose the Cold War.  In the 1990s, we all enjoyed a decade of triumphalism (the “end of history” and democracy’s inevitable ascent) after the Soviet Union collapsed and Japan’s economic miracle sputtered while ours reignited.

Now, declinism is back again, brought on by a grim decade wars, recession, growing poverty and inequality, a paralyzed political system, and the rise of China and other countries.  This time it’s coming from both the Left and the Right, and even from more middle-dwelling analysts.  Are these just more premature obituaries, premised on ahistorical, short-term pessimism?  Or, could the declinists be on to something this time?   Even if they overstate their cases, can we learn anything important about ourselves from this way of thinking?

I’ll open on Monday night by explaining a little bit about what these theorists are saying.  At the risk of oversimplifying, theories of impending American decline tend to emphasize one or more of three basic causes:

  1. Economic causes,
  2. Political causes, or
  3. Cultural origins.

Liberal-oriented theorists emphasize #1 and #2, and conservative commentators (especially recently!) are very big on #3 as well as, of course, too much government.  While most of these theories focus on American elites as the source of the problem, others shift more of the blame onto regular people.  But, first, I’ll ask the obvious but important questions, What makes any nation “great” and what it would mean for the United States to “decline.”

I have not read any of the recent swarm of declinism books (the links below are to some of them).  But I am familiar with their basic theses.  Most of them are not nearly as pessimistic or simplistic as the term I’m using, “declinism,” makes them sound.   But, they all sound warnings that the United States is at least partially on the wrong track and that important things need to change if we are to maintain our widely-shared prosperity and national power and influence.



  1. “Greatness” — What makes a nation “great?”  Is it global power and influence; i.e., the ability to get its way and protect its interests?  “Hard” (military) power?  “Soft” (economic, diplomatic) power?  Great wealth and security for its citizens?  Widely-shared prosperity?  Democracy, or at least a well-functioning political system?  Education?
  2. “Decline” – What is national decline?  What does history tell us about what causes it?  What would American decline look like?  So what if we did lose hegemony; would that really hurt us?
  3. Theories — Why do some theorists say we face impending decline?  What/who do they finger as the culprits?  What evidence do they use?  Do Left and Right see any of this in the same way?
  4. Merit — Are these arguments persuasive to you?   Why?
  5. So?  What should we do about it?


  • FYI, here is a list of the better-selling books on why nations rise and fall and whether the U.S. might become one of the latter.
  • A few of them summarized:

    • Why Nations Fail,” says it’s all about having inclusive rather than extractive political and social institutions.  I recommend.
    •  Collapse, by the Guns Germs and Steel guy, says it’s usually been because of environmental collapse or resource depletion.
  • Will we be next?
    •  “Are We Rome?”  Maybe we are.  I recommend.
    • No, not really; it’s just becoming a more multipolar world.  “The Post-American World,” by Fareed Zakaria.
    • No, not at allLong, conservative, but very good.

One response

  1. James H. Zimmerman | Reply

    Perhaps the classic work on this topic was published by Ranke in the 19th century, Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, mostly about the decline of Spain. The usual thesis: Imperial overreach leads to bankruptcy and decline.
    Then around 1990, Paul Kennedy of the Yale History Dept. redid the thing. Unfortunately, he
    predicted the wrong decline: The Soviets collapsed instead of the US. Many people have predicted decline of the US, but up to now they have been wrong.

    One thing to keep in mind: While I would like to see substantial cuts in the US military budget; and indeed, with the “sequester,” we are getting some, the military takes only 4-5 % of US GDP. This is probably not a level which is going to produce collapse and is hardly comparable to the three bankruptcies of Philip II, etc.

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