American hubris

The New Statesman logo

The US is addicted to greatness – and haunted by its loss.

Great powers, both past and present, are haunted by three interconnected preoccupations: they are tempted by a sense of national superiority and claims to manifest historic destiny. Those pretensions tend to provoke fears of decline, which then give rise to projects of rebirth.

The European empires that once fancied themselves great, most notably the British and French, are extreme examples. As France decolonised after 1945, Charles de Gaulle made “grandeur” a watchword of national policy. For the British elite, despite the increase in standards of living, decline was an obsession throughout the postwar period. Under the sign of “cool Britannia” and Tony Blair’s embrace of Europe in the 1990s, that shadow lifted. But since the banking crisis of 2008 and the Brexit referendum of 2016, the question has returned with ever-greater force. While the Brexiteers promise a “global Britain”, the average standard of living in Britain is declining for the first time in modern history. Nationalist bluster about “Britannia unchained” obfuscates a cool-eyed and practical appraisal of Britain’s actual position in the world.

After 1945, the United States superseded the European empires as the hegemon of the non-communist world. The question the English literature professor Jed Esty asks in his new book, The Future of Decline: Anglo-American Culture at its Limits, is whether the US has now succumbed to the same British malady. Is the US so haunted by preoccupation with relative decline that it can’t adjust to the realities of an increasingly multipolar world?

In making his argument, Esty distinguishes the fact of the US’s diminishing superiority in economic and military terms, which he considers undeniable and inevitable, and the ideological preoccupation of declinism. As Esty puts it, it isn’t just data that matters, but the story you tell with it. It is in deciphering this complex weave of reality and narrative that Esty’s expertise as a literature professor takes effect. Ranging widely across genres, he reads cinema, TV shows and literature, from The West Wing to the Yale historian Paul Kennedy and Marvel’s Black Panther, as examples of a culture of decline.

Read the full article in The New Statesman

related posts