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America’s Decline Never Seems to Arrive

Walter Russell Mead

This year’s Independence Day does not find the nation in the most celebratory of moods.

With one of the most polarizing presidents in American history poised to make the most consequential Supreme Court choice in decades, trade wars looming on all sides, a moral and humanitarian crisis on the southern border, and at least one member of Congress calling for mobs to harass administration officials on the streets, the atmosphere in Washington could hardly be more tense. Some speak of a “cold civil war” between red and blue.

Meanwhile, the values that have defined U.S. foreign policy since World War II are shuddering and shaking. As China and Russia seek to pull down the pillars of American strength, it is unclear whether President Trump is committed to the institutions and alliances that have kept America great for so long—or whether his ill-judged attempts to reform the global system will bring it down in ruins. Some leaders in Asia, Africa and even Europe are beginning to wonder whether China’s authoritarian technocracy is a better governance model for the 21st century than America’s chaotic democratic system.

Uncertainty about the future is not new to the U.S. “A republic, if you can keep it,” was Benjamin Franklin’s famous account of the product of the Constitutional Convention. Our national anthem begins not with a triumphant assertion but an anxious question: Is the American flag still flying as night gives way to dawn?

That anxiety intensified as American power grew. Fear of decline has been an American obsession since the end of World War II. The political scientist Andrew Hacker published “The End of the American Era” in 1970; Charles Kupchan used the same title for a 2002 book; and in 2011 Stephen Walt used it again for an influential article in the National Interest. From Paul Kennedy to Fareed Zakaria to Henry Kissinger, some of the most acute foreign-policy thinkers have from time to time perceived the signs of decline.

And yet somehow, the flag has continued to fly. Why does American power look so fragile and remain so resilient? One reason is that the U.S. emerged just as the pace of human history was accelerating. In the mid-18th century, the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution unleashed ideas and technologies that would transform the world. Modern capitalism exploded into being. The social turmoil, geopolitical instability, and technological change now battering the global system are only the latest stages in a long process whose end we can’t yet see.

The U.S. has stood the challenge better than most. Now in its 230th year, the American political system is one of the world’s oldest. But the revolutionary force of capitalism isn’t finished with us. The social and political changes of the 21st century challenge the institutions that humanity so painstakingly assembled in the second half of the 20th. Across the globe, societies must renew themselves as the information revolution reshapes the way people work, think, interact and engage in politics.

This is doubly hard for the U.S., which must not only reform its own domestic institutions but also act as custodian of a world system under strain from globalization, technological disruption and great-power rebalancing.

As Franklin well knew, there are no guarantees that the American experiment will work. Yet he and his fellow Founders designed a system of government to weather the stress and the strain of revolutionary times. The strength and flexibility of Madisonian federalism have enabled the American system to flourish amid more than two centuries of successive upheavals.

But constitutions, however elegant, can’t breathe life into dead polities. It is the union of sound institutions with a strong national spirit—ordinary Americans’ patriotism, democratic faith and enterprising ambition—that has made America such a force in the world.

Noisy extremists on the political fringes notwithstanding, that spirit still rules in America today. As long as it does, the country will continue to astonish the world with its creativity and its capacity for renewal. For now, at least, we can still answer Francis Scott Key’s anxious question in the affirmative: our flag is still there.

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