Monday, December 12, 2011

Dealing with decline

Niall Ferguson and many others have made the point that the United States, like other once-dominant nations before it, is in for a very difficult period of adjustment. That is, if the combination of its massive public debt and shifts in the global economic center of gravity play out as expected, and America's international preeminence is relentlessly eroded.

The U.S. debt-to-GDP ratio is around 100%, and it's well known that public debt levels above 85% of GDP are a drag on growth and also carry other, more dire, risks - as recent credit downgrades portend and as recent events in Europe have illustrated.

Of course America never had an actual empire like many of the preeminent nations of the past, and so will be spared the dramatic indignity of surrendering territories and dealing with mass immigration and other such phenomena that are associated with the end of an empire. Though long-held perceptions and expectations are not easy to put aside, the lack of an empire will make the process far easier, not only in practical terms but also in terms of saving face. The decline in power and influence could be seen as a voluntary return to policies of relative isolationism and non-interventionism.

The French writer Henry de Montherlant - an aristocratic conservative - faced head-on and accepted the patent reality of the decline of France in the inter-war years, though he felt the pain of it keenly. Others, in the face of much evidence to the contrary, continued to believe in France's greatness, even after the debacle of 1940, even after the disastrous Algerian war, even now ...

The style and antics of the present French president, Nicolas Sarkozy is explicable only in the light of France's glorious past, and the mismatch between his pretensions and the reality of France's current position in the world is a source of amusement to many.

Britain's decline has been, if anything, even more painful and traumatic than that of France. In the post-World War 2 period, Michael Flanders and Donald Swann reflected the attachments and preoccupations and regrets of the English middle class. Behind the mock xenophobia and comic aggression of this little piece (from a performance in New York) lies ... Well, you be the judge.

A final thought: it strikes me that unsympathetic observers of David Cameron's actions at last week's Brussels summit will see him and his eurosceptic supporters - quite unjustly, of course, at least in respect of Cameron himself - as having been motivated by something like the sentiments being satirized here by Flanders and Swann.