Because their citizens choose to spend money on themselves, not on defense.
Bewailing America’s decline has been in vogue for quite a while now. Long gone is the confidence we enjoyed as the world’s only superpower after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The terrorist attacks of 9/11, the long, difficult wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Great Recession of 2008, and its ongoing geopolitical and economic aftermath have left a dark cloud of pessimism hanging over our future. Books like Pat Buchanan’s Suicide of a Superpower: Will America Survive to 2025? and Mark Steyn’s After America: Get Ready for Armageddon warn of our accelerating decline caused by a collapse of ethnic identity or by an economic meltdown fueled by excessive debt and government spending.
The “antideclinists” have not been silent in response. Most recently, Robert Kagan has argued in The World America Made that our country’s still overwhelming military, economic, cultural, and demographic advantages mean that it will continue to dominate the global order for decades to come. As Kagan reminds us, we have faced numerous crises in the past, many of them much more serious than the problems we face today, and yet we have grown more powerful nonetheless.
How many people in the depths of the Carter-era’s “crisis of confidence,” Soviet geopolitical aggression, and “stagflation” imagined that within a decade, our most deadly and powerful ideological and military rival would disappear from history, and in the next three decades our economy would expand at a dizzying pace, with GDP increasing more than 60 percent?
All civilizations have, at one time or another, thought that they were declining, so it behooves us to keep some historical perspective on the current apocalyptic pronouncements. The fact remains, certainly, that civilizations do pass from history, leaving behind their ruins that we still study today––“All states and nations,” as British historian Norman Davies writes, “however great, bloom for a season and are replaced.” But national decline is not as inevitable as Davies’ metaphor suggests. As many have pointed out, decline is a choice, not a destiny. Thinking about why a people chooses their nation’s decline, then, is more useful than speculating about whether America definitively is or isn’t on a downward spiral today.
Running out of money is indeed an important reason for decline. Great powers have to be able to pay for the military infrastructure necessary for defending their far-flung interests. Once they can no longer afford the costs of those global interests, they begin to lose power and influence.