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Paul Johnson Says the United States is Finished, Or, Calling Mssrs. Stuttaford and Delingpole

In the current issue of Forbes, the great British historian Paul Johnson:

In one respect, Barack Obama’s reelection is historically appropriate.  He’s a weak leader and, by reports, an idle one.  Such a man is well chosen to lead America into a period of decline.

Just prior to World War I, the U.S. became the world’s largest economy, a position it has held for more than a century. But the latest report from a European think tank suggest that China will overtake U.S. output within four years. Obama will close a long and glorious chapter in world history, not with a bang but a whimper.

Which leads to a few questions, which I address in the first instances to Brothers Stuttaford and Delingpole, who, after all, grew up in a nation that had already undergone the we-used-to-be-number-one-but-lost-it decline that Johnson now predicts for the United States.  To wit:

Query:  Does overall national output, the figure in which China will soon overtake us, or GDP per person, in which the United States will sustain an indefinite lead, matter more to national standing and morale?

Query:  What, really, was the meaning of the Thatcher years?  To what extent was she truly able to reverse British decline? In the end, was she able to restore a sense of national pride? If we could find a Thatcher of our own in 2016–Bobby Jindal? Marco Rubio?–what, realistically, could he hope to accomplish? Merely to retard our continuing decline?

Query:  You grew up in an England that had become a minor power–a little England–but that remained, in important ways, wealthy and vibrant, at least for those who made their livings in finance and the few other sectors in which England remained competitive. Yet you surely heard from members of your parents’ and grandparents’ generations about the pleasures and burdens of life in England when the UK remained Number One Country.  

Which is to be preferred? If Paul Johnson is right–if America is indeed entering a period of irreversible decline–would our diminishing role in the world really prove all that bad?

  1. Douglas

    Once great civilizations decline, they don’t come back. Diocletian is a prominent example in Roman history of a leader that came to power intent upon reversing Rome’s decline, and he appeared to succeed during his time. But after his rule, Rome’s slide downward continued. I’m afraid that perhaps Reagan and Thatcher were modern-day Diocletians, leaders that appeared to reverse the declines of their nations for a time, but in reality only paused the slide. 

    As for what our new role would be, Britain would probably be an example here. Britain punched above it’s national weight post-war, having more international influence than their size, power, and wealth justified. But the decline has been fast and irreversible   The once mighty Royal Navy now has more admirals than ships, and Britain has retreated from across the world. And now, with Scotland, it’s poised to break up back into its constituent pieces. The fate of the United States is probably similar, though it’ll take more than 60+ years. 

  2. Miffed White Male
     If Paul Johnson is right–if America is indeed entering a period of irreversible decline–would our diminishing role in the world really prove all that bad? · · 20 minutes ago

    It won’t be all that bad (comparatively) for us here at home.

    It’s gonna be REALLY bad for the rest of the world.

  3. John Walker
    Peter Robinson

    Query:  Does overall national output, the figure in which China will soon overtake us, or GDP per person, in which the United States will sustain an indefinite lead, matter more to national standing and morale?

    My sense is that absolute size matters more than GDP per capita.  Rankings by different sources vary, but in all of them the U.S. comes in between 6th and 9th in GDP per capita in purchasing power parity adjusted terms and between 14th and 19th in nominal terms.  Luxembourg, Norway, and Singapore handily beat the U.S. in all of these rankings, but none has a comparable impact on the world economic or geopolitical scene because the absolute numbers are so much smaller.

    Norway spends about  1.9% of GDP on its military and has compulsory service for men of ages 18–44.  The U.S. spends about twice as much (4.06% of GDP), but has an all-volunteer force with correspondingly larger personnel and benefit costs.

    But the point is, if Norway doubled its military spending, what impact would it have on the world military balance?  None.  China’s doubling theirs…work it out.

  4. Spin

    I don’t know the answer to all of the questions, but I think I know the answer to this one:

    Does overall national output, the figure in which China will soon overtake us, or GDP per person, in which the United States will sustain an indefinite lead, matter more to national standing and morale?

    I think the answer is that it should matter more.  The fundamental building block of a strong economy is a productive citizen, right?  If we are more productive, on average, than our Chinese counterparts, then we should be considered to have the stronger economy.  I fear, however, that we will continue to speak in generalities (in the public forum) in an effort to demoralize for political purposes.  This is a shame, I think.  

  5. Colin B Lane

    Peter, the real problem here is that any decline in America’s influence in the world will not be an “all other things being equal” proposition.  

    Our decline in the world will be occasioned by our decline here at home — a decline in industriousness, a decline in the belief in free enterprise, a decline in the spirit of self-reliance and freedom from excessive government intrusion into our lives.  

    In short, if our influence in the world is declining, it will be because the morality and virtues necessary to sustain a free people are also declining.  

    And yes, that would prove to be very, very bad. 

  6. Leigh

    As already pointed out, Britain was fortunate enough to have us around to inherit her position as she declined.  We have Communist China.  We can’t begin to imagine how that will play out — but it won’t be as comfortable.  But that very fact might change American behavior for the better, if leadership realizes we can’t afford to play around.  Maybe.

    China will, at some point, try and claim global recognition of their superiority.  Whether they’ll use diplomatic, economic, or military means to make the challenge, who knows?  It could get ugly.  It could be that they will act too soon (ambition does that sometimes) and set themselves back.

  7. Leigh

     Thatcher did good things on the political level; she didn’t end the moral decay. The Thatcher years were followed by the complete moral and electoral breakdown of the Tory Party, and then by Tony Blair — an eloquent, charismatic, popular, thrice-elected disaster.  Britain has fallen into a vicious cycle where bad governance and public immorality feed off of each other.

    Even if you can elect a Thatcher — someone with the will and the ability to  change the governance — if you can’t staunch the moral breakdown, you’ve only set back disaster a few years. 

    That said, setting it back is worth doing.  If you can allow another generation a chance to live out its days in peace, and give their grandchildren the opportunity to grow up in freedom and the chance to make their own choices for the future — even if you think they will throw that choice away — it’s worth it.

  8. SParker
    FloppyDisk90: “We chide the Euro-weenies for not defending themselves but would we feel better if they all had standing armies?”

    Ummm….yes?? · 21 minutes ago

    Sort of like leaving a loaded pistol in baby’s crib, don’t you think?  European history 1870-1945 and all.  I suppose today’s modern European might be less murderously idiotic than his ancestors.

    A friend, praising the H-bomb, said, “well, at least we haven’t had a catastrophic European war since we invented it.  That’s saying something.”

  9. Snirtler

    If I might offer an outsider’s perspective, American leadership in the world has never been simply about economic and military power. US influence and the esteem she enjoys has always been tied to the principles she represents–democracy, openness, free enterprise, and the rule of law–even when honored in the breach. One may admire Europe, Japan, and China for their past and present accomplishments. The US, however, is still the only nation that combines size, the potential for economic dynamism, and adherence to ideas prized by freedom-loving citizens everywhere else.

    Even with its reserves and economic heft, China does not have the soft power that the US continues to possess, in spite of real indicators of decline. Because China will grow old before it truly grows rich, it is even less likely to acquire that soft power. See:

    http://www.brookings.edu/research/articles/2012/06/china-demographics-wang

    Obviously residual soft power is insufficient for the US to maintain its role, but all is not yet lost. Declinist talk is not new. It just makes it more imperative for US conservatives to keep up the fight to avert further erosion of her hard and soft power. 

  10. Angmoh Gao

    What did Thatcher achieve for us? I would suggest that her greatest achievements were confronting the power of the unions and winning – something for which we still reap the benefits today, and reducing taxation to produce a pro business growth environment.

    The Thatcher laws on union activism – removing the closed shop (equivalent to right to work) and outlawing union bully tactics are still with us thankfully. 

    Sadly while Tony Blair held tax rates where they were, more or less, that has been undone in the Gordon Brown years and by the activism of the liberal democrats in the coalition.

    Thatcher held back the growth of the state though did not really reduce public spending. The state has exploded in size in 13 years of labour government and sadly the high watermark in the size of the state that was achieved is one that the liberal media is absolutely determined cannot be rowed back from.

    I think that winning a short sharp war was a great help to Thatcher and arresting the decline for a short while.

    Without Thatcher and her administration the catastrophe of union domination would have speedily concluded the decline of the UK to eastern european levels.

  11. Angmoh Gao

    I would suggest to my American friends that, leaving military considerations aside, relative GDP positioning is irrelevant. It is your demeanor and moral position that count.

    Anyway – China is perhaps in for a hard landing particularly from their demographics.

  12. Ignatius J. Reilly
    Capt. Aubrey: We chide the Euro-weenies for not defending themselves but would we feel better if they all had standing armies? How about Japan? · 1 hour ago

    First answer this: Do you feel better about Australia or the Euro-weenies?

  13. Ignatius J. Reilly

    In the same way that W saddled us with some costly additions to the State (Medicare Part D, TARP), Thatcher’s bureaucratization of the civil service has had lasting painful effects in Britain.

  14. SParker

    H’mmm.  The piece isn’t all that gloomy.  Unless you believe in inevitable decline or historical imperatives or something*.  And as someone said comparing us with the British Empire doesn’t seem apt or useful.  The Roman Republic  might be better–if you mentioned Empires of Trust.

    *Of course, I believe in spontaneously ordered systems, which my leftist brother calls “magical thinking.”

  15. Peter Robinson
    C
    FloppyDisk90: With no offense to the estimable Peter Robinson, all this doom-mongering of late here at Ricochet is getting really old, really fast.  Here we are trying to increase our membership and our message is “all is lost, spend your last few dollars crying into your beer with us.”

    I’m all for frank assessments, honesty, confronting the facts, etc…, but there’s got to be a better way to go about it then the constant drumbeat of Amerika the Land of the Lost.  Frankly, to an outsider new to the site we must all appear to be moonstruck teenagers getting over their first break-up. · 2 hours ago

    My position:  If a historian as estimable as Paul Johnson is feeling gloomy, then we need to take account of…the gloom.  Can you say why Johnson is mistaken?  (In my first question, I suggest a way:  Even when China overtakes us in overall GDP, Chinese GDP per person will remain only about one-tweflth of ours.) 

  16. Peter Robinson
    C
    Ken Owsley: I don’t know the answer to all of the questions, but I think I know the answer to this one:

    Does overall national output, the figure in which China will soon overtake us, or GDP per person, in which the United States will sustain an indefinite lead, matter more to national standing and morale?

    I think the answer is that it shouldmatter more.    · 1 hour ago

    I’m with you on this one, Ken.  Productivity per citizen ought to matter–a lot.

    The more I think about it, for that matter, the less impressed I am with Paul Johnson’s observation about our relative decline, great man though Johnson may be.  After all, the United States has been suffering relative decline since the end of the Second World War, when we represented incomparably the richest and strongest nation on earth.  Yet during that long decline–again, only a relative decline–there have been good decades and bad. Surely our own productivity and morale represent the most important factors in life as we live it–for what it feels like, so to speak, to be an American.

    At least that’s my thinking for now.

  17. Peter Robinson
    C
    John Walker

    My sense is that absolute size matters more than GDP per capita.  Rankings by different sources vary, but in all of them the U.S. comes in between 6th and 9th in GDP per capita in purchasing power parity adjusted terms and between 14th and 19th in nominal terms.  Luxembourg, Norway, and Singapore handily beat the U.S. in all of these rankings, but none has a comparable impact on the world economic or geopolitical scene because the absolute numbers are so much smaller.

    Norway spends about  1.9% of GDP on its military and has compulsory service for men of ages 18–44.  The U.S. spends about twice as much (4.06% of GDP), but has an all-volunteer force with correspondingly larger personnel and benefit costs.

    But the point is, if Norway doubled its military spending, what impact would it have on the world military balance?  None.  China’s doubling theirs…work it out. · 1 hour ago

    Darn.  I no sooner argued myself into the position that GDP per citizen ought to be the most important criterion than John Walker comes along and–is this fair?–uses facts and well-chosen examples to upend me.

  18. Stephen Hall
    FloppyDisk90: OK, but my point is not whether or not Johnson is correct (kinda reminds me how all the intelligentsia were predicting Japan would soon rule the economic world in the late 80′s but what do I know) but if the corpus of gloom taken in its post-Obama-2nd-term totality was conducive to luring in new members.  I say it’s not, but it’s your business. · 1 hour ago

    Bravo. There has been a lot of talk on Ricochet about long term US trends (demographic, cultural, economic) which supposedly spell certain or near-certain doom for the 236-year old experiment in democratic republicanism.

    One cannot be sanguine about such trends, but I often detect a whiff of what might be called ‘right-wing Marxism’. By this I mean a tendency by some on the centre-right to fall into habits of materialist determinism. It is a habit to which former leftists are particularly prone. Although such trends clearly inform a country’s future, they cannot determine it. What happens to a people depends primarily on the decisions they make. That is one of the ways in which a people is free even in adversity.

  19. Peter Robinson
    C

    (Cont’d from above.)

    I’m groping around here, simply trying to figure out a reasonable way to think about the problem.  Liechtenstein is too small to do any good in the world at large no matter how rich it becomes–I’ll grant that.

    So maybe this is the question:  How big must our economy remain relative to that of China in order, to, say, keep China’s ambitions in the Pacific contained?  

    Which leads pretty quickly to a second round of questions:  If China continues to grow in absolute terms, how big must the combined economies of the United States and our allies remain in order to keep China focussed on economic growth rather than military adventures?  And–this represents perhaps the most interesting question of all as one thinks a decade or two into the future–who are our allies in the Pacific?  Australia’s a good friend, but small.  Japan?  A gerontocracy.  The Philippines?  South Korea?  India?

    Good Lord, John.  You put up one comment…and I find myself feeling the impulse to dial Henry Kissinger for a consultation.

  20. Daniel Sattelberger
    Peter Robinson

    Darn.  I no sooner argued myself into the position that GDP per citizen ought to be the most important criterion than John Walker comes along and–is this fair?–uses facts and well-chosen examples to upend me. · 10 minutes ag o

    They’re both useful for different things.  GDP per capita is a good measure of prosperity.  GDP as a whole is a good measure of influence or world power (roughly speaking).