By Samuel Edgington
A key theme of the recently successful Trump campaign was monopolising upon the concern of American decline. The call to “make America great again” only resonated because it reflected a genuine feeling in the U.S. regarding domestic and international decline; there is a pervading sense that something has been lost. The majority of Americans now believe that the U.S. is less powerful than 10 years ago. It has become commonplace for people to prophesise that China will soon overtake the U.S. certainly economically and perhaps even militarily. Such an emotive narrative can be utilised by political outsiders like Trump to great effect, but is it true?
If one looks at raw statistics, there is ample evidence of American “greatness”. However, such data is usually ignored or dismissed particularly in this era of “post-truth” politics (it is no real surprise that “post-truth” was recently made the word of 2016 by the Oxford Dictionaries). The data is indeed quite encouraging for America; it remains by far the leading economy globally, contributing almost a quarter of the world’s entire GDP. This was reflected in the 2008 Crash which originated in America but quickly engulfed the rest of the world. Admittedly, America’s economic growth has been sluggish in recent years, particularly in comparison to China, but it has still been faster than many European economies. This wealth enables the U.S. to maintain its colossal defence budget which cements America’s place as a world superpower. This is important because it can impose its will on others either via “soft” economic power (sanctions on Russia have shown this to be at least partially effective) or by force using their remarkably powerful military. Permanent status on the UN security council and de-facto leadership of NATO, demonstrated by the panic caused by Trump’s lukewarm feelings to the institution, further strengthen America’s hand as does the informal influence American foreign policy has on its allies like the UK. If anything, militarily, the U.S. is more powerful now than at any time in its history as it no longer has another real superpower like the USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) to compete with.
In less obvious ways too, America remains dominant. Most ground-breaking technology originates from Silicon Valley and American culture, from Hollywood to McDonalds, has spread throughout much of the globe. Bearing all this in mind, how can so many Americans feel that their country is no longer powerful?
Some may argue that the election of Trump itself signals an American decline; electing a misogynistic demagogue with no political experience and few realistic proposals to the most powerful post in the land hardly demonstrates a flourishing democracy. His election also continues the loss of moral authority which Iraq and the torture revelations brought particularly into focus. These discoveries harmed the standing of the American government and military both in the eyes of the world and in the view of many of their own citizens. Of course, America has always had some devious foreign policies (Vietnam and the Iran-Contra Scandal come to mind) but never has an American president so openly scorned so much of the world. His attitude to the outside world has proven popular not solely because of a preoccupation with domestic affairs. Many Americans feel slighted by the rest of the world. The refusal of the UN to grant permission to invade Iraq in 2003 led to some of its traditional allies, such as France, failing to join the American “coalition of the willing”. This stung. The re-naming of French fries as “freedom fries” in some eateries reflected this bitterness. Likewise, Washington’s insistence that NATO members spend at least 2% of GDP on defence has been ignored by most European countries (the UK is an exception). Many Americans have taken this either as a sign of disrespect or of European “freeloading”. Trump recognised this feeling and exploited it in his campaign. This scorn, or apathy, which fuels his America-First rhetoric will hardly make America great again on the world stage particularly if crises like Syria worsen while America watches on from the side-lines.
A feeling of vulnerability, previously almost absent, is now present in the American psyche. Before 9/11, America felt almost invulnerable to foreign attack on its mainland owing to its size and distance from hostile countries. Unlike Europe, American civilians suffered relatively little in WWII. This feeling of safety was shattered both by 9/11 and then, less dramatically, the 2008 financial crisis since which real wages for the vast majority of Americans have either stagnated or declined. American optimism suddenly went out of fashion with paranoia taking its place- as draconian legislation like the PATRIOT act shows. The media played a role in this by disproportionately representing the threats posed both by terror and crime; to the extent that Americans perceptions of crime are consistently higher than reality. One only needs to watch Fox News to notice this phenomenon. Therefore, it is perhaps not surprising that many Americans feel as though they are under siege.
America is growing more slowly than economies like China (who, it must be noted, have their own domestic problems too). In this sense, they are in decline. Nonetheless, it is indisputable that they remain the economic, military and diplomatic superpower of the world whether one likes that fact or not. Since the end of the Cold War there has been no real rival superpower to challenge American hegemony. These feelings of decline, understandable but perhaps not well-founded, stem primarily from an economy which does not work for most Americans, a media obsessed with violence and fear and from the rhetoric of politicians who use this narrative for their own purposes.