Chris Chester's Reviews > The Myth of America's Decline: Politics, Economics, and a Half Century of False Prophecies

The Myth of America's Decline by Josef Joffe
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Oct 29, 2013

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bookshelves: non-fiction, american-empire

As a believer in America's gradual decline, I admit I picked up Josef Joffe's book with a haughty sense that I could defuse his argument somehow. And indeed, for much of the book I believed that he was simply missing the point. Here's a brief rundown of his argument, from my notes.

*The very belief in the decline of American power -- military, cultural, diplomatic -- represents an abdication of responsibility to foreign powers.

*The belief in a decline in American power has a history as long as the country itself, and has been used as a prescription for political change by savvy political operators. None of those visions of decline have come to pass.

*The U.S. military is unimaginably large. Like, seriously, you don't even want to know how many aircraft carriers we have.

*Planned economies like the early Asian tigers, who were among the first "contenders" to dethrone America, produce meteoric growth at first, but eventually harden into crony capitalism with more reasonable growth rates.

*China is in the process of of turning into a crony capitalist state now. Eventually, a rising middle class will demand more of the gains sought through increased efficiency, and China's growth will stagnate.

*Even if China becomes the new bad boy on the block, the United States will maintain its position by virtue of its research and development, education system, culture of invention and openness to immigration.

It's a compelling argument! But it's not until the final chapter that Joffe acknowledges my principle beef with his hypothesis: the true challenge to American hegemony comes not from abroad, where powers like Brazil, Russia, India and China hold only regional sway, but domestically.

For as thoroughly researched as his takedown of China's rising star was, he's awfully cavalier about dismissing unprecedented partisan breakdown and crumbling infrastructure afflicting the country. With no citations at all, he declares that fracking, that most short-sighted and short-lived of energy strategies, holds the key to American energy independence.

To his credit, the crises of political legitimacy, debt-based economics, peak oil and climate change have repercussions for every major power, including our rivals in Europe and Asia. And indeed, even cataclysmic change is not likely to bump the U.S. from the world's "default power," but rather, would likely involve a reshuffling of our priorities.

But that's my main point, I guess. No country, not even China, is liable to bump off the U.S. off the top of the existing world order. But the world order changes. And to expect the United States in its current incarnation to last forever is just willfully naive, or at least represents a failure of imagination. Joffe does a great job of taking down the strawmen who would dethrone us today, but only briefly does ever even acknowledge that there is a tomorrow.

Overall, though, it's a good read, and I recommend it to those who perhaps watch a bit too much cable news and have some unfounded fears in their guts.
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Reading Progress

October 29, 2013 – Started Reading
October 29, 2013 – Shelved
October 29, 2013 – Shelved as: to-read
December 3, 2013 – Shelved as: non-fiction
December 3, 2013 – Finished Reading
September 27, 2017 – Shelved as: american-empire

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