The Strange Rebirth of American Leadership

FLORENCE – At the recent annual meetings of the American Economic Association, there was widespread pessimism about the future of the United States. “The age of American predominance is over,” declared one economist. “The US should brace for social unrest amid blame over who was responsible for squandering global primacy,” said another.

We have heard this story many times before, not only in the US, but in other places as well. George Dangerfield’s controversial history, The Strange Death of Liberal England, describes his country’s sudden decline at the peak of its power at the turn of the last century. The world everyone knew simply and inexplicably seemed to disappear. Many Americans – think of the Tea Party’s adherents, for example – fear that something similar is happening to their own country. Or that it has already happened.

Dangerfield based his diagnosis on a cross-section of institutions, politics, and personalities, set against the bitter class warfare of the time. Americans, however, have generally been averse to class warfare. True, the US has been home to a rigid, albeit comparably fluid, class structure ever since its founding. But Americans just don’t like to talk about it, even when they are whining about the follies of the “elite.” Nearly all Americans, apart from the richest and poorest, define themselves as “middle class.” Such remains America’s democratic ethos.

Still, it is right to ask if the American way of life will survive the twenty-first century, and, if it does, whether it will survive in America or migrate elsewhere as the US economy and political system collapse under the accumulated weight of decades of myopic national leadership and squandered opportunities. Indeed, Chinese President Hu Jintao’s recent trip to Washington was seen by many – particularly many Chinese – as the passing of the torch.