The arc of American history is short and, in one important way, deceptive. It suggests that the United States will keep growing and progressing forever — that it will always dominate the world as it does today. None of this is pre-ordained, however. The rise and fall of nations is one of the immutable patterns of history.
By conventional terms, the United States is remarkably safe. No rising power threatens us, and violently anti-American groups are weak and far away. Yet because of the way we are used to viewing global power, we may fail to see a new reality: The real threats to our national security are at home.
Climate change is the most obvious and urgent of these global challenges. Others range from the threat of global pandemics to the spread of religious-based terror. If the United States can establish itself as the world leader in addressing these common concerns, it will secure enduring leadership.
So far, though, the United States has failed to play this leading role. The reason has to do with another “basket” of newly emerging threats we face. These stem from the weakening of our political democracy, mirrored by our reluctance to invest in projects that would assure our long-term primacy.
Countries that are not strong at home cannot project power or protect their global interests. They may attract predatory enemies. No empire or global system can survive the decay of the motherland. Yet although past generations of Americans invested heavily in infrastructure, education, and research, we seem to have lost these prudent habits.
At the same time, perhaps not coincidentally, our political system is falling ever more steadily into the hands of a small elite. By acts of Congress and the Supreme Court, powerful corporations and wealthy individuals exercise decisive influence in Washington. Partisanship and mean-spirited cynicism dominate political discourse. That makes serious consideration of long-term challenges all but impossible.
This is dangerous not only because weakness at home makes it more difficult for us to play a positive role in the world. It seriously threatens the security of the United States itself. The long-term success of nations is nowhere guaranteed. They must be carefully steered or they will founder.
Examples of nations that seem to be doing well but then crash downward are not hard to find. Our own age offers plenty of cautionary tales.
One of the most frequently told is that of Argentina, sometimes known as “the world’s only formerly developed country.” Decades of poor leadership, made possible by a politically immature population eager to be led by demagogues, have pulled it into a long fall.
Not long ago, Zimbabwe seemed headed for a bright future. Rule by a corrupt elite uninterested in national development has transformed this potential Eden into a political, economic, and social basket case.
Until recently Turkey was widely hailed as one of the world’s most successful countries. In the past couple of years, however, democracy has given way to authoritarian rule, much of the press has been intimidated into submission, and spectacular corruption scandals have de-legitimized the ruling elite.
Could something comparable happen in the United States? Our institutions and republican traditions are stronger than those in Argentina, Zimbabwe, and Turkey, and our experience with electoral democracy is longer. Yet it would be foolish to believe that the United States is immune to the cycles of history.
Political systems weaken when large groups of people consider themselves unrepresented. Nations literally fall apart when their transportation systems and utility grids are not maintained. Countries that do not pour resources into education and research doom themselves to decline. Armies that intervene abroad create enemies.
Richly endowed with territory and natural resources, protected by great oceans and steadily refreshed by waves of immigration, the United States has enjoyed a remarkable period of sustained growth, political stability, and social peace. Nothing guarantees that this will continue. In fact, our political system seems to be pushing us in the opposite direction.
It would be foolish to believe that the United States is immune to the cycles of history.
For much of American history, our power was based on the immense pain we could inflict on others. Today, it depends on whether we can master our challenges at home.Stephen Kinzer is a visiting fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University. Follow him on Twitter @stephenkinzer.