Defying History and Theory: The United States as the Last
Remaining Superpower by Josef Joffe NOTES
Basically Ibs, Joffe's essay Defying History and theory, the
United States as the Last Remaining Supower essay has been
updated by Joffe recently in his new 2012 book The Myth Of
America's Decline. His arguments are the same, with contemporary
America, always rising and falling: A review of Josef Joffe's
If the American superpower stretched out on a psychiatrists
couch and revealed its private terrors and most closely guarded
insecurities, these are the images it would recall from its
nightmares the ones that roused it in a panic, afraid that its
power and self-image were slipping away.
Sputnik was first, convincing America that it was losing the
space race and could lose the Cold War, no matter that it was
not and would not. Vietnam followed, an anguish that would take
a generation to shake off. The malaise of the 1970s, with its
oil embargoes and embassy hostages, was soon overrun by worries
of an indomitable Japan. Rising Sun, a summer blockbuster movie
based on a Michael Crichton novel, marked the height of Americas
Japan paranoia in the early 1990s just as the Japanese economy
was plunging off a cliff.
Josef Joffe is fascinated by these bouts of self-doubt that
torment the American imagination. In The Myth of Americas
Decline, he examines five decades of this malady, leading us to
China, the latest bogeyman lurking under the bed.
Of course, in the United States, despair and euphoria have
learned to take turns. Carters crisis of confidence gave way to
Reagans morning in America, Cold War fears dissolved into a
unipolar moment. And even the architects of the Iraq fiasco
briefly believed theyd accomplished their mission. But Joffe, a
journalist and fellow at Stanford Universitys Hoover
Institution, wants to understand the psychology of declinism. Why would a superpower with such overwhelming advantages
convince itself every decade or so that it just doesnt rate?
America has remained a split screen for the mind, Joffe writes,
a frightful dystopia like Brave New World or a heavenly place on
earth like Thomas Mores Utopia.?
As his book title gives away, Joffe is more utopian than
dystopian. Americas overblown worries of decline persist, he
says, mainly because of linearity: the mindless extrapolation of
transient trends whether in the numbers of Soviet ICBMs or the
growth of Japanese GDP far into the future. Here Joffe could be
channeling Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter, who recently complained
about fans fascination with players being on pace for a certain
number of home runs, no matter how early in the season. It
doesnt work like that, Jeter said to ESPN. You gotta go do it.
On pace for is just useless.
In international relations, on pace for is pretty useless, too.
The latest linear thinking involves the all-powerful Chinese
economy. Joffe dates the paranoia to 2003, when investment bank
Goldman Sachs issued its now-famous report, Dreaming With BRICs:
The Path to 2050 . The investment firm built on recent trends to
declare that by mid-21st century, Chinas economy would lead the
planet, with India in third. The other members of the BRIC clan
(B for Brazil, R for Russia) made the challenge seem to be
coming from all directions. But these countries had nothing in
common save great size and a catchy acronym, Joffe writes, and
by the early 2010s, their fantastic growth rates were dropping
like, well, bricks.
Joffe takes the long view; sentences such as China and Western
Europe were about even in per capita income when Christ was born
are not unusual in this book. And with Chinas frenetic growth
already slowing, Joffe argues that, long term, China cant
prevail. Its model of state capitalism he calls it
modernitarianism, defined as markets minus freedom leads to
corruption, favoritism and inefficiency; its rising wages dont
reflect equivalent increases in worker productivity; and its
population is aging so much that a burgeoning army of pensioners
and infirm will eat up investment funds as a fire will consume
Most important, its peoples rising expectations will eventually
leave Chinese leaders with no good options: They must either
loosen their grip and enable a democratic transition that would
further slow growth, or they must continue to repress and risk a new Tiananmen, with the economic crash that would follow. No
matter how the red emperors try to extricate themselves, they
will pay the price of waning growth or worse, Joffe warns.
But he still has some convincing to do. A September nationwide
survey for the financial site TheStreet.com finds that Americans
rate the United States as the worlds dominant economy by 59
percent to 28 percent over China. But when they are asked who
will be on top in five to seven years, the gap shrinks to 43 to
Joffe reserves an especially toasty circle of hell for the
declinists the politicians, historians, economists and
journalists who stoke such worries and continually declare
Americas demise. Indeed, for long stretches, the book is less an
assessment of U.S. prospects and more a trashing of those who
traffic in declinism. They arent just wrong, Joffe contends, but
often maliciously so.
John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama all peddled
declinism for electoral ends, he writes: The country is on the
skids, but tomorrow it will rise again if only you, the people,
will anoint me as your leader. Doom is also an effective career-
booster for Washington wonks; right now, there is no better way
to sell a policy initiative to politicians or the public than to
scream that the Chinese are beating us to it.
Joffe chides thinkers such as Yale historian Paul Kennedy (the
preeminent Declinist of the 1980s), whose book The Rise and Fall
of the Great Powers still embodies the highest form of this low
art, and economist Clyde Prestowitz, who switched from hyping
Japan to hyping China without so much as blushing. The beauty of
declinism is that it is never wrong; if it fails to materialize,
declinists can say that is because the nation wisely followed
their advice or because catastrophe is simply a little late to
the party. Prophecy is inherently unfalsifiable, Joffe writes.
If disaster does not strike tomorrow, it will next week, or next
Yet Joffe commits a few of the same sins. The decline he
foresees in China flows in part from extrapolated demographic,
economic and policy trends; so does his exalted view of the
United States. He admires Americas traditional openness to
immigration, and he swoons over U.S. performance on indicators
such as patents, investment in research and development, and
articles in science and engineering journals. Where he sees
less-than-stellar trends, he explains them away: Relatively low test scores for American 15-year-olds are understandable in an
immigrant nation with lots of non-native families, unlike, say,
in Finland. Things look better if one corrects for these
demographics, Joffe explains. Except you cant praise immigration
for drawing talented foreigners to America, only to discount it
when ESL students undercut your test rankings. You have to pick.
Joffe also offers a retro vision of power, as though it resides
almost entirely in nation-states. Its weird that a book on
American power and the challenges to it doesnt bring up al-Qaeda
until the 91st page and the Gates Foundation until the 225th,
and fails to mention Exxon Mobil altogether.
Still, any foreign policy book is contractually obligated to
debut a buzzword describing Americas role in the world, and here
Joffe delivers. In fact, he has so many he seems undecided.
America is a decathlon power, not first in all aspects of
strength but winning the all-around competition. It is also a
default power, the country to which others look when no one else
steps up. Under President Obama, it has become a reticent power,
with narrowing interests abroad and focused on building up a
welfare state at home. (And this is on top of uberpower, as
Joffe labeled the United States in a 2006 book.)
Whatever kind of power America wields, Joffe doesnt see any
rival overtaking it. He concedes that empires eventually fall
and disappear, but in this case, only the United States can
bring down the United States, as it nearly did in the Civil War.
And no superpower, he asserts, has ever chosen decline.
I wonder whether Joffe might have tweaked that conclusion if hed
been able to include the government shutdown this fall and
Congresss latest flirtation with debt default two self-
inflicted crises that provide no confidence in America as a
default power, let alone a versatile decathlete able to excel in
multiple arenas at once.
Joffe wishes to peer inside the mind of decline. So, how might a
specialist diagnose a patient who constantly swings from elation
to depression, from limitless energy to self-defeating
paralysis? Or, for that matter, a nation so skilled that it can
build the planets foremost spying and surveillance system, yet
such a mess that it cant launch a health-care site that works
Atop a unipolar world may be a bipolar superpower. -----
Q&A with Josef Joffe
Josef Joffe on American exceptionalism, why Europeans hate
Israel, and why China may not be the next superpower.
Josef Joffe is that rare European: a well-known and respected
public intellectual, an academic with sinecures at prestigious
universities on both sides of the Atlantic, the publisher-editor
of the left-leaning German newspaper Die Zeit, and a staunch