Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Facing National Retirement with Grace

Bradford Littlejohn


By Bradford Littlejohn

May 9, 2014

You don’t have to look far these days for signs that Uncle Sam is starting to get old and a little slow. After coming off very flatfooted in the showdown over Syria last summer, American foreign policy has looked downright immobile as the crisis in Ukraine has unfolded over the last couple of months.  

Critics on the right may blame an incompetent, indecisive, or even cowardly Obama for these missteps, but recent polls suggest that Obama’s approach to foreign intervention is actually largely in tune with the sensibilities of the American people. Even in the traditionally hawkish GOP, primary races are increasingly dominated by anti-interventionist candidates, with outspoken foreign policy dove Rand Paul emerging as a leading 2016 presidential hopeful, leading some pundits to begin talking about the “new isolationism.” 

A story that dominated headlines last week showed that this growing national self-doubt has a basis in hard numbers. China, it was announced, is set to surpass the United States as the world’s largest economy by the end of this year. In other words, it’s not simply that we’re losing our nerve, but that even if we had nerve, we don’t have the same muscle to back it up. 

We can easily exaggerate the rumors of the decline of the late great United States. Rising debt, slowing economic growth, and political paralysis notwithstanding, the United States has had such an enormous lead on the rest of the world for so long that it will likely remain the default global superpower for some years to come. Indeed, although the United States surpassed the United Kingdom as the world’s largest economy in 1872, Britain’s hegemony continued to wax for the next two or three decades, and few observers would have recognized America as the global “top dog” until the end of World War I. It takes quite a while for sheer economic production to develop into the technological superiority and military might—not to mention the cultural capital and strong institutions—needed for geopolitical dominance.

However, the handwriting is on the wall. Although Chinese GDP growth is sure to slow, it is hard to imagine a nation of 300 million regaining supremacy over a nation of 1.3 billion (and let’s not forget India, whose population is set to pass China’s before long, and whose economy is also booming). America may still be able to throw her weight around on the world scene a bit more than she is doing now, but it may not be wise for her to do so.

Such geopolitical power shifts, unfortunately, are rarely smooth transitions. The UK-to-US handoff is unique for its relative gracefulness, though even it had its share of troubles, with chaotic decolonialization in Africa and economic doldrums in Britain itself. The previous changing of the guard, from France to the United Kingdom in the late 18th century, had been far more violent. France’s political and economic decline precipitated social unrest, revolution, and an outbreak of nationalist fervor that sought to re-establish French hegemony by sheer force of arms, leading eventually to ignominious defeat. France’s takeover from Spain in the mid-1600s had required the grueling ordeal of the Thirty Years’ War and succeeded in reducing Spain to a condition of chronic economic depression and political anemia for centuries. Without the shared history and values that smoothed the transition from UK to US hegemony, there is reason to fear a bleaker scenario like that of France or Spain.

To be sure, the enormous strengthening of international institutions gives us reason for optimism that we are not on the doorstep of a World War III, in which China and the United States duke it out for global supremacy. But international institutions can do little to prevent the other crises that tend to accompany such power shifts: economic depression, social unrest, political paralysis. Growth, optimism, and triumphs abroad tend to help paper over domestic differences, but as optimism fades, people begin to ask more from the government at the very time when it is able to provide less. Historians may look back on the collapse of public trust and unprecedented political polarization that we are now witnessing as the beginnings of such a national unraveling, the product of an inability to face our own senescence.

In such a period, Christians have an important role to play in public discourse, reminding our dispirited compatriots that American exceptionalism was always something of a myth, that we are not the bearers of the meaning of history. Indeed, given the steady de-Christianization of the West, and the rapid Christianization of places like China, we need not assume that only we can hold evil at bay. Prudent stewardship of the strength we still have, rather than increasingly frantic grasping for what we have no longer, is the way to ensure a graceful retirement and an ongoing relevance as one power, and hopefully one force for good, among others.

- Bradford Littlejohn has a Ph.D. from the University of Edinburgh in Theological Ethics. He researches and writes in the areas of Christian Ethics, Political Theology, and Reformation History and is president of The Davenant Trust. He is also managing editor of Political Theology Today and a regular columnist for several blogs.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”