November 8, 2021

Is America in Irreversible Decline?

The question must be asked and answered, and Conrad Black took a crack at it recently.

With Joe Biden leading our country into fiscal, cultural, and demographic ruin; with nearly all the nation’s major institutions having thrown in with the Left; and with China seemingly having passed us economically and poised to pass us militarily, a hard question needs to be asked: Have we permanently squandered what our forefathers left us?

A week ago, we might have answered differently. But the American people had their say last Tuesday, and they seem to have answered resoundingly: No.

Lord Conrad Black of Crossharbor, a member of the British House of Lords since 2001, a former financier and publisher, a noted conservative essayist, and the biographer of Franklin Roosevelt, Richard Nixon, and Donald Trump, among others, pondered a similar question recently in The New Criterion’s annual Circle Lecture: Is America in irreversible decline?

Black was scheduled to give his lecture in person at The New Criterion in New York, but at the last minute, Lord Black, the publication’s 2020-21 visiting critic and its recipient of the Edmund Burke Award for Service to Culture and Society, was shamefully denied entry into the United States from Canada. As The New Criterion’s executive editor, James Panero, quipped, “The southern border may be an open door, but the norther border remains bolted shut, at least as it concerns the entry of Lord Black.”

So Black gave his lecture remotely.

He began by dispensing with the question right away. The U.S., he said, may have plateaued, but it should be able to maintain its lofty position for a long time. As he put it:

The United States is today no less important a country in the world than it was a year ago or 10 or 20 or 30 years ago. It was only 30 years ago that it led the West to the greatest and most bloodless strategic victory in history, in the disintegration of its only rival as a superpower in the world. This disintegration occurred as a result of the inspired policy of containment followed by 10 presidents. No shot in anger was ever exchanged between the United States and the Soviet Union.

When we think about it, that’s quite an accomplishment — and one that perhaps no other country in history could’ve achieved.

Black continued, and he recalled the fate of those nations that, in relatively recent history, doubted both the ability and the resolve of the United States:

The German provocation of the United States to enter World War I was equaled only by the Japanese and German initiation of war against the United States in World War II, and Stalin’s provocation of the Cold War, as the greatest strategic mistakes of any country of the twentieth century. The common failing of all of them was the underestimation of the power of the United States, and all these adversaries were laid low as a result of it.

It is a little early to think of such a country so quickly plunging into a nose-dive. There is no reason whatever to imagine that, if the United States were severely provoked and threatened again, its response would be any less vigorous than on previous such occasions. In 1942, President Roosevelt spoke for the nation when he said, “When the very life of our country is in mortal danger, to serve in the armed forces of the United States is not a sacrifice, it is a privilege.”

Should such circumstances recur, I put it to you that the response would be similar.

Black pointed out that the seven-decade threat of international communism and the Soviet Union, that great and existential threat to the West, “fell like a soufflé.”

Black then addressed the elephant in the room, China, and he told his audience to be vigilant, but not to be taken in by all the hype. He noted that China is the greatest economic development story in history, and its rise represents the first time a once great power fell and then regained its status. He continued:

The U.S. is fundamentally much more powerful than China. How so? China, he said, “lacks the internal resources to support an aging, over-large, and culturally inhomogeneous population; is 40 percent a command economy, riven by corruption; and possesses no civilian institutions that are respected in or outside the country. Several hundred million Chinese still live as their ancestors did two thousand years ago.

Black noted a characteristic of the U.S. that often gets overlooked: Since the Revolutionary War, we Americans have had "the genius of the spectacle.” As he put it, “The world was riveted by the American experiment, and has not ceased to be so.” Perhaps the U.S. is on top because the rest of the world deems it so.

But Lord Black, as every great speaker does, saved his best for last:

The effort to use the rickety platform of the Democratic Left to transform the United States into a torpid socialist country will fail. Adam Smith famously said, “There is a great deal of ruin in a country.” And there is a great deal of general failure before a great power comes into inexorable decline. This is no time for complacency, but no such decline is in process. Americans are still highly motivated and very patriotic. American political institutions, though strained and tainted at times, still function. The national political media are starting to retrieve a modicum of professionalism. And China has no answer to the full force of American creativity, spontaneity, and focused national determination.

Black closed his lecture with the words, “Thank you very much,” and he looked dismissively, even contemptuously, to his left as he uttered them. There’s so much more to what he says over the course of his 38-minute lecture, but this gesture alone is worth the price of admission. The reports of our demise, he believes, have been greatly exaggerated.

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