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Is America in Decline?

January 6 was a dark day, a day of infamy for America and American democracy. President Trump had lost the Presidential election but refused to concede Joe Biden’s victory. I saw, on television, thousands of angry Americans, all followers of President Trump, some carrying the Confederacy flags, ransacking the United States Capitol, the Temple of Democracy, incited by Trump, the incumbent President. It was not a riot. It was insurgency. The whole world was shocked. The Chinese called it an iconic humiliation. The country is split down the middle. The United States is no longer united. Nearly half the nation believes what Trump has to say.

A lesson to be drawn from the works of Gibbon is that Rome’s enemies lay not outside her borders but within her bosom, and they paved the way for the empire’s decline and fall. Many early symptoms that heralded the Roman decline may be seen in America today.

When America was engaged in the most just of struggles, that of a people escaping from another people’s yoke, and when it was a question of creating a new nation in the world, outstanding men came forward to lead the country. Three men more than any others, ended British colonial rule and helped bring the United States in being: George Washington, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson was the eloquent “pen” of the American Revolution, Adams the resounding “tongue” of the rebellion and Washington its mighty “sword”. They set the world ablaze and changed the course of world history. Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence on the evening of July 4. With that, it transformed His Majesty’s colonies into a Sovereign, independent country. The future sole Super power was born.

Sometimes extreme dangers, instead of elevating a nation, bring it low. This is what happened to America after the death of President Roosevelt. The leaders of present day America seem vastly inferior to those who brought America into being. Where giants walked, midgets pose now.

From the beginning, America was more than a place. It represented the values and ideals of a humane civilization. 200 ago, America caught the imagination of the world because of the ideals which it stood for. Today its example is tarnished with military adventurism and conflicts abroad. In the past, some envied America, some liked America, some hated America but almost all respected her. And all knew that without the United States, peace and freedom would not have survived.

Today people like President Bush and Trump appear to believe in a kind of unilateral civilization. The United Nations is an afterthought; treaties are not considered binding. The war on terror is used to topple weak regimes. President Bush’s main message to the world seem to be, Take dictation. Today America does not chase out an occupier, but occupies; does not push back an invader, but invades; does not repulse an invader, but invades. No wonder, very few respect America these days. The poor and the weak are scared to death and fear the world's super power. In the eyes of millions of Muslims throughout the world, America is perceived today as the greatest threat to the world of Islam since the 13th century.

Today Americans seem to have forgotten America as an idea, as a source of optimism and as a beacon of liberty. They have stopped talking about who they are and are only talking about who they are going to invade, oust or sanction. These days nobody would think of appealing to the United States for support for upholding a human rights case - may be to Canada, Norway or Sweden, but not the United States.

Long before September 11, former Secretary of State Madeline Albright, defending the use of cruise missiles against Iraq declared. "If we have to use force, it is because we are America. We are the indispensable nation. We stand tall. We see farther into the future".

Today the most powerful democracy and upholder of Liberty and Rights of Man is detaining hundreds of suspected Afghans and Iraqis in a legal black hole at the US Naval base at Guantanamo Bay. Since January 2002, about 660 prisoners including children between the ages of 13 and 16 as well as very old people are held there without being given prisoner–of–war status. The purpose of holding these prisoners at Guantanamo Bay was and is to put them beyond the Rule of Law, beyond the protection of any court, and at the mercy of the captors. The jurisdiction of US courts is excluded. Trials will be held in secret. None of the basic guarantees for a fair trial need to be observed.

Tocqueville, who visited America, more than 200 years ago, wrote with an uncanny feeling for the grand currents of history. He alerted his own and later generations to the potential threats to the American democracy, the growing power of the military and the risks that, he feared, would come with the Promise of the New World. What is significant is that he sounded this note of warning at a time when America was militarily weak and economically poor.

“The President of the United States, it is true, is the Commander-in-Chief of the army”, Tocqueville wrote, “but the army is composed of only 6000 men, he commands the fleet, but the fleet reckons but few sail, he conducts the foreign relations of the Union, but the United States is a nation without neighbours.

“Hitherto, no citizen has cared to expose his honor and his life in order to become the President of the United State, because the power of the office is temporary, limited and subordinate. No candidate has as yet been able to arouse the dangerous enthusiasm or the passionate sympathies of the people in his favour, for the simple reason that when he is at the head of the Government, he has but little power, little wealth, and little glory to share among his friends”!

Tocqueville warned against the growth of despotism in America and identified despotism and the army as a potential threat to American democracy. “The surface of American society”, he wrote “is covered with a layer of democratic paint, but from time to time one can see the old paint breaking through”.

Andre Malraux once observed that United States was the only nation in the world to have become a world power without intending or trying to do so. History thrusts certain powers at certain times onto center stage. In this era, the spotlight shines on the United States. How long it stays on America – and how brightly it shines – would be determined by how it conducts itself in the world.

How both the world and America have changed since Tocqueville wrote these words. Today, the President of the United States is enjoying preeminence unrivaled by even the greatest empire of the past. From weaponry to entrepreneurship, from science to technology, from higher education to popular culture, America exercises an unparalleled ascendancy around the globe. American troops are scattered around the world – from the plains of North Europe to the lines of confrontation in East Asia.

Today the United States finds itself in a world for which little in its historical experience has prepared it. Secure between two great oceans, it had convinced itself that it was either able to stand apart from the quarrels of other nations or that it could bring about universal peace by insisting on the implementation of its own values of democracy and self-determination. For the first time the United States finds itself in a place it has never been before: it has suddenly realized after the meteoric rise of China, that it is vulnerable and can neither withdraw from the world, nor, with all its might, dominate it.

Today, President Trump is endowed with powers of truly Caesarian magnitude. Today one single, solitary, individual American is directly in command of more than half the globe’s economic and technical power. Along the militarized borders of Europe, Middle East and Asia, he is in full control, as Augustus and the Roman Emperors after him were in full control of the times. Today he is in control of a defacto empire encompassing the entire world. Everywhere, on the European continent, in the Western Hemisphere, and in the Far East, he can make the weight of his incalculable power felt with immediate and crushing speed.

The lesson of history is that preponderant power alone can do a nation much more harm than good. When unchecked, primacy often invites enemies, and provokes the formation of hostile, countervailing coalitions. The road to empire ultimately leads to domestic decay. Ultimately the vices of those who govern and the weaknesses of the governed soon bring the empire to ruin. A deliberate quest for mastery of the world is the surest way to destroy the values that made the Unites States great.

The 20th century saw three waves of collapsing empires. First came the great dynasties of the Habsburgs, Ottomans, and Romanovs destroying each other in the calamity of World War I followed by the British, French, Dutch and Japanese empires at the end of World War II and the disintegration of Soviet Empire more than a decade ago. The growing American Empire, built on the ashes of weak Islamic countries, would meet the same fate and would not last. Why? Because as Churchill told General Charles De Gaulle in November 1944, “after the meal comes the digestion period”.

“I noticed during my stay in the United States”, Tocqueville wrote, “that a democratic state of society found there could lay itself particularly open to the establishment of despotism… my greatest complaint against democratic government as organized in the United States is not, as many Europeans make out, its weakness, but rather its irresistible strength. What I find most repulsive in America is not the extreme freedom reigning there but the shortage of guarantees against tyranny”. Tocqueville’s apprehensions were not unfounded. A fairly large number of citizens felt at a time when America was still very young that the Republican government was the source of all the evils of the time, and genuinely believed that only a monarchy or some form of military dictatorship could save the republic.

Hubris and hypocrisy, a deadly combination, will destroy America. Is Tocqueville’s grim forecast coming true? Tocqueville was prescient, given the emerging realities. “I have tried to see not differently”, he wrote in conclusion, “but further than any party; while they are busy with tomorrow, I have tried to consider the whole future”.