Local Commentary

Guest Commentary: Is the United States of America in Decline?

By Ken Feltman

The Third Punic War ended in 146 BCE when Roman legions led by Scipio completed a three-year siege by burning Carthage. Scipio did not celebrate. He was observed crying as he listened to the screams of the dying.

Asked why he would cry at the moment of his great victory, Scipio supposedly recited a prophecy from Homer’s “Odyssey” about the destruction of Troy: “The day shall come when sacred Troy shall fall, and King Priam and all his warrior people with him.” Scipio feared that although Rome was on the ascendant and soon would be recognized as the greatest power in the known world, Rome would one day suffer the same fate as Troy. That prescient observation, at the very moment Rome seemed invulnerable, should guide all people and nations.

We live in a world of ever-more amazing technology. Will that make us forget the lessons of Troy? Are we destined to become more creative, powerful and wiser? Will science invent ways to escape Planet Earth just when we need to escape? How many, if any, could escape a planet running out of resources, polluted and overheated? Would we find a new home with plenty of resources for human consumption? Humanity has been through this before. Instead of outer space, the escape was a new continent or a new means of travel.

We have been here before. Have we learned enough to save ourselves from repeating the mistakes of past civilizations? Dozens of books have been written about it. Careful analysis suggests that there have been distinct stages of human development. Those stages of growth and decline provide ways to understand history’s “big picture” and to assess current and future geopolitical environments.

Civilizations are not all the same, of course, but the majority throughout history, all around the globe, have exhibited similar growth-and-decline patterns, peaking at about 60-70 percent along their lifecycles. What are the stages? They begin with a village, perhaps just a few families.

The village grows and merges with a nearby village. That larger village grows and, eventually, becomes a city. The city takes control of nearby land and resources. It absorbs other cities and becomes a region. Eventually, the region becomes a nation. The two key factors determining which villages grow are superior weapons and access to food and resources.

When a civilization reaches the top and controls its territory, it begins, surprisingly quickly, to overextend and decline. Strong personalities assert themselves. William the Conqueror found an opportunity in an England that had reached its natural boundaries. He promised land and titles to those who followed him. Napoleon found opportunity in France, which was increasingly irritated with dysfunctional government. Hitler found opportunity in the chaos after World War I. Strong men took control of the central government in the old Soviet Union. They made the rules and the average person had to obey. The intrigue over control is still a guiding force in Russia.

China has risen and fallen several times in the past. China is controlled by a ruling group that understands that people will accept authoritarian rule so long as they have an improving lifestyle.

These stages can be compared to the human lifecycle, beginning with birth and a period of nurturing, followed by independence, self-expression and the manifestation of one’s capabilities. A person’s peak is reached after four or five decades. If it could be measured, it would comprise a mixture of adequate resources, energy, health, contentment, power and creativity. Finally, the decline toward death begins, completing the cycle. These stages are repeated the world over as regional powers accumulate resources, expand, mature, overextend and finally decline when they can no longer supply those basic resources.

Compare the slow decline of the United States with the accelerating rise of China. Should we expect new and surprising alliances to render today’s international relations obsolete – with religious polarization, war, disease and climate change creating additional, dangerously combustible factors?

Can we save ourselves? Yes, if we can understand the problems we face. We must understand that while democracy is compatible with a rising civilization, a declining nation may look to authoritarian leaders who seek support by denigrating anything different: immigrants, other religions and races, the handicapped, strong women. Sound familiar? Here we go again.

Philosopher George Santayana wrote: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” We must remember our past to understand how we got here. Only then can we transcend our destructive cycles and rise to the challenges facing our country and the world.

Ken Feltman, a City of Falls Church resident, is a retired political consultant.