Perceptive historians recognize that great powers go through a cycle of growth, stability, maturity and decline. Where is America in this cycle? Will we learn from the lessons of history?
The German philosopher Hegel (1770-1831) knew that just because men and women learned about the past, that didn’t mean they’d make better decisions about the future. He once cynically commented, “What experience and history teach us is this—that people and governments never have learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it.”
For years after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, America seemingly towered over the world as a great giant—economically, culturally and militarily. But now for nearly a decade since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, its armed services have clashed with the forces of Islamic extremism and terrorism in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere in the world.
If that weren’t bad enough, the worldwide economic crisis has laid the country low with high unemployment, an immense federal government deficit, rising inflation and depressed home values. Other challenges loom ahead, flowing from the European Union’s growing political and economic integration, Russia’s increased strength and assertiveness, and China’s rapid economic, industrial and military growth.
Will America follow the path of past empires?
Clearly America’s present lone-superpower status is being increasingly challenged. Could it be lost completely? While it clings to a general preeminence right now, could America still decline and fall?
Didn’t that happen to other great empires in the past, such as those of Britain, Spain, Rome, Persia, Babylon and Egypt? Is America’ s future more secure than theirs was?
Does the pattern apply to America today? Has the United States entered this cycle’s ending stages? If so, shouldn’t Americans critically examine the current state of their culture to see what could be done to prevent the same grim fate?
By knowing history better, we can better project our likely national futures. As the great British Prime Minister and noted historian Winston Churchill observed, “The farther backward you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see.”
Seven steps in the life cycles of great powers