The decline of America has been long predicted, though rarely with such enthusiasm as in recent times. The election of a president seen as embodying hope, not just for America but the West, should moderate the declinists' fervour, although I doubt if it will. Their will to see America go down is too great, and they can comfort themselves with the hope that the US may be too far gone economically and the rising powers too well advanced for Barack Obama to make too much difference.
What is interesting about the declinists' view is not so much whether their analysis is correct - personally, I have confidence in the US, although God knows the country has problems - as the relish among Europeans at the humbling of their major ally. In France, of course, it is palpable, here it is unthinking orthodoxy among many, and I do not see too many tears of regret from the originators of the term schadenfreude. Obama or no Obama, there is a feeling that American power in the post-Cold War world has grown too big and needs to be diminished by means of something called a multi-polar world. Nothing seems more obvious to many a Briton or European, and nothing more questionable to me.
What most declinists want is for America to stop being American and for its citizens to transform themselves into full-blown Europeans, with a socialist economy, a pacifist foreign policy and the rest. In other words, the US should recognise itself as a botched enterprise and come home, spiritually speaking, to what the former Secretary for Defence Donald Rumsfeld called "old Europe". To some, the Obama election will seem a first step in that homebound journey, with his closure of Guantánamo, his readiness to talk to Iran, his nuclear disarmament offer to the Russians, his banning of "water-boarding" and encouragement of stem-cell research. I suspect they are wrong. Culturally, politically and psychologically Obama does not strike as me a European manqué - no one from Chicago ever has.
There is something neurotic in Europe's view of the US, something perpetually out of kilter. Think of the crush on Bill Clinton felt by many women, the demonising of Bush and now Obamamania. We seem unable to get a cool, factual grip on the country, one that is free of fashion, inchoate historical resentments or delusions of superiority. Neurotic too - in the sense of arbitrary and unstable - is our view of American culture and society. It is possible to say anything and its opposite about the US and still command instant agreement. They are pinched Puritans and simultaneously sexually depraved, religious maniacs sold out to hedonism and materialism. America is a country of individualist greed and self-seeking, a place where egotism has reached the point where philanthropists publicly vie with one another to throw billions at museums, the arts, medical research, charities and international aid. Its popular culture is crass and degenerate except when it is black or radical. And its tendency towards obesity is as imbecilic as its dedication to the gym. So mesmerised are we by this monstrous accumulation of contradictions that we can't tear our eyes from it, whether it is TV shows like The Wire or The Simpsons, the works of John Updike or of the magisterial science writer E.O. Wilson.
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