Tragic Sense

On that note — the sense of American decline amid an increasingly uncertain world — it’s important to distinguish, Edel says, between a sense for the tragic and simple pessimism. Pessimism is a fatalistic view of events; tragedy teaches us that while the worst might occur we can strive as hard as we can to prevent it. The Greek tragedies, Edel points out, “have real communal messages about sacrifice, about resolve, about struggle even when you don't know the outcome and can't possibly know the outcome. About mustering the courage to take action together. Even when you're faced with no good choices at the same time.” Anxiety over a permanent decline does not stem from that place. Nor is it warranted on the data, Edel says. “America is doing pretty well. Until recently we had not only good demographics, but favorable immigration policy. If you look at the size of the economy, the GDP was roughly 22 percent of 2016 global GDP, which is not far off the highs of the 1970’s. When you begin to add in allies and partners, we're talking about upwards of 60 percent of global GDP and military outlays, which is far in excess of any competitor. I have a feeling it has something to do with how America has fared since 9/11 in its endeavors in both Iraq and Afghanistan. To many Americans, these do not seem like overwhelming successes. Add in stagnant or slow wage growth, and America might not seem to be moving forward by leaps and bounds.”

But beyond those half-comforting numbers, our amnesia around these issues has troubling implications. “Since the end of the Cold War and the disappearance of our major strategic competitor,” Edel says, “in many ways American policymakers’ strategic muscle memory has faded because they haven't had to hone it quite as sharply as they did previously. It's coming back, but it has faded as no challenge seemed to emerge from a true competitor on a global scale.” One possible emergent competitor, in the opinion of many analysts, is China. Edel did not offer a view on American-Chinese power competition, but he did note that Xi Jinping is one of the few leaders on the current political scene to have deeply imbibed the teachings of tragedy. “It is a core narrative of the People's Republic of China under Xi that they know how bad things could get because they've experienced it. They've experienced 150 years of humiliation. I do think there is a willingness in China to undergo common hardship for national ends. They keep their history very close to them.”

Speaking more broadly, this amnesia has given fuel to the current crisis or alleged crisis of liberalism as a philosophy and democracy as a political system. “When democracy is seen to not provide for its own citizens’ needs,” Edel says, “people are more willing to believe in alternative systems and purveyors of different truths. In some ways, that is the lesson of the 1930’s. Economic crisis begets political crisis begets global crisis. We also have not had to make the argument to our own citizens and to different countries around the world about why our system is better — or if it indeed is better. This has been for too long assumed because you couldn't point to any alternative models and examples. I think we're in the process of waking up to the fact that those benign conditions no longer exist. There are different systems competing with democracy. That's true both internationally and domestically. If our system is not seen as promoting the best interests of a great majority of our citizens, people become less enamored of it.”

On the question of whether America can surmount these problems, Edel is forthright. “America has the resources and abilities — particularly the ability to lock arms with its allies and partners — to deal with the challenges that we face today,” he says. “It is a question of willingness to do that, and above all willingness during peacetime, which makes it more challenging politically.” One way to spur that willingness is through reading. “I would really recommend Edith Hamilton's The Greek Way,” he told us, “a scan of Greek culture. I would also put front and center Dean Acheson’s Present at the Creation, which describes both the lessons that he and others thought they had learned from the 1920’s and 30’s, and exactly what they were trying to do as they stumbled their way forward. Acheson was a contemporary of George Marshall, who said himself that you could not possibly understand what was happening in the unfolding Cold War if you had not read your Thucydides. Finally, there are the Federalist Papers. They are steeped in the ancient classics with multiple references to small democratic and republican states and how they failed. They are also deeply interested in national security and foreign policy. In fact, the spurs to the Constitution were foreign policy crises. The argument that both Hamilton and Madison dig into is that we need to look back to the ancients because one has to be a pretty gloomy-minded (but not pessimistic) person to understand the world we're living in. Absent that, you have no chance to create something that is not only new, but that has a chance of sustaining itself.”