Disruption, default and decline

It is “self-evident,” avers the Declaration of Independence, that human beings are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.”

It is equally self-evident that the Creator nowhere endowed the United States with perpetual preeminence in the world.

We must continually re-earn our standing. Perpetuating our preeminence requires that we maintain the appeal of our system and the power of our moral example, while husbanding our national image, as well as our national resources.

It’s difficult to feel the decline from preeminence. Less than a century into an era of American supremacy, we no doubt feel like the Romans 300 years into their 500-year-long empire, or the Byzantines 300 years into their 1,000-year empire, or even the Britons 200 years into Britain’s 300-year empire  — like things will never change.

But things do change. Unimaginably at the time, those empires fell into decline.

Republicans are pushing America down the road to decline, despite their professed love of country. We are witnessing that on the budget, the debt limit and, on a more bipartisan basis, in foreign affairs.

No other nation closes down its government. None. We are alone, and even we didn’t do it until Jimmy Carter’s attorney general decided that government employees could not go to work unless Congress had agreed to pay for it.

How attractive is a system so precarious that it can be shut down by one house of one branch of government? A government that closes is, by definition, weak; by shutting down our government, the GOP has weakened our country.

Great nations also pay their bills. National defaults are hardly new. In the 4th century B.C., Greek city-states defaulted on loans from the Delos Temple. Nor are they rare, with hundreds occurring over the last two centuries.

But sovereign defaults reflect and create weakness. Germany defaulted after it lost World War I. After an economic crisis that resulted in widespread rioting, Argentina defaulted in 2001. Last year, Greece joined Sudan, Bulgaria, Ecuador and Myanmar on a list of deadbeats to which Republicans would like to add the present-day U.S.

On the foreign policy front, the attack on our nation’s leadership is both bipartisan and reflective of growing isolationism. Fortunately, we now have a diplomatic compromise, but had Congress rejected the president’s publicly announced decision to strike Syria, as the legislative branch seemed poised to do, the harm to American leadership and credibility would have been immense. We have only one president at a time, and if the world cannot trust him to follow through, our influence will wane dramatically.

This isolationism clearly reflects public opinion. As Pew poll founding director Andrew Kohut wrote this summer, “The depth and duration of the public’s disengagement [from international issues] ... goes well beyond the periodic spikes in isolationist sentiment that have been observed over the past 50 years.”

In a classic, world-spanning analysis, my former teacher, Yale’s Juan Linz, noted the “superior performance of parliamentary democracy” over presidential systems in maintaining stability. Both, he wrote “depend also on the ability of their leaders to govern, to inspire trust, to respect the limits of their power, and to reach an adequate degree of consensus. Although these qualities are most needed in a presidential system, it is precisely there that they are most difficult to achieve.”

We can check few of those boxes today, thereby risking the decline and even fall that other democracies have suffered.

America should be the envy of the world. America should lead the world. But a country that cannot keep its own government running, does not pay its own bills and does not follow through on its international commitments will fall into decline as surely did the Babylonians, the Byzantines and the British.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the Majority Leader of the Senate and the Democratic Whip in the House.