The United States’ Problems Aren’t What You Think They Are

America’s decline resembles nothing so much as the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Presidential candidates should take note.

A man walks up the steps in front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 20, 2018.
A man walks up the steps in front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 20, 2018. Alex Wong/Getty Images
With Democratic presidential candidates arguing about how they will restore America’s stature in the world, conservative historian Bernard Lewis is an unlikely source for a radical critique. And yet his work offers a prescient warning about American decline. You just have to imagine he was writing about the United States instead of the Ottoman Empire.

As the author of The Emergence of Modern Turkey and What Went Wrong?, Lewis won more acclaim and infamy than is common for scholars of Ottoman intellectual history. His support for Israel and the Iraq War, as well as his belief that the problems of the Islamic world stemmed from its failed modernization, generated controversy along predicable lines. Debates over Lewis’s work often seemed to pit critics of the American and Ottoman empires against each other. Which might be why so few people asked whether his account of Ottoman decline could also be read as a cautionary tale for modern-day America.

Indeed, seen from Washington in 2019, the struggles of Lewis’s ideologically blinkered Ottoman statesmen trying make sense of their changing world seem a little too familiar. 

Starting from the 16th century, sweeping geopolitical changes gradually shifted the balance of economic and military power away from the Ottoman Empire and toward its European rivals. But, Lewis argues, the confident and dogmatic worldview of Ottoman elites initially prevented them from noticing. When they did acknowledge their mounting problems, they nonetheless understood them in moral terms, blaming hypocrisy and corruption rather than structural factors. As a result, their solution was always a renewed commitment to traditional values and long-standing beliefs. These, after all, had been the source of their success. Thus, for the 16th-century Grand Vizier Lutfi Pasha or the 17th-century civil servant Kocu Bey, the cause of the state’s weakness was always “falling away from the good old ways … the basic remedy was a return to them.”

Lewis found the Ottomans’ desire to blame their troubles on some kind of generalized moral failing or spiritual malaise quaint. “The different presuppositions of our time,” he wrote in The Emergence of Modern Turkey, “may incline us to regard these less as causes than as symptoms, and to seek the motives and origin in vaster and deeper changes.”

Yet several centuries and two years into the Trump administration later, we don’t seem to have entirely escaped this impulse. There’s no end of hypocrisy and corruption, of course, and many people hunger for a return to the “good old ways.” Tellingly, although calls for moral renewal have traditionally been conservative, they’ve now found a home on the other side of the political spectrum. No one captured it better than Joe Biden, who launched his presidential campaign with the slogan “Make America Moral Again.” As he put it, “America’s coming back like we used to be—ethical, straight, telling the truth … supporting our allies. All those good things.”

This impulse is also potent in the foreign-policy realm. In a recent Atlantic piece about Richard Holbrooke, George Packer offered an excellent reminder of just how inspiring the values of America’s golden age could be. Packer used Holbrooke’s Cold War-era seriousness and sense of responsibility as a foil for America’s subsequent spiritual decay. Citing 1998 as the start of U.S. decline, he wrote: “We were flabby, smug, and self-absorbed. … Our leaders believed they had the luxury to start tearing one another apart, and they’ve never stopped. … Slowly, imperceptibly at first, we lost that essential faith in ourselves.” Despite his caveats, Packer’s inescapable implication remains that if the United States somehow managed to maintain its self-confidence, it could have held the world together just as Holbrooke stitched Bosnia back together through his force of will. In this view, it was not that the United States’ problems caused it to doubt itself but rather that doubting itself caused its problems.

Extracting lessons from history by drawing overly precise parallels with the present is always something of a parlor game: You project your existing views backward to justify the proposals you prefer going forward. The trouble is, the vaster and deeper your view of historical change becomes, the harder it is to offer succinct solutions. Calling for a return to principles, a restoration of leadership, and renewed self-confidence makes for a satisfying conclusion to an op-ed. Urging readers to abandon the fantasy that doing those things is easy? Not so much.

Still, that truth should serve as a starting point. Accepting that a newfound national tolerance for corruption and mounting mismanagement of foreign affairs are symptoms is the first step to addressing their causes. Indeed, this has been the driving assumption behind some of the most pointed and plausible policy recommendations to emerge over the last few years.

Lewis believed that if the Ottomans had had the intellectual humility and candor to confront the true sources of their empire’s troubles sooner, things might have turned out better for them. America’s modern-day viziers still have time to try.

Nicholas Danforth is a Senior Visiting Fellow at the German Marshall Fund.

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