Sunday, October 31, 2010

England or Spain?

If you had been a dispassionate observer of the European political scene in 1585, you would almost certainly have said that Spain was far and away the most dominant power. With its Empire in the Americas sending huge amounts of treasure to the mother country each year, Spain was much the richest of nations. It's armies dominated Europe, using a military system based on blocks of pikemen with arquebusiers at the corners that rolled over opponents. Through its dynastic connections with the Hapsburg emperors of the Holy Roman Empire, Spain's domains were spread across Western Europe.

England, in contrast, was a small nation on the periphery of the continent; it shared the British Islands with Scotland, a traditional ally of England's enemy, France. The English had a substantial fleet, but no regularly organized navy to speak of, and no standing army beyond a palace guard. Although prospering from trade and fishing, the English were poor when compared to the Spanish.

As we can see now, by the mid 1580's Spain had passed its zenith and was on a downward curve that would lead, with a only a few brief intervals, to the poor, weak and divided nation that emerged from the blood-soaked exhaustion of its Civil War in 1939. England would go on to establish the greatest empire the world has seen--for two hundred years it was literally true that the Sun never set on it--be a power of the first rank for three and one-half centuries and the Earth's richest nation for much of that time. England--later the United Kingdom--survived the loss of the American colonies that became the United States and the rise of the Napoleonic and two German empires; it outlasted them all.

Spain, confident in its wealth and power, sank into centuries in which it lived off its assets and watched is political horizons to become steadily more limited. England, in contrast, gave freer rein to its citizens, rewarding initiative and encouraging innovation. Where the Spanish aristocracy continued to rule even as it became increasingly entrenched and entrusted, England permitted commoners to rise and even to rule.

The question facing the United States today is whether we will be like England or Spain. Are we on a path of irreversible decline or will the American system prove resilient and regenerative? Actually, we may first have to face a preliminary question: Do we care enough to accept the challenge of being the world's leader? (For those who believe that this is only question of empire-building, see Tom Friedman's column today.)

This is a much larger question than whether Democrats or Republicans should control Congress, or the importance of the Tea Party. Indeed, the scope of the issue dwarfs the mean, petty, self-destructive quarrels that constitution our politics.

And the American people are quite aware of the challenge the nation faces. On NPR, both E.J. Dionne and David Brooks--who agree on little--reported that they have found a wide and deep-seated feeling (or maybe fear) that the United States is in decline. Indeed, I suspect that much of the rage that is said to power the electorate this year represents frustration with apparent decline at just the moment when we--the World's Only Superpower--should be supreme.

The party that dominates American politics in the next quarter century--and perhaps much longer--will be the one that recognizes and acknowledges this issue and can mobilize the nation to confront it. Which one will it be: Democratic? Republican? Or some new grouping?

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