Today it appears that the two nations that dominated the 20th century—the United Kingdom and United States—are vying for the present-day “sick man” label. Both countries have gone off the rails and into precipitate declines from which they may not be able to recover.
The signposts of decay are obvious in both countries:
Britain’s descent arguably began during World War II, when she was reduced to playing third fiddle to her two more militarily powerful allies, the U.S. and the Soviet Union. The devastation wrought by German air attacks and battlefield losses were a huge setback. They set the scene for a post-war acceleration of her decline, marked by the loss of empire. The UK settled into a leveling off of further weakening when she joined the European Union in 1973 and quickly became one of its leading nations. She voluntarily relinquished that influential position and the economic benefits it conferred via “Brexit,” a thoughtless exercise that prompted the resumption of the country’s plunge into dire economic straits and global irrelevance. The chaotic, undisciplined three-year reign of Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his humiliating “Bo-rexit” from 10 Downing Street only locked in the perception (and the reality) of a nation sinking into oblivion. His departure from office leaves his country in tatters with scant hope of reversing its demise.
While Britain’s tumble into inconsequence was probably predictable as far back as 80 years ago, the more abrupt decline of the U.S. in the 21st century is stunning. In less time than it takes to tag Donald Trump for his criminal wrongdoing and hold him accountable, this country has fallen from global dominance where it had been both a political and economic colossus and role model for the rest of the world. Instead, it is now the butt of global graveyard humor sprinkled with a heavy dose of schadenfreude. Both allies and adversaries scratch their figurative heads when they contemplate how far the U.S. has fallen in such a short time. They gape in disbelief at its reckless military adventurism, the 2016 election to the presidency of a uniquely unprepared, unqualified and unfit buffoon; the transformation of a major political party into a fuming, fearful, fawning cult eager to soak up its leaders’ lies; the inability of Congress to address serious problems; an ideological Supreme Court tethered to a spurious doctrine called “originalism;” a wealth gap that has widened to a chasm; a gun-crazy culture that accepts mass shootings as the cost of fealty to an out-dated and purposely misinterpreted constitutional amendment; a nation whose every institution looks to be failing; and a country careening down the road to autocracy absent appreciable resistance. Foreigners cannot believe that this beacon of liberty, democracy and stability appears willing to give up everything that made it exceptional.
Both the near- and long-term outlook for both countries are not good. They are on a downward slide that does not look as if it can be stopped, much less reversed. These two formerly great powers that contributed so much to the world have lost much of their moxie and are very possibly on their way to emulating the original “sick man,” the Ottoman Empire.
August 5, 2022