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‘Things ain’t what they used to be:’ the causes and consequences of declinism

In his State of the Union speech in January 2012, Barack Obama argued that“anyone who tells you that America is in decline…doesn’t know what they’re talking about.” A few years later, Donald Trump entered the American political scene with a singular message, built around the notion of American decline and promising to “Make America Great Again.” 

Such narratives are nothing new. Fear of falling down the ranking of states, or of losing “top dog” status, can be found in the politics of almost every major power stretching back to the Roman Empire. Dominant narratives of international decline have important implications for policy: such narratives often sustain policies of global expansion to save face, regain lost glory, and reverse decline. Yet we have little understanding of when and why narratives of international decline become dominant, why they resonate, or their policy consequences.

Most scholarly studies of international decline assume decline is an objective and easily-interpretable reality and that concern about the nation’s decline—or what I call “declinism”— becomes salient and prevalent in response to objective decline. However, my dissertation shows, in the context of the United Kingdom and United States, that there is no neat correlation between decline and declinism. Narratives of decline emerge in great powers when there is little or no observed decline based on available metrics, and, conversely, concern over decline is rare even where conventional metrics suggest that decline is occurring. 

My dissertation follows from this underlying puzzle and asks two questions. First, when, and why, does declinism emerge and become salient in great powers? Why does the belief that the country is heading towards decline, or that decline is already on the doorstep, arise in national discourse? Second, what are the national security policy consequences of declinist narratives? As narratives of decline become or are dominant, what policies are advanced in the name of reversing the country’s international decline?  

My dissertation uses a mixed methods approach including the use of content and text analysis methods and archival research.

To date, I have conducted archival research in the Labour Party Archives (Manchester), the National Archives (Kew), and the Conservative Party Archives (Oxford).

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