Fear of falling down the league table of states, or of losing one’s “top dog” status, can be found in the politics and societies of every hegemon or major power stretching back to the Roman Empire, where ancient authors sought to explain Roman decline, to contemporary cases such as France, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. This concern over decline, or ‘declinism’ comes in various forms with varying degrees of intensity. International relations scholarship has largely ignored declinism, implicitly treating declinism as simply a byproduct of “actually-occurring” decline. However, decline—as measured by conventional metrics in international relations scholarship—and declinism do not always correlate perfectly with one another. One can observe declinism when there is little or no observed decline, or vice versa, where decline is occurring and yet concern over decline is hard to find.
My dissertation addresses the many questions raised by these observations: why does declinism emerge in some cases and not in others, and why is it often seemingly independent of actual decline? Moreover, what are the foreign policy consequences of declinism? I argue that electoral incentives drive declinist speech among members of the opposition, particularly after long periods in the backbenches of power, regardless of the current trends in a country’s international position. For example, I show that while British international decline was a (fairly) steady process in the 20th century, declinist narratives do not reflect this trend. Instead, declinism, while making many appearances throughout the late-19th and 20th centuries, varies greatly, not just in its intensity, but in its form. I identify four kinds of declinist narratives in British politics: domestic jeremiad, foreign jeremiad, “enemy within,” and “boogeyman” narratives. I trace these declinist narratives’ life in foreign policy to understand the impacts of declinism. Depending upon who is said to blame for the nation’s decline, and the form that the declinist narrative takes, the consequences of declinist narratives range from retrenchment to militant internationalism, from projects of renewal to domestic scapegoating.