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America: the twilight years?

October 19, 2014
10:00 amto11:30 am

Part of the Battle of Ideas festival weekend at the Barbican Centre, London. For more information, visit the Battle of Ideas website.

America’s problems at home and abroad have led many to wonder if the US is in decline. US foreign policy, from Syria to Ukraine, appears rudderless and impotent. The Iraq War is widely seen to have been a failure, while US forces are leaving Afghanistan with the Taliban still active and the country far from being a happy democracy.

The US recovery from the recession has been weak, too, while China and India – and even parts of Africa – seem to offer more glittering possibilities for expansion and wealth creation than the US. China may overtake the US as the world’s largest economy in GDP terms by the end of the decade.

At home, the American political class appears to be almost at an impasse, unable to address its challenges, as epitomised by last year’s shutdown of the federal government. Political commentator Timothy Garton Ash argues ‘the politicians in Washington behave like rutting stags with locked antlers’. Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, says that the failure of politics in Washington has been ‘hastening the emergence of a post-American world’.

Yet such declinist talk is hardly new, as exemplified by Paul Kennedy in his 1987 bestseller, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. America is still the largest economy in the world, despite having a quarter of the population of either China or India. America is still by far the greatest military power, has the world’s top universities and produces the most cutting-edge research and technological innovation. Even in ‘soft power’ terms, America is the pre-eminent source of the world’s culture. In contrast, the much-vaunted ‘BRIC’ countries of Brazil, Russia, India and China are all faltering in one way or another.

Is the US truly facing the prospect of being replaced as the world’s greatest power? Is the sluggish America today in similar circumstances to Britain at the time of First World War – the faded Greece to Asia’s Rome? Or, is the declinist view overly pessimistic? After all, periods of introspection and worry about US decline over the past 30 years have given way to later resurgence. Is this time different?


Dr Yaron Brook
Executive director, Ayn Rand Institute

Dr Jenny Clegg
senior lecturer, Asia Pacific Studies, University of Central Lancashire, Preston

Dr Sue Currell
chair, British Association for American Studies; reader, American Literature, Sussex University

James Matthews
management consultant; founding member, NY Salon; writer on economics and business

Sir Christopher Meyer
chairman, Pagefield Advisory Board; former British Ambassador to the United States


Jean Smith
co-founder and director, NY Salon


Judging History

November 19, 2014
6:00 pmto8:00 pm

Battle of Ideas satellite event at Vanderbilt University, Nashville

Tickets free – no need to book

This year marks the centenary of the start of the First World War and the question of how the Great War impacted our world – both then and now – is a poignant one.

Typically, such anniversaries raise all sorts of questions about how we interpret the past, even who decides what is historically significant. This has never been truer than in relation to the Great War. Was it, as many insist, one of the greatest mistakes of the twentieth century, in which lions were led by donkeys, or is that as simplistic a myth as any jingoistic account? While many today are familiar with the great anti-war poetry of Siegfried Sassoon or Wilfred Owen’s ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’, fewer people are aware that at the start of the First World War, the majority of artists and writers from all nationalities were enthusiastic champions of the war. These squabbles about differing interpretations of the war illustrate that history is rarely an uncontested truth.

Disputes over history seem even more confused when it comes to a cool assessment of war. After all, as the Greek playwright Aeschylus noted thousands of years ago, a point repeated by US senator Hiriam Johnson as America prepared to enter the First World War, ‘truth is the first casualty of war’, especially because, as the cliché has it, ‘history is written by the victors’. Nonetheless, the very acknowledgement that there are winners and losers is a nod to the reality of objective historical facts. Yet EH Carr’s argument in his famous collection of lectures, What is History?, that historiography is factually objective seems strangely old-fashioned today in light of postmodernism’s rejection of ‘metanarratives’ and universal truths. Are those who argue for a more objective view simply clinging to an Enlightenment myth of rationality and a scientific understanding of the past? Maybe all history – from conservative tracts such as Edmund Burke’sReflections on the Revolution in France to the radical Frederick Engels’ The Condition of the Working Class in England – is partial, partisan and up for grabs?

To what extent can and should we judge history from our own contemporary moral standpoint? In George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, the all-powerful Party declares ominously that ‘who controls the past controls the future’, acknowledging implicitly that history is never a straightforward record of the past, but one that, at least in part, reflects the politics of the present. Is history always politicised by contemporary prejudices or can we take the long view and view it as a study of change and human progress? Should we look on history as a foreign country, an academic endeavour – even curiosity – with little relevance to the world in 2014? Or can we learn from the past and, if so, who decides what the key lessons to be learned from World War One, the American Civil War or Vietnam should be? How should we judge historical events when they are so contested and muddled up with today’s concerns?


Professor Frank Furedi
Associate, Centre for Parenting Culture Studies, University of Kent, Canterbury; author, Wasted, Politics of Fear, On Tolerance and Authority: a sociological history

Helmut Smith
Martha Rivers Ingram Professor of History, Vanderbilt University

Geoffrey Wawro
professor of history and director, Military History Center, University of North Texas


Alan Miller
co-director, NY Salon; co-founder, London’s Truman Brewery; partner, Argosy Pictures Film Company

Further information

For full speaker biographies and more information on the Battle of Ideas, click here.

Aurora, Sandy Hook, Boston…Reflections on Contemporary America

November 5, 2013
7:00 pmto8:30 pm

Venue: The New School, Wollman Hall, 66 West 12th Street, New York, NY 10011

Tickets: this event is free and open to the public. For further information please email jean@nysalon.org

Speakers: Patrick J. Egan, assistant professor, politics and public policy, NYU; Nancy McDermott, writer; advisor to Park Slope Parents, NYC’s most notorious parents’ organization; Claire Potter, professor of history, New School for Public Engagement; Christine Rosen, fellow, New America Foundation; senior editor, New Atlantis

Moderator: Jean Smith, co-founder and director, NY Salon

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