A sympathetic Englishman who inquires into the question of America’s decline inevitably does so in a melancholy spirit. Britain has been fitfully declining since Queen Victoria’s 1867 Jubilee. Anyone born in the country between that year and, say, 1979 witnessed the gradual erosion of his nation’s military strength, economic power, and imperial sway. This decline did not take place along a simple line of extrapolation, and its long-term indicators were disguised by great historical events. In the forefront, the country stood alone against Hitler for a crucial year, won two world wars, and played a creditable part in winning the Cold War. In the background, the British economy failed to modernize, British government failed to reform it, and British strategy became a long retreat which British diplomacy celebrated as a triumph of liberalism.

Unlike the expansion of empire, however, this retreat did not occur in a &ldquo ...