Romney spends about half the chapter discussing past hegemons that have declined: Ottoman Empire, Portugal, Spain, Great Britain, and China. Since I am not a historian, I won't critique this part.
Romney then attempts to explain the common causes for why these great powers declined.
There are similarities between the different countries' paths of decline. Many turned toward isolation; most important, isolation from knowledge: the Ottomans, Spanish, Portuguese, and Chinese purposefully shut out foreign invention and learning. And they adopted economic isolation as well: China, Spain, Britain, and the Ottomans expressly or effectively retreated behind barriers to foreign trade, each convinced that competition had made them weaker. Their retreat from the marketplace of ideas and their retreat from the marketplace of goods inevitably led to their retreat from the pinnacle of leadership.So far so good. I am only on page 55 and Romney has already devoted a great deal of space arguing for free trade and innovation. Then he quotes historian David Landes who argues that culture is everything. Romney takes this to mean that the great powers turned inward and rejected foreign influence. This idea somehow turns into the need to stop excessive spending. All good points, but I am not sure how they go together.
Romney then talks about the lack of vision of some of the past great powers. He gives several causes why countries avoid their problems. First, there is human nature that tends to avoid concentrating on coming problems. Second, there is the human tendency to shy away from dramatic change, whether good or bad. Third, there is the self-interest of citizens and leaders who are focused on short-term gains. Fourthly, independent opinion leaders sometimes fail to "arouse public awareness." Interestingly, Romney asks why media figures did not hammer the 2008 candidates when they gave empty responses on what to do about entitlement spending. It's almost like Romney is surprised at the weak answers they got away with.
Romney ends the chapter giving four reasons why some great powers recovered themselves from their decline: catastrophic events, the presence of a great leader (no, he didn't mention himself), a national consensus that reform needs to take place, and deep, broad-based national strength (ex. the United States after Pearl Harbor).
My take: Romney rambles a little here. He also generalizes a great deal of history. Nevertheless, I think he presents some good examples of how the United States could avoid decline.
Two things that struck me though: First, Romney is not libertarian. In fact, without going into specifics (he does later in his book), he seems to imply that the United States needs to adapt and to innovate. He does not seek to bring the United States back to 1789, but rather into the 21st century. I get the impression that Romney is more interested in competing with China and Russia than in meeting 18th century principles of government.
Second, Romney ever so softly gives respect to 'experts.' In fact, there is a lack of populist anger towards elites that you might find in a Sarah Palin book. One of Romney's points is that educators and opinion leaders can stir attention to address certain issues. The following line flew off the page (62):
Scientists, concerned citizens and the world media have succeeded in convincing the public that global warming is a real and present danger.You definitely won't see that coming from Sarah Palin.