If you want to know what London was like in 1905, come to Washington in 2005. Imperial gravitas and massive self-importance. That sense of being the centre of the world, and of needing to know what happens in every corner of the world because you might be called on - or at least feel called upon - to intervene there. Hyperpower. Top dog. And yet, gnawing away beneath the surface, the nagging fear that your global supremacy is not half so secure as you would wish. As Joseph Chamberlain, the British colonial secretary, put it in 1902: "The weary Titan staggers under the too vast orb of his fate."
Someone else noticed, I see. I work in the district, and I've been telling friends lately that it feels like Paris just before the Revolution. His analogy's a better one. I don't imagine guillotines - just the end of an era. There's a creeping anxiety beneath the Mall's monuments. You feel like you're standing on top of something that can't quite hold itself together, can't go on much longer. It could be your political leanings, but even some people on the other side of the aisle can sense that all is not well in DC. I know a few folks who were here a decade ago or grew up here long ago and now have moved back, and, for them, there has been a tremendous change in the tenor of the city. Whether or not you agree with his claim that "Iraq is America's Boer war," I think Ash is on to something, and you can feel it in DC.
But this little blog of ours is supposed to be about philanthropy, and Ash's conclusion is a test for the philanthropic imagination:
So this is no time for schadenfreude. It's a time for critical solidarity. A few far-sighted people in Washington are beginning to formulate a long-term American strategy of trying to create an international order that would protect the interests of liberal democracies even when American hyperpower has faded; and to encourage rising powers such as India and China to sign up to such an order. That is exactly what today's weary Titan should be doing, and we should help him do it.
People set up foundations in perpetuity and make international grants, but do we consider when making these grants that America may not always occupy the place it does in today's international order? Can we count ourselves among those far-sighted few?
I ask because I don't think that looking at the world with these questions in mind demonstrates any lack of faith in America. If anything, it demonstrates a tremendous faith in our principles to think that they can and should survive even when the power that once sustained them passes away. Philanthropy is our way of assuring that our ideals live on even though we do not, that America still lives though its hyperpower fades.