A visit to Europe offers a window into the past and prompts reflections on the long sweep of history. Looking out my hotel window in Sintra, Portugal, I can see buildings that had for two centuries housed a monastery, until in 1834 the Portuguese crown suppressed the religious orders.

No one today would consider Portugal a world power. To be sure, it is an advanced, industrialized and democratic country. Its people enjoy a high standard of living. It is a member of the European Union and of NATO. But Portugal’s voice is neither the loudest nor the weightiest in the great European chorus.

Five hundred years ago, however, Portugal was indeed a world power. Under a series of foresighted political leaders, Portuguese sailors explored ever farther south of the Iberian Peninsula and down the coast of Africa. When in 1498, Vasco da Gama became the first to sail around Africa from Europe to India, the new trade route he opened brought vast wealth to this small kingdom on the Atlantic coast with a territory only slightly larger than that of Maine.

With that wealth, the Portuguese erected magnificent churches and grand palaces, only some of which remain standing today, because a great earthquake and tsunami destroyed most of the capital, Lisbon, in 1755. The structures that remain, like the Jerónimos Monastery, where da Gama is buried, and the ornately decorated Belém Tower, attract and astonish modern tourists from around the world.

Portugal’s time as a great power did not last. The tour guides here blame the Spanish Habsburg kings, who succeeded to the Portuguese crown in 1581, but no doubt the process of decline was more complex. Whatever the reason, Portugal’s leaders failed to meet the new challenges that arose in the wake of their rise to prosperity and prominence. Portuguese merchants and explorers gradually lost ground to the Dutch and English. Portugal’s colonial empire shrank, and Portugal eventually became the modest state it is today.

Similar stories can be told about most of the states in Europe. The times and the details would be different, but the basic trajectory is constantly repeated. A previously unimportant state somehow becomes unexpectedly dynamic. Heretofore unknown and unexpected energy bursts forth, and that state rockets to world prominence.

The English, who trembled at the approach of the Spanish Armada in 1588, went on to rule an empire on which the sun never set — and then went on to lose it. Tiny Holland became fabulously wealthy in the 17th century, but its commerce, power and glory quickly faded. France made Europe tremble under the reign of the Sun King, Louis XIV, and Germany twice nearly conquered Europe in the 20th century.

The great arc of rise and decline is visible at other times and in other lands, too. We see it in the histories of ancient Greece and Rome, in the rise and decline of the great Muslim states whose enlightenment and power awed medieval Europeans, and in the histories of the great states of Asia.

In the United States, we like to view our history as naturally or inevitably progressive. From once insignificant English and Dutch colonies in a land with no gold and little to trade but timber and furs, the United States rocketed to prominence, and since 1945 our country has been the indispensable great power — a condition we like to believe the natural and just order of the world.

History suggests otherwise. The natural fate of every state is eventually to decline.

But to recognize that necessity need not lead to fatalism. Though every great power eventually declines, some nations have enjoyed much longer stretches of power and success than others. Great Britain’s glory grew progressively brighter from 1688 until the eve of World War I. Other states, such as ancient Athens, enjoyed only comparatively fleeting moments of greatness.

Though the circumstances of each great nation’s decline are particular, all declines have one common trait: a failure of the nation’s leaders and government to meet the new challenges of a new era. Britain remained at the pinnacle of global power for so long because its rulers in public and private life successfully confronted the challenges they faced in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.

Will we manage to confront the numerous challenges facing our country, or will a tourist from China or India or some now-obscure African country come to America a hundred years from now and meditate on the decline of nations?

Joseph R. Reisert is associate professor of American constitutional law and chairman of the department of government at Colby College in Waterville.

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