The Pacific Bull Moose

The Voice of the Silent Majority

American Decline is in the Mind

Cover of "American Power in the 21st Cent...

The Sky Is Not Falling | The National Interest Blog.

The editors of The National Interest take understandable exception to Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen’s contention that Obama is a “closet declinist.” They protest that Cohen’s examples do not demonstrate the president’s supposed mindset. Their point is fair: Cohen’s case was incomplete, and it seems negated by the president’s own words in his last State of the Union address:

Anyone who tells you that America is in decline or that our influence has waned, doesn’t know what they’re talking about.

The real point (and the one that Cohen probably would have preferred to have made if his editors weren’t in search of link-bait,) is that the meme of American declinism is an insidious force in U.S. politics, an idea that can be used to justify all sorts of pet policies and that can quickly become an accepted fact even before we have had a chance to debate or disprove it. Indeed, it can seep into the core assumptions of any politician – President Obama included – and become a part of our thinking before we know it. What concerned me about the president’s remarks is that by even acknowledging the argument of the declinists, he is giving the argument way more credit than it deserves, and placing the question of national decline on the global agenda in a very high-profile way.

Comfort to our Enemies

This is bad, because the idea that America is on the decline, that America is Rome, carries great danger.  In the best case, if America’s national power is not in decline, believing that it is gives courage to our rivals and enemies and breeds uncertainty among our friends, and engraves our invitations to more conflict, not less. In the worst case, even if we are, the belief accelerates the process.

From Whence it Comes

The decline meme is the result of several forces coming together at once including the realization that our military power alone is inadequate to wreak change in the world; the falloff in the positive perceptions of the US overseas; the shift of manufacturing jobs from the US to Mexico and Asia; and the brutalizing effects of the global financial crisis and the role our vaunted system of neo-laissez-faire capitalism played in it. As Robert Kagan noted in his much-linked but pay-wall-protected essay “Not Fade Away” in The New Republic,

“Americans look at other nations whose economies are now in better shape than their own, and seem to have the dynamism that America once had, and they lament, as in the title of Thomas Friedman’s latest book, that ‘that used to be us.’ ”

A New Kind of Power

Such simplistic thinking on the part of American leaders and much of the electorate obscures what is really happening. Joseph Nye offers what I think has been the most balanced and cogent look at the question of American power in the 21st century in his essay “The Future of American Power” in Foreign Affairs, and the shorter companion op-ed piece he wrote for The Wall Street Journal at around the same time. Nye notes that:

It is time for a new narrative about the future of U.S. power. Describing power transition in the twenty-first century as a traditional case of hegemonic decline is inaccurate, and it can lead to dangerous policy implications if it encourages China to engage in adventurous policies or the United States to overreact out of fear. The United States is not in absolute decline, and in relative terms, there is a reasonable probability that it will remain more powerful than any single state in the coming decades.

Nye, I think hits quite closely to the mark. It is not that American power is in decline, it is that the world is growing beyond single-power hegemony to a more multilateral planet of empowered nations. That’s not decline: it is merely a shift to a state that the world has not seen since before the Cold War, or perhaps since the Congress of Vienna in 1815: a multipolar political system.

In such a world, Nye points out, American leadership is not assured, but it is not foreclosed, either. The nature of that leadership must change. While we have been able to exert our position by virtue of absolute dominance in the past 60 years, the time has now come for us to learn to do so in the context of relative strength.

It is time for us to learn those lessons, to abandon the rhetoric of decline, and to take on the rhetoric of leadership in a multilateral system.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Information

This entry was posted on February 15, 2012 by in International Relations and tagged .
Cafe Book Bean

Talk Books. Drink Coffee.

Kamala Thompson

Achievement Coach, Startup & Small Biz Consultant, Success, Happiness, Career, Humanity

Silicon Hutong

China and the World of Business • China Business and the World

Big Red Carpet Nursing

Fun & Progress!

Making Change Happen

Stories from the front line of organizational change and communications

Maura Elizabeth Cunningham

Historian and Writer

Runningwinegirl's Blog

Colorado Girl Sharing Insights on Wine, Public Relations and Life's Adventures

Arlin Report

Telling You What The News Won't.

Blue-eyed Ronin

A contrarian who enjoys challenging existing illusions, one truth at a time.

Observer

News, Politics, Culture, Art, Style, Real Estate, Movie Reviews, TV recaps

UK Media Watch

Promoting fair and accurate coverage of Israel

Barton's Blog

To the clouds and beyond...

Like Cooking a Small Fish

A blog of thoughts on power, culture, and technology in America, China, and points in-between.

Coffee Shop Rabbi

Basic Judaism spoken here.

Cami Ryan

on society, science, technology and agriculture

Pacific Paratrooper

This WordPress.com site is Pacific War era information

U.S./China Clean Energy

Interface of Technology, Policy & Investment

Generation Passport

World Mix Magazine (click title for home)

Cliche of Logic

This is the beginning of my writing.

An Ordinary Website

of interest to few.

Der Bananenplanet

Alternatives Informationsmedium

Corey Robin

Author of The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin

Ragan.com

The Voice of the Silent Majority

The China Story

The Voice of the Silent Majority

Yale Environment 360

The Voice of the Silent Majority

Xindanwei

The Voice of the Silent Majority

The Voice of the Silent Majority

WordCount

Freelancing in the Digital Age

FriendFeed Blog

The Voice of the Silent Majority

Blog Daily Listings RSS

The Voice of the Silent Majority

The Voice of the Silent Majority

Speakeasy

The Voice of the Silent Majority

Today's Opinion Columns

The Voice of the Silent Majority

WebMD Health

The Voice of the Silent Majority

WSJ.com: What's News Technology

The Voice of the Silent Majority

Village Voice | Complete Issue

The Voice of the Silent Majority

Engadget RSS Feed

The Voice of the Silent Majority

The Urban Muse

The Voice of the Silent Majority

Uploads from The U.S. Army

The Voice of the Silent Majority

TechNode

China tech news and opinions

The Voice of the Silent Majority

TidBITS: Apple News for the Rest of Us

The Voice of the Silent Majority

Techmeme

The Voice of the Silent Majority

The Voice of the Silent Majority

The Voice of the Silent Majority

Latest Items from TreeHugger

The Voice of the Silent Majority

Techdirt.

The Voice of the Silent Majority

Tom Peters

The Voice of the Silent Majority

the Seforim blog

The Voice of the Silent Majority

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 189 other followers

%d bloggers like this: