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.

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