Reports of U.S. Decline Could Be Premature

January 7, 2009

In the final week of the presidential campaign, conservative scholar Robert Kagan asked a pointed question in The Washington Post: ‘Is Barack Obama the candidate of American decline?’

The answer to Kagan’s question is already in: No.

In fact, Obama will more likely be the president of American resurgence – or rather, the one who demonstrates the frailties of the declinist thesis.

George W. Bush’s ill-starred presidency has brought forth a torrent of writing on the relative decline of the United States. In a remarkably short period, the idea that America’s moment is ending has hardened into conventional wisdom. It informs the thinking of government and the intelligence community. Plant yourself at the back of a college class or book club meeting and you may find that the topic for discussion is American decline.

The public appeal of the genre is understandable. Why wouldn’t American spirits droop, given the incompetence displayed by their government in such diverse locations as Baghdad, New Orleans and Washington, DC?

Yet the analytical underpinnings of the argument have never been sturdy. Notwithstanding the Bush administration’s best efforts, the $14 trillion US economy still looms over all the others. Washington spends as much on its military as the rest of the world combined, and it can project its power anywhere on earth. American culture is the world’s default culture; American opinions shape global opinions.

Relative to when exactly is the United States in decline? One US intelligence analyst told me the high water mark of American power was August 1941, when Franklin D. Roosevelt felt he need consult only with Britain’s Winston Churchill before issuing the Atlantic Charter. Yet when Roosevelt and Churchill met at sea off the coast of Newfoundland, much of Europe was controlled by a genocidal fanatic. Washington’s relative power is greater now than at any time during the Cold War, when it faced a mighty foe with a competing ideology, a nuclear arsenal and a global network of allies.

Relative to who exactly is America in decline? Which peer competitor is poking its nose around the geopolitical corner? Not Russia, which is in a demographic death spiral. Certainly not Iran, despite the wild-eyed speculations of American conservatives. Both these countries, and some other potential rivals, have been discombobulated by the falling price of oil. China has made very impressive gains, however worrying internal cleavages are emerging and her upward progress along a straight line is far from assured.

Certainly, the United States faces a formidable set of challenges, including bloody conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea, persistent terrorist networks, a financial collapse, a cooling economy and a warming planet. Yet these are also challenges for other countries, most of whom still look to America for leadership in meeting them.

For example, the G-20 summit on the financial crisis demonstrated that the antique governance structures of global institutions need updating and developing economies should be brought into the innermost councils. In that sense, the meeting was the message – yet that meeting was still held in Washington. Even though the United States was the principal author of the current crisis, it was still the only plausible candidate to convene the discussions in response to the crisis.

If the United States is in decline, why did so many non-Americans watch this year’s presidential election so intently – often as closely as they follow their own national politics? Speeches, debates and vice-presidential picks were immediately dissected in newspaper columns and blogs published in every language. Everyone had a view on Wilmington and Wasilla.

Is the world similarly on the edge of its seat as it monitors the subtle shifts in influence within the State Council in Beijing? Are young people excited about the dynamic developing between President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in Moscow – or are they only concerned? Did our television networks interrupt their ordinary programming to bring us the result when Brazilian President Lula da Silva was re-elected? Will we enjoy wall-to-wall coverage when Indians go to the polls next year?

The United States remains a special case. The world’s response to the contest between John McCain and Barack Obama showed that the idea of the democratic, meritocratic superpower continues to fascinate.

Furthermore, the world was not agnostic as between the two candidates: in many countries, including Australia, Obama was favoured by ratios of four and five to one. He is, after all, a child of globalization – linked by his father’s birth to Africa, by his middle name to the Middle East, by his upbringing to Southeast Asia. Yet for all that, his is a classic American story, so enormous quantities of soft power has accrued to the United States with his victory.

And all this before Obama takes the oath of office – or a single foreign policy decision. Imagine if he were to do well. What if he were to depart from his predecessor’s practice and run a prudent grand strategy, directing America’s resources towards its greatest priorities and working to find global solutions to global problems? Suddenly America would be riding high – and the pundits who have been busily charting the country’s decline would have to start writing about its resilience.