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September 25, 2013 4:54 PM Declinism Redux

By Ed Kilgore

Every time the United States must resort to diplomacy or international institutions or anything other than brawny and unilateral military action, we hear a chorus (usually from conservatives but sometimes elsewhere) lamenting our declining influence in the world. It’s sort of a corollary to the dubious doctrine of American Exceptionalism: whenever we have to behave like a regular country and recognize limits to our power, then we’re clearly not Exceptional any more!

The Harvard Kennedy School’s Ali Wyne addresses past and present laments of American decline in a web-exclusive item for Ten Miles Square today, and importantly notes that most narratives of “decline” posit some false golden age of American influence. Yet fears of “declinism” have persisted throughout:

Whether one thinks that the U.S. is presently a bystander to international affairs, “America the bystander” has been a persistent theme over the past seven decades. One of the paradoxes of the postwar era, in fact, is that while the U.S. has managed to accumulate an inordinate amount of influence—reflected in its development of and centrality within a liberal international system—it has often appeared (and been characterized as) impotent at certain moments, and even during significant stretches.

Truth is, says Wayne, the United States probably lost most ground internationally during the early Cold War period when its economic and military power was least challenged. But in any event, “declinism” is perilous because it creates a temptation either to disengagement or to overextension. Both are mistakes:

However many strategic mistakes, even blunders, the United States has made, its position today would be far weaker had it principally been a witness to events rather than a shaper of them (consider the impact of far-sighted initiatives such as the Marshall Plan, the establishment of the Non-Proliferation Regime, and the opening to China).
As long as the international system evolves, however, the U.S. will encounter new circumstances in which it is incapable of advancing its national interests substantially or at all. As Paul Kennedy counseled a quarter century ago, and would likely reiterate today, “the only serious threat to the real interests of the United States can come from a failure to adjust sensibly to the newer world order.” A fair comparison of 2013 and 1945 would suggest that the U.S. has done an impressive job of achieving what Paul Nitze and his colleagues called its “fundamental purpose”: fostering “a world environment in which the American system can survive and flourish.”

I’d add that much of what frustrates Americans who think we should be able to impose our will on an unrighteous world—those treaties, international organizations, and collective security arrangements—are our own creation, reflecting our own stated values.

In any event, it’s absurd and dangerous to overreact to our inability to instantly solve the Syria crisis, prevent a nuclear Iran, or achieve enduring peace between Israelis and Palestinians. As Wyne concludes:

The prospect of a great-power war has diminished significantly, as has that of a nuclear exchange in which tens, if not hundreds, of millions could perish. The U.S. no longer faces an implacable antagonist, and it benefits enormously from the system of global commons. While developments in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East are not encouraging from the perspective of U.S. strategy, it would be premature to conclude, if history is indicative, that U.S. influence abroad is in irreversible decline.
Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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