Jacob Heilbrunn

Is America on the Ropes?

Talking about decline can, as the late political scientist Samuel Huntington once observed in these pages, be a way of averting it. Today Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne tackles the topic. The question is simple: Can America continue to say "I am the greatest" or is it the latest superpower to go down the tubes. Is it still an exceptional nation (if it ever was) or has it become a journeyman?

Two things are at work. The first is a lack of confidence in the Obama administration. The administration's performance has been haphazard abroad. It's stuck in Afghanistan. North Korea is thumbing its nose at Washington. China is a rising power. The recovery of the economy has been halting. So one avenue of attack is to claim that the Obama administration is personally culpable for the loss in prestige of America. Had John McCain or another Republican been elected, none of this would be occurring. So the first theory of decline ties America's declining power to the Obama administration.

The second approach is to see it less as a product of Obama and more as a structural problem. It's inevitable that other powers will rise. India and China are on the march. Shanghai school students are now scoring top marks on international tests, while American ones flounder. There isn't really much the United States can, or really should even try, to do about it, apart from retrenching and improving its own performance at home. As Paul Pillar recently argued, the notion of American exceptionalism has caused a lot of problems for both Americans and the rest of the world.

But Americans, grown used to flexing their muscles around the globe, at least since World War I, don't really cotton to the current situation. They want more. As Dionne acutely observes,

the current declinist sentiment arises from a widespread sense that in the first decade of the new millennium, our country squandered its international advantages, degraded its power with a long and unnecessary engagement in Iraq, wrecked the federal government's finances—and then saw its economy devastated by the worst financial crisis in 80 years. All this happened as China especially but also India began to challenge American preeminence. Americans feel something is badly wrong, and they are fully justified in their alarm. 

No president can really afford to acknowledge that America is declining, at least relative to other powers. Richard Nixon probably came closest in announcing the "Nixon doctrine" in 1969, which maintained that America's allies would have to provide most of their own defense. Of course it never happened. What Obama can do is try to use the perception of decline to push his own political program. This would essentially be a mandate for what Dionne calls "national renewal." To put it otherwise, a new New Deal that would revive America's infrastructure and turn it into a competitive nation.

That's unlikely to happen in the era of budget cuts that looms large. But the general ferment does suggest that big changes are in the offing and that the real question will be which political party occupies the space that has been opened up by uncertainty over America's future. In the 2010 election, it's the right that has begun to provide an answer. Will Obama be able to steal it back?