Blogs: The Buzz

The Fatal Flaw in the American Decline Debate

The Buzz

The decline debate is likely here to stay, in part because the fears it reflects seem to be integral to the American psyche.  As Cullen Murphy explained to James Fallows in early 2010, “If you go back and pick any decade in American history, you are guaranteed to find the exact same worries we have now….Poke a stick into it, and you will get a gushing fount of commentary on the same subjects as now, in the same angry and despairing tone….Fifty years from now, Americans will be as worried as they are today.”  While a perpetual fear of decline would seem to be a source of exhaustion, Americans have channeled it quite constructively in the postwar era; just consider the wave of American innovations that followed the launch of Sputnik.  Reflecting on the declinist debate a quarter century ago in Foreign Affairs, Samuel Huntington reassured readers that the U.S. “is unlikely to decline so long as its public is periodically convinced that it is about to decline….the more Americans worry about the health of their society, the healthier they are”

Particularly since the global financial crisis, however, this concern has increasingly appeared to coincide with a mood of resignation.  According to a report this past December by the Pew Research Center, 48% of Americans think China is “the world’s leading economic power” (31% think the U.S. is).  According to another Pew report, this one released just last month, 49% think America’s “best years” are over (44% think they lie ahead).  Only 35% think “it’s best for the future of the country to be active in world affairs.”  The current wave of declinism reinforces—and is, in turn, amplified by—a familiar tendency in intellectual and political circles: adducing each new crisis abroad as evidence of U.S. impotence in international affairs. 

Paradoxically, though, while this inclination stems from concern about declining U.S. influence, it also seems to reflect a belief in—or, at a minimum, a hope for—something approaching U.S. omnipotence: that is, the U.S. can generally prevent or reverse bad outcomes if it chooses to do so.  In truth, though the U.S. may remain the world’s most powerful and influential single actor, the policies it implements are only one of an infinite number of phenomena that shape the day’s events.  While it is natural to worry about U.S. influence abroad when fires seem to be burning all around, the intensity of alarm in certain quarters seems disproportionate in view of the past 70 years.  Every administration of the postwar era has struggled—not only to reconcile crisis management with strategic vision, but also to address the charge that it was hapless as momentous strategic developments multiplied abroad. 

Few would—or could—deny the magnitude of the foreign-policy challenges facing the U.S., whether the ascendancy of ISIS, the carnage in Syria, Russian efforts to destabilize Ukraine, China’s approach to solving its territorial disputes, or the latest North Korean provocation.  These challenges are more a reflection of the world’s complexity, however, than of the failure of U.S. foreign policy.  That policy should be graded less on the basis of how it responds to a given crisis than on the extent to which it shapes trends in the international system over time.  Even if one believes that U.S. credibility suffers when it responds “weakly” to a given crisis, adopting a “do something now” doctrine is not a prudent alternative: much like thrashing around in quick sand only makes one sink faster, operating one’s foreign policy in perpetual crisis-management mode can only culminate in exhaustion and confusion—thereby, ironically, compounding the very weakness that proponents of that doctrine seek to reverse (Tom Toles’s April 20th cartoon “As the World Turns” makes the point well). 

Foreign policy requires strategic vision because crises alone are insufficient to provide a coherent basis for approaching the world.  They often occur at unexpected times and in unexpected places, bearing little relationship to one another.  Even if they did provide such a foundation, U.S. foreign policy would not be strategic if it undertook to prioritize each crisis equally.  As Francis Fukuyama explained recently, strategy “is about setting priorities, saying that some things are more important than others, and explaining why this is so.  The notion that there is no place unworthy of U.S. attention is not a strategy.”  One could go further: the existence of a crisis need not impel U.S. involvement.  The doctor’s mantra—“first, do no harm”—is also a sound principle in foreign policy.  The U.S. should concern itself primarily with those crises that affect its vital national interests or could do so if left unchecked.  When a crisis affects important (but not vital) or secondary interests, it should think carefully before deciding to get involved; it if it does, it should either work in close partnership with allies or play a backbencher role, ensuring that its efforts at crisis management do not detract from its strategic priorities.  

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Japan and Australia: Ready, Willing and Abe

The Buzz

The decline debate is likely here to stay, in part because the fears it reflects seem to be integral to the American psyche.  As Cullen Murphy explained to James Fallows in early 2010, “If you go back and pick any decade in American history, you are guaranteed to find the exact same worries we have now….Poke a stick into it, and you will get a gushing fount of commentary on the same subjects as now, in the same angry and despairing tone….Fifty years from now, Americans will be as worried as they are today.”  While a perpetual fear of decline would seem to be a source of exhaustion, Americans have channeled it quite constructively in the postwar era; just consider the wave of American innovations that followed the launch of Sputnik.  Reflecting on the declinist debate a quarter century ago in Foreign Affairs, Samuel Huntington reassured readers that the U.S. “is unlikely to decline so long as its public is periodically convinced that it is about to decline….the more Americans worry about the health of their society, the healthier they are”

Particularly since the global financial crisis, however, this concern has increasingly appeared to coincide with a mood of resignation.  According to a report this past December by the Pew Research Center, 48% of Americans think China is “the world’s leading economic power” (31% think the U.S. is).  According to another Pew report, this one released just last month, 49% think America’s “best years” are over (44% think they lie ahead).  Only 35% think “it’s best for the future of the country to be active in world affairs.”  The current wave of declinism reinforces—and is, in turn, amplified by—a familiar tendency in intellectual and political circles: adducing each new crisis abroad as evidence of U.S. impotence in international affairs. 

Paradoxically, though, while this inclination stems from concern about declining U.S. influence, it also seems to reflect a belief in—or, at a minimum, a hope for—something approaching U.S. omnipotence: that is, the U.S. can generally prevent or reverse bad outcomes if it chooses to do so.  In truth, though the U.S. may remain the world’s most powerful and influential single actor, the policies it implements are only one of an infinite number of phenomena that shape the day’s events.  While it is natural to worry about U.S. influence abroad when fires seem to be burning all around, the intensity of alarm in certain quarters seems disproportionate in view of the past 70 years.  Every administration of the postwar era has struggled—not only to reconcile crisis management with strategic vision, but also to address the charge that it was hapless as momentous strategic developments multiplied abroad. 

Few would—or could—deny the magnitude of the foreign-policy challenges facing the U.S., whether the ascendancy of ISIS, the carnage in Syria, Russian efforts to destabilize Ukraine, China’s approach to solving its territorial disputes, or the latest North Korean provocation.  These challenges are more a reflection of the world’s complexity, however, than of the failure of U.S. foreign policy.  That policy should be graded less on the basis of how it responds to a given crisis than on the extent to which it shapes trends in the international system over time.  Even if one believes that U.S. credibility suffers when it responds “weakly” to a given crisis, adopting a “do something now” doctrine is not a prudent alternative: much like thrashing around in quick sand only makes one sink faster, operating one’s foreign policy in perpetual crisis-management mode can only culminate in exhaustion and confusion—thereby, ironically, compounding the very weakness that proponents of that doctrine seek to reverse (Tom Toles’s April 20th cartoon “As the World Turns” makes the point well). 

Foreign policy requires strategic vision because crises alone are insufficient to provide a coherent basis for approaching the world.  They often occur at unexpected times and in unexpected places, bearing little relationship to one another.  Even if they did provide such a foundation, U.S. foreign policy would not be strategic if it undertook to prioritize each crisis equally.  As Francis Fukuyama explained recently, strategy “is about setting priorities, saying that some things are more important than others, and explaining why this is so.  The notion that there is no place unworthy of U.S. attention is not a strategy.”  One could go further: the existence of a crisis need not impel U.S. involvement.  The doctor’s mantra—“first, do no harm”—is also a sound principle in foreign policy.  The U.S. should concern itself primarily with those crises that affect its vital national interests or could do so if left unchecked.  When a crisis affects important (but not vital) or secondary interests, it should think carefully before deciding to get involved; it if it does, it should either work in close partnership with allies or play a backbencher role, ensuring that its efforts at crisis management do not detract from its strategic priorities.  

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