America's "Decline" Dilemma: The Obama Administration Fires Back

Chuck Hagel rebuts claims by critics that U.S. influence is declining.

The Defense Secretary rebuts claims by critics that U.S. influence is declining under President Obama.

If you happened to run into a rank-and-file Republican, a hawkish Democrat, or a member of the Washington foreign-policy community, chances are that you would run into an argument that has circulated around town ever since President Barack Obama decided to abort a planned missile strike in Syria. That argument goes something like this: the power and respect of the United States is declining around the world, America’s allies do not believe that we will come to their defense in a time of crisis, and U.S. global leadership is embarrassingly inept. President Barack Obama and his administration, Republicans argue, are simply not demonstrating the type of leadership required of an “indispensable nation.” President Obama is “weak,” he’s not passionate about U.S. foreign policy, he doesn’t care about the strength of the U.S. military, and he’s “gun-shy.” Or, as New York Times columnist David Brooks commented on Meet the Press last month, Obama has a manhood problem.

There is no question that many of these critiques come from predictable corners: people like John McCain or Lindsey Graham, the leading voices in the Republican Party for the hawkish, interventionist camp. The Obama administration has tended to laugh them off as partisan attacks from people who have not learned the lessons of U.S. overreach during the past ten years. But while that rebuttal resonates with a majority of the American people, it becomes increasingly difficult for Obama and his foreign-policy advisers to recycle the same defense when popular magazines and respected columnists start to pick up on the “America-in-decline” theme.

In the May 3, 2014 edition of The Economist, the magazine’s cover story had a byline that Republicans in Washington and some of America’s closest allies all take to heart: “America is no longer as alarming to its foes or reassuring to its friends.” This would seem to be a striking indictment of U.S. foreign policy under President Obama on its own, but it only becomes magnified when people who have historically been supportive of Obama’s restrained worldview run with this assumption. In The Washington Post, Fareed Zakaria attempts to defend Obama’s foreign policy, but he concludes at the end that Obama pursues international relations “as if his heart is not in it, seemingly pulled along by events rather than shaping them.” Even David Ignatius, a respected journalist on national-security matters and a reliable Obama foreign-policy supporter, had to admit that at times, the Obama White House is more concerned with what it says to foreign audiences that what it does. “Under Obama,” Ignatius writes, “the United States has suffered some real reputational damage.”

Given the drumbeat of criticism that never seems to go away and the politically effective argument that President Obama is just a younger iteration of Jimmy Carter, it must have come as a welcome opportunity for the administration when Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was scheduled to give a major policy speech to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Hagel’s appearance on May 6, 2014 was just the kind of opening that the administration needed to defend its record: a well-thought out and prepared speech to a friendly audience that would allow the country’s top defense official to challenge the persistent and often shallow claims of U.S. weakness and retrenchment. And what a better official to give that speech than Chuck Hagel, a man who, over two-terms as a senator and over a year as Defense Secretary, has been at the forefront of advocating for a smart, pragmatic, and sometimes reserved foreign policy.

Secretary Hagel’s speech encompassed many topics, from the budget woes that are forcing the Defense Department to cut back on troop strength to a description of what contingencies the U.S. military must prepare for in the future. But there are several themes in Hagel’s address that are worth exploring.

The United States Must Continue to Play a Global Leadership Role

Sure, the American people may be tired of overseas engagement and more concerned with the decaying infrastructure and slow economic recovery at home (a well-cited Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll finds that a plurality of 47 percent of Americans want the United States to be less active in international affairs). But Secretary Hagel wants those same Americans to know that the peace and tranquility that they are now feeling is directly correlated to the type of global leadership that the United States has practiced since World War II.

“Let us remember that the biggest beneficiaries of American leadership and engagement in the world are the American people. Turning inward, history teaches us, does not insulate us from the world’s troubles. It only forces us to be more engaged later…at a higher cost in blood and treasure and often on the terms of others.”