Understanding America's Fall

Understanding America's Fall

U.S. decline may be inevitable. But that doesn't mean there's nothing Washington can do about it.

Robert Kagan has produced a fascinating cover piece in the February 2 New Republic entitled, "Not Fade Away: Against the myth of American decline." It’s an excerpt from his forthcoming book entitled The World America Made, due out soon from Knopf. Kagan specializes in diminutive volumes, with small pages and few of them, that pack tight, provocative arguments. A previous such book was Of Paradise and Power, which compared the United States as Mars with Europe’s Venus. It was a huge success. Now he marshals his analytical and writing skills on behalf of the argument that rumors of American decline are vastly exaggerated.

He makes a compelling case, and Kagan’s foray into the breach could serve as a bit of a corrective to much of what’s being written today under the voguish consensus that America is roughly equivalent to Great Britain circa 1910. It would be a positive development if Kagan’s essay brought forth a bit more rigor from some of those positing the consensus argument of decline.

But Kagan’s essay doesn’t say much about what kind of foreign policy America should pursue in its next decades of lingering global dominance. And, whatever merit one sees in his analytical framework, it certainly doesn’t serve as a blueprint for the kind of foreign policy that the neoconservative Kagan has been championing since the end of the Cold War. One could almost suggest that Kagan has a vested interest in American global power since he always displays such abandon in advocating its use.

He complained during the 1990s Balkan wars that America wasn’t applying sufficient power against the Serbs. He beat the drums constantly for war in Iraq before George W. Bush’s eventual decision to invade that country, and his commentary over the years on how things were going there, when compared to how events actually unfolded, reads like an almost comical catalog of faulty analysis. More recently, he has strenuously pushed for policies aimed at regime change in Iran.

For those who have developed a skepticism toward Kagan based on his unrelenting advocacy of foreign-policy bellicosity, there may be a temptation to pass over this essay or the forthcoming book. That would be a mistake. He presents a compelling case, and he argues it with the brilliance that one sees consistently in his work, however misguided he may have been over the years.

Kagan notes correctly that today’s world order is an American order, and he dismisses those, such as G. John Ikenberry, who believe that American decline won’t appreciably undermine the liberal international structure that has fostered so much stability over the postwar decades. Says Kagan: "American decline, if it is real, will mean a different world for everyone." He is right.

He also demonstrates that few great powers ever decline quickly. It generally takes decades (absent the devastation of a war, which Kagan says usually reflects greater underlying national weaknesses). Thus he makes easy marks of those who have suddenly seen decline where a few years before they saw solid American hegemony. In 2004, he notes, pundit Fareed Zakaria touted America’s "comprehensive uni-polarity"; a mere four years later, he was analyzing the "post-American world" and "the rise of the rest." Writes Kagan: "Did the fundamentals of America’s relative power shift so dramatically in just a few short years? The answer is no." Again, he is right.

Kagan goes after the notion, put forth by Harvard’s Stephen Walt and others, that while American power remains relatively strong, the country no longer has the capacity to have its way over as much of the globe as in the past. Kagan argues that nothing much has changed there. Since 1945, he writes, the challenge of maintaining America’s position in the world and fostering global stability has always generated defeats, frustrations and embarrassments along with the triumphs. "We tend to think back on the early years of the Cold War as a moment of complete American global dominance," he writes. "They were nothing of the sort." He provides some pretty good history of those years’ foreign tribulations, including the communist takeover of China, the Korean War agony, the loss of America’s nuclear monopoly, Suez, the Vietnam debacle and Japan’s economic rise. All of these things led many in America to decry the country’s loss of relative power in the world, and yet America always managed to spring back.

And there certainly were times akin to today when America truly did lose standing in the world and things could have gone badly—most notably the late 1970s, when the U.S. economy faltered, Soviet adventurism was on the rise, Mideast oil politics was turning against America and the Iranian hostage crisis was at full intensity. And yet American ingenuity and resilience once again prevailed, and under Ronald Reagan the country came back with greater force than ever, remediating its faulty economy and out-competing the Soviets into oblivion. "The difficulties in shaping the international environment in any era are immense," writes Kagan. "Few powers even attempt it, and even the strongest rarely achieve all or even most of their goals."

That’s why, he avers, "preserving the present world order requires constant American leadership and constant American commitment." In the end, he says, the decision is in the hands of Americans. "Decline, as Charles Krauthammer has observed, is a choice. It is not an inevitable fate—at least not yet."

Here’s where the analysis gets a bit ragged. Contra Krauthammer, great powers never make a "choice" to slip into decline. They may choose to accept the decline that fate forces upon them, as Britain eventually did. But the choice is really over what kinds of policies a great power wishes to pursue on the global stage and whether those policies will bolster or undermine its global status. Hence, Kagan’s catalogue of America’s Cold War defeats and difficulties is instructive but perhaps not precisely as he intends. He seems to be saying that all great powers experience such defeats and difficulties, so we should just go for it. A better lesson is that such experiences suggest caution, a measured approach to foreign policy that preserves power for when it’s really needed and places power bets that are commensurate with the possible payoff—and the risks involved.

That would suggest an approach more akin to Dwight Eisenhower than to George W. Bush. It would suggest a philosophy more akin to, say, Stephen Walt than to Robert Kagan. Whatever America’s relative standing in the world today, or through the coming years, it is difficult to argue that the country enhanced its global position with two long and inconclusive wars in the world of Islam that never produced the outcomes touted at their beginning as national goals. Likewise, it’s difficult to argue that those long and inconclusive wars helped position America for what could very well be a serious competition in Asia with a rising Chinese superpower.

Finally, bringing the matter down to domestic politics, it’s difficult to argue that those inconclusive wars have enhanced the flexibility of future presidents to pursue other military missions that may be more pressing or that hold out prospects for greater benefit to the national interest. The American electorate has only so much appetite for foreign wars, which is a good reason to choose them carefully and with an eye toward ultimate success.

Kagan is correct in arguing that American decline is not necessarily imminent—and that, even if it is, this decline isn’t necessarily determined by forces utterly out of the country’s immediate control. America, as Kagan concedes, will at some point slip into the position of a global also-ran. We just don’t know when that will be. In the meantime, the real debate should be over what kinds of geopolitical decision making will either hasten or delay that inevitability.

Robert W. Merry is editor of The National Interest and the author of books on American history and foreign policy.

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