It's fashionable these days to refute the decline of America, whether in real or relative terms. Conversely, it's practically heresy to proffer anything that suggests American decline. In this election year, the debate is predictably polarizing -- but in an "either you're with us or against us" kind of way.
Robert Kagan, who counsels Mitt Romney on international affairs, has greatly influenced the discourse on America's place in the world. His arguments on American decline have even impressed President Obama, who himself has bought into the groupthink, as I reported last month.
Kagan, in an eloquent piece in the Wall Street Journal last month, makes case for the "Why the World Still Needs America" (which he followed up with a presentation at the American Enterprise Institute last week):
"[I]nternational order is not an evolution; it is an imposition ... There was nothing inevitable about the world that was created after World War II. No divine providence or unfolding Hegelian dialectic required the triumph of democracy and capitalism, and there is no guarantee that their success will outlast the powerful nations that have fought for them. Democratic progress and liberal economics have been and can be reversed and undone ... The better idea doesn't have to win just because it is a better idea. It requires great powers to champion it."
Kagan is right. But he's only half right.
No doubt the United States must remain engaged in the world -- in fact, more than ever. But not as much because the world needs America as America needs the world. Our fate is more closely intertwined with that of the rest of the world through a process of globalization that we Americans have been more responsible for than anyone else. 9/11 was the moment that signaled that our national security had become globalized, while the global financial crisis and the Great Recession that accompanied it should have made us realize the same with regard to our prosperity -- namely, what happens over there matters over here as much, if not more, than the other way around.
The evidence is overwhelming. We've long known how much our national debt is now underwritten by foreign entities. The European debt crisis, which is hardly over, has demonstrated the precarious interconnectivity of our own financial system, as the vicissitudes of stock market tell us every day. One of the reasons much of the global economy is struggling to recover is because the U.S. can no longer be the world's locomotive -- pulling a longer train of bigger economies behind it by the power of crass consumption financed by cheap capital and credit. The rise in gas prices of late is merely a resumption of their rise before the recession, and it owes more to what's going in places like Iran and South Sudan than in Washington. In his testimony to Congress last week, George Clooney pointed out: "Six weeks ago the South shut down their oil production. They just stopped. And overnight China lost 6% of its overall oil imports, which means they have to go elsewhere, and that raises the price of oil."
Here's the thing: What Kagan and others don't seem to take into account is that, while the United States is still the world's leading power and will probably remain so for some time, the world America finds itself in and its place in that world are fundamentally different than since World War II, when the United States largely created the international order which is now transforming. The most important among these changes is that the U.S. no longer dominates that international order.
It's the end of this dominance -- a decline in relative terms -- that is most unsettling to a lot of Americans, because it means correspondingly fundamental changes in the way we conduct our business, not only as a nation but as individuals. The end of dominance means we could more or less have our own way -- we didn't have to listen to others as much as they had to listen to us. We could make the rules but not have to follow them, extolling "American exceptionalism." And if anyone messed with us, we sent in a carrier battle group or the Marines and that would fix it. In many ways, part of our problem now is that we've been chairman of the board of planetary management for so long that that we think we're entitled to it.
The end of all this, The Daily Show quipped a couple weeks back, "threatens America's longstanding tradition of ignorance-based foreign policy." That, in truth, is what makes us most uncomfortable. Now we have to start paying attention and devote some more mental energy beyond our shores.
The Kony 2012 campaign is tacit recognition of this reality. It's a harbinger of things to come, when the relations between people, made possible through social networking technology, will become at least as important as the relations between governments. But it has run into telling limits. Sure, it has conjured up over 100 million viewers and forced the media to pay more attention to an African warlord than they would have otherwise. However, its message is not hitting home where it should perhaps most count -- in Uganda, because the message of the video was written with little to no understanding of the cultural context there and came across more as looking down than reaching out.
Americans are at one of the most significant crossroads in their history. Since Kagan likes to take a broad historical sweep, I'll see him and raise him a couple. Consider this: Since about the war of 1812, Americans did not have to care much about the rest of the world -- we could afford our "splendid isolationism." Since the Civil War, the U.S. looked to win its wars, deter its adversaries, and assure its allies through overwhelming industrial and technological superiority predicated on an abundance of cheap resources, cheap labor, cheap energy, and cheap capital -- we could afford a wasteful, surplus mentality. And from 1945 until now, the U.S. was clearly the dominant power in the world -- we could afford to maintain a unilateralist view of our own sovereignty while everyone else was internationalizing.
It doesn't mean that we can or should no longer lead the world. But real leadership is not dominance. It's more about influence than power, collaboration than coercion, pushing from the back as much as pulling from the front. "Real power," my political science professor at New Mexico Military Institute pointed out, "is when you don't have to care about what anyone else thinks, says, or does." That was over three decades ago. It's a whole new ballgame now. Not only does our old modus operandi no longer work, here or there; we simply can't afford it anymore.
If we're still the leader of the world, or still want to be, then we as a nation need to act like more like a leader and less like a bully because, quite frankly, we can't get away with it anymore. If we still want to live in the greatest country in the world, then we as individuals need to become more responsible, more clued in citizens of the country we say we still are.
When we finally realize that what happens over there matters over here, then maybe we'll matter more over there again, too.