I recently attended a luncheon in Washington hosted by the Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI). Founded and run by prominent neoconservatives, FPI invited former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney to hold a discussion on America's place in the world. I predicted that the former presidential candidate's hair would be more exquisite than his foreign policy ideas. I was not disappointed.
From the beginning it was clear that politics would trump policy, as Governor Romney received softball after softball designed to tear down President Obama and buck up the Republican faithful. He expressed relief that President Obama had not rapidly yanked US troops out of Iraq or taken Air Force One to North Korea. Since these outlandish propositions were never part of Obama's presidential campaign, one wonders why he feared such possibilities in the first place.
The most likely answer, of course, is that he never actually harbored such fears. Instead, it seemed that he was merely pumping up the crowd in order to set the stage for this go-for-the-jugular accusation: that President Obama is a "timid defender of freedom."
It's a predictable claim, which jives nicely with the long Republican tradition of choosing tough talk over tough choices. Also predictable was the decision to go after the "chattering class," a new epithet for the liberal media. For Governor Romney, the chattering class is responsible for spreading the poisonous idea that America is "in decline." As America's power diminishes, so the straw man goes, the United States stands on the sidelines and asks for help. It no longer leads, no longer stands up for its friends, and no longer stands up for itself. The incarnation of this worldview? Barack Obama.
Such is Governor Romney's working theory. But the theory isn't working. Once again, he's pushing politics over policy. "Decline" is not a neutral term. It's a political accusation that willfully ignores the realities of today's world.
America's share of world GDP stood at 50% after World War II. As economies recovered, primarily in Europe in Japan, that share moved to 20% in 1980, and has stayed constant ever since. What has not stayed constant is Europe and Japan. Since 1980, Europe's share of world GDP has gone from 27% to 20%, while Japan's has gone from 8% to 6%.
Who's picking up the slack? Asia, with China leading the way. In the same time period, China's share of world GDP has gone from 4% to 16%, while the rest of Asia has gone from 12% to 19%. Meanwhile, Goldman Sachs has predicted that the combined economies of Brazil, Russia, India, and China will be larger than the combined economies of the United States and the European Union by 2050.
Does this mean America is in decline? Hardly. On the contrary, it's a measure of our success that so many nations have, to varying degrees, adopted economic systems similar to ours. As a consequence, the wealth of others has grown, and the opportunities for the US to cooperate with like-minded nations has grown. The fact that economies in Europe, Asia, and elsewhere have grown since 1945 is not a sign of American decline. It's a testament to US leadership.
Yet like all worthwhile accomplishments, this comes with a cost. The US simply controls less wealth than it used to. Our resources aren't infinite and we have to make tough choices to keep America safe and strong. Governor Romney isn't up for tough choices. Tough talk is much easier. His choice is to ignore this reality, and slander anyone who points out this incontrovertible economic fact as a decline monger.
But it's not 1945 anymore. Other nations have the resources to go their own way if they want to. Yet they probably don't want to, because without American leadership in the world, nothing gets done. The National Intelligence Council puts it nicely:
On newer security issues like climate change, US leadership will be widely perceived as critical to leveraging competing and divisive views to find solutions. At the same time, the multiplicity of influential actors and distrust of vast power means less room for the US to call the shots without the support of strong partnerships.
The Catholic Church often refers to the bishop of Rome -- the pope -- as "the first among equals." That might be a stretch when comparing America's position in the world to that of other powers -- we're still top dog economically and militarily -- but it's probably the kind of attitude we need to succeed in the 21st century. To pretend otherwise, as Governor Romney prefers to do, is to abandon the reality we have for the unicorn he wants.