Who says America is in decline?
Not me. But, if you listened to a recent Rush Limbaugh show, you might’ve heard him dismiss my new book, Every Nation for Itself, as a “declinist” tract that says America’s time as leader of the world is “over.” Nothing could be further from the truth. There’s an inordinate amount of concern out there that writers who are trying to understand the seismic shifts the world has undergone in recent years are in fact doomsayers – wonks who are convinced the U.S. is no longer a superpower and has lost its swagger. On the other side of this false dichotomy is the camp that tries to pretend all the upheaval of recent years has changed absolutely nothing about America’s objective standing on the world stage.
The split is playing out right now, in fact, in the presidential campaign, with the GOP accusing President Obama of being a declinist, while Obama counters that he is merely being a realist and that the Romney camp doesn’t understand the complexities of foreign affairs in the world today. Here’s the thing – not only is that irrelevant, but the very way the debate is being framed for the public is misleading, at best.
Here’s a simple way to think of it: If you’re camping and suddenly find yourself being chased by a bear in the woods, you really don’t need to outrun the bear – you need to outrun the other guys who are in the woods with you. And so far, the U.S. is doing a fine job staying ahead of the pack.
The reason the question is being framed incorrectly has much more to do with the state of the world than the role the U.S. plays in it. No one has seriously considered that we would embark on some kind of new Marshall Plan to save the euro. No one has expected us to strike Iran on behalf of Israel, or overthrow Assad in Syria. But just because we’re not being as interventionist as we have been in years and decades past does not mean we’ve shirked our global leadership role.
In a world where the U.S. isn’t saddled with these responsibilities, how do things change? First, for Americans, global affairs mean a lot less at the moment. The U.S. public is concerned about debt and the feeling that their wealth won’t accrue to the next generation, not globalization and foreign aid. But the issues are more serious for the rest of the world. Look at the clamor, for instance, around Iran’s threats to close off the Straits of Hormuz, through which 36 percent of the world’s oil flows. That’s a much bigger problem for China than for the U.S. Yet few pundits call on China to be the region’s cop.