Daniel W. Drezner

The declinism industry in America

The declinism industry in America

My post yesterday on following Vizzini’s advice U.S. retrenchment from Central Asia generated a bit of pushback. I should point out that my concern here is that the U.S. husbands its power resources with a bit more acumen. Sure, Central Asia has some strategic significance, but the thing is, every region in the globe has some strategic significance. If I’m rank-ordering U.S. strategic priorities, it would go as follows: 1) East Asia; 2) Latin America; 3) Europe; 4) Middle East; 5) South Asia; 6) Central Asia; 7) Africa (there’s also a big gap between 4 and 5 on this list). Scarce resources devoted to Central Asia have to be siphoned from somewhere, and I don’t want too much of a diversion from other strategic priorities.

That said, I want to clarify that I’m not saying that the U.S. is in terminal decline and therefore should engage in a systematic strategic retreat. David Bell makes an excellent point in The New Republic today — there has been a perpetual declinism industry in the United States since the launch of Sputnik.

Twenty-two years ago, in a refreshingly clear-sighted article for Foreign Affairs, Harvard’s Samuel P. Huntington noted that the theme of "America’s decline" had in fact been a constant in American culture and politics since at least the late 1950s. It had come, he wrote, in several distinct waves: in reaction to the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik; to the Vietnam War; to the oil shock of 1973; to Soviet aggression in the late 1970s; and to the general unease that accompanied the end of the Cold War. Since Huntington wrote, we can add at least two more waves: in reaction to 9/11, and to the current "Great Recession."….

What the long history of American "declinism" — as opposed to America’s actual possible decline — suggests is that these anxieties have an existence of their own that is quite distinct from the actual geopolitical position of our country; that they arise as much from something deeply rooted in the collective psyche of our chattering classes as from sober political and economic analyses.

For whatever reason, it is clear that for more than half a century, many of America’s leading commentators have had a powerful impulse consistently to see the United States as a weak, "bred out" basket case that will fall to stronger rivals as inevitably as Rome fell to the barbarians, or France to Henry V at Agincourt.

On the foreign policy front, selective U.S. retrenchment doesn’t imply terminal decline so much as a temporary realignment to ensure that American power and interest are matched up going forward.

Question to readers: does retrenchment presage resurgence?