Sorry Charlie Kupchan, America’s still not in decline

Sorry Charlie Kupchan, America’s still not in decline

Charlie Kupchan is both a first-rate scholar and a generally insightful commentator on foreign policy. This makes his FP article yesterday ("Sorry Mitt, It Won’t Be an American Century") all the more puzzling and, frankly, disappointing. Navigating the article’s internal contradictions can be a head-snapping experience. Kupchan begins with a snide dismissal of Mitt Romney’s calls for renewed American global leadership as "hackneyed rhetoric," since in Kupchan’s telling the U.S. is an exhausted, overstretched nation that needs to curtail its commitments abroad and "focus on the home front." Having described a diminished America, Kupchan then pivots and applauds President Obama’s chest-thumping defiance that those who think America is in decline "don’t know what they’re talking about." But to back up his praise for Obama, Kupchan describes a world in which America’s economy will soon be eclipsed by China, American capacity to project power is diminishing, America is overextended in the Middle East and Europe, and the American ability to influence global events is being overtaken by other rising powers. If that doesn’t amount to American decline, I would hate to see what does.

What is going on here?  I wrote last week about the confusions that seem to beset the "American decline" debate and the Obama administration’s opportunistic political tactics of rhetorically rejecting American decline while implementing policies that assume (and advance) said decline. It is true that the global distribution of power is shifting towards the likes of China, India, Brazil, and other emerging powers. But — and here is the key point — these power shifts are not (yet) coming at the expense of the United States but rather primarily come at the expense of the European Union and Japan. For example, American share of global GDP for the last four decades has stayed relatively constant at 25-28 percent of global GDP, whereas the core EU and Japan’s shares of global GDP have both declined by over 25 percent from their peaks. Defense budgets tell a similar story. The American share of global military spending has stayed roughly constant over the past decade, while the defense budgets of the United Kingdom, France, and Japan have declined substantially relative to China. So yes, the U.S. needs to adjust to shifts in the global balance of power — but Mitt Romney is correct that these shifts do not need to come at the expense of American primacy.

This might well be the crux of the difference between the Obama administration and its Republican critics on the decline debate. Both sides agree that global power dynamics are shifting. But President Obama, at least in Kupchan’s analysis, sees the shifts as cause to dial back American leadership, whereas Romney and many other Republicans see the shifts as an opportunity for renewed American leadership in helping shape the emerging order.

Yet as Bob Kagan and others have pointed out, while the U.S. is not yet in decline, there is a worrisome possibility that some of the Obama administration’s policies are putting the U.S. on a path to decline. Kupchan actually applauds a series of Obama policies — such as slashing future defense budgets, pulling back from Iraq and Afghanistan with outcomes still uncertain, and conceding that authoritarian capitalism is the model of the future — that in fact risk diminishing America’s standing in the world and cede global leadership to other emerging powers. To that list should be added Obama’s exorbitant expansion of the national debt to the tipping point of parity with our national GDP, and a persistent unwillingness to reform the real drivers of our indebtedness: domestic welfare-state entitlement programs. (As just about everyone who follows this issue has pointed out, Obama’s blithe disregard for his own Simpson-Bowles debt commission shows just how little entitlement reform seems to matter to this White House). This makes the Obama campaign’s talking point, echoed by Kupchan, that it will focus on "nation-building here at home" sound like, well, hackneyed rhetoric.