Terms of Engagement

Wallowing in Decline

Americans have gone from gloating over their global influence to bemoaning the loss of it. They were wrong then, and they're wrong now.

Wathiq Khuzaie/Getty Images
Wathiq Khuzaie/Getty Images

In Super Sad True Love Story, the novelist Gary Shteyngart imagines a not-very-remote future in which the United States, having giddily spent itself into bankruptcy, falls into the hands of Chinese bankers, who call in their T-bills, precipitating armed warfare and state collapse. The comic apocalypse conjured by Shteyngart, a wry connoisseur of baroque states of decline, induces in the reader a peculiar sense of queasiness: Is that not, in fact, what lies ahead? In a recent column titled “Too Many Hamburgers?” the New York Times‘ Thomas Friedman offered a particularly stomach-wrenching version of the Spenglerian nightmare, in which America is personified by an overweight and overconfident boy who loses a footrace to a fiercely competitive Chinese kid. Declinism has begun to settle into our bones.

Nothing is foretold, of course. But you wouldn’t want to bet the house, or even a sofa set, that the United States will overcome the rampant triviality of its culture, the self-righteousness of its national psyche, or the ideological paralysis of its politics in order to deal with the lack of critical investment, the decline of human capital, the looming tidal wave of entitlement spending, and the like. Another generation of this squandering of national assets, and Americans may find themselves clamoring for Shteyngart’s “yuan-pegged dollars.”

The United States remains unmatched in economic and military might. It leads because no other country — and certainly not China — aspires to the job, much less has the capacity for it. But the United States no longer enjoys the deference paid it only a decade or two ago. And the country has begun to run up against the limits of its resources as international commitments become increasingly mismatched with capacities. American hegemony has thus slipped both in relative and in absolute terms. Less than a decade ago, works like Walter Russell Mead’s Power, Terror, Peace, and War celebrated the triumph of “millennial capitalism” and thus of American supremacy; henceforth we will be wallowing in the literature of decline. We should, of course, be as skeptical of this new narrative as we ought to have been of the triumphalist canon that preceded it.

The scholar Michael Mandelbaum has been first out of the gate with The Frugal Superpower: America’s Global Leadership in a Cash-Strapped Age. Mandelbaum argues that the United States suffers not from “imperial overstretch” but from “entitlement overstretch” — too many promised hamburgers without the ability to pay for them. Leaders will have to impose a foreign-policy diet, cutting out the gratifications of the past couple of decades of reckless abundance. The humanitarian interventions of Somalia and the Balkans “will not be repeated.” The same is true of interventions designed to bring democracy to authoritarian states. Even peaceful intervention will come to be seen as an unaffordable luxury: “The enterprise of state-building … will disappear from the foreign-policy agenda of the United States.”

Mandelbaum holds the odd view that from World War II through the end of the Cold War, the United States deployed force to defend itself, and since then has done so in support of “worthy causes all over the planet,” whether stopping genocide or promoting democracy in the Middle East. But a cash-strapped leviathan must return to being a status quo power rather than a “philanthropic” one. Here at Foreign Policy, Stephen Walt argues, I think with more plausibility, that the United States has “chosen to do a few things that are very difficult” and has failed, while China has enjoyed the advantage of pursuing self-interest in the most narrow and straightforward fashion. Walt suggests that America stick to what it does best: “deterring large-scale aggression,” “brokering peace deals,” and “encouraging intelligent liberalization of the world economy.”

Post-hegemonic America really sounds like a downer, even if the country doesn’t get divvied up among sovereign wealth funds as Shteyngart imagines. Of course, American global deterrence prevented the Cold War from turning into World War III and still provides allies with crucial reassurance. But what the United States also does best is provide the kind of global public goods that status quo powers tend to shrug at: building multilateral institutions, championing liberal norms, and corralling states into collective action on global problems like nuclear nonproliferation. Are these, too, the unaffordable luxuries of our halcyon days?

I suspect that Mandelbaum and Walt are right about transformational undertakings like Iraq and Afghanistan, which have increasingly come to feel like acts of folly, or hubris. (In Shteyngart’s novel, the United States has embarked on a catastrophic invasion of Venezuela.) But does the same reasoning apply to the civilian effort — the state-building effort — in Pakistan, as Mandelbaum argues? What about, say, the upcoming effort in Southern Sudan: Should the people of that region vote for independence in the referendum next January? Should a superpower living within its straitened means confine itself to encouraging market reform? After all, classic deterrence, which keeps American soldiers quartered all over the globe, is vastly more expensive than state-building. The real question is whether a post-hegemonic United States should continue to try to do the difficult things that do not enjoy a great deal of support from an increasingly agitated and impatient public, but are nevertheless extremely important.

Well, what else is leadership for? President Barack Obama devoted almost half of his speech to the U.N. General Assembly this week to the promotion of democracy and human rights abroad — the very definition of the “philanthropic” policy that his predecessor so ruinously pursued and upon which the American people seem to have turned their back. China, of course, suffers from no such imperial distractions. But Obama’s appeal, unlike George W. Bush’s, focused on institutions the United States would support, rather than on American unilateral will and capacity. His administration, he said, would seek to foster civil society organizations around the world; would fund UNDEF, the United Nations’ democracy program; and would promote transparency in closed societies. Obama specifically asked the emerging-power democracies to make a comparable pledge. It was a policy that acknowledged the limits — though not the economic limits — of American power.

The way I would put the post-hegemonic dilemma is that the United States must leverage the international system to produce outcomes that promote its national security: whether in regard to regulating the global economy, stopping nuclear proliferation, propping up weak states, or promoting democracy and good governance abroad; but that system has become less tractable as America’s relative position has slipped. Washington cannot, for example, solve the problem of Iran on its own — and only through the most lavish effort can it keep other key states in line. Newcomers to the international order like Brazil and Turkey, and above all China, feel they have more to gain than to lose by adva
ncing their own interests when they conflict with Washington’s. Yet what choice does the United States have, save navigating this turbulent system and seeking to shape it so that it better serves American ends?

Even more important, would much of the world really welcome a chastened United States which sticks to its knitting, pursues self-interest narrowly defined, and stows away the language of universal values? For a little while, perhaps it would. After all, Washington has committed a multitude of sins in the name of those values. But the celebration would die away soon enough: If the sole superpower won’t take up the hard jobs, no one else will either.

James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.

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