Shadow Government

The ‘Obamians’ and the truth about American decline

American decline is in the news again. Now even the embarrassed Australians have joined the debate, with an awkward "clarification" of Foreign Minister Bob Carr’s reported comments to Mitt Romney about how to reverse America’s decline. Meanwhile yesterday President Obama’s remarks to the Veterans of Foreign Wars conference continued what appears to be an election-year ...


American decline is in the news again. Now even the embarrassed Australians have joined the debate, with an awkward "clarification" of Foreign Minister Bob Carr’s reported comments to Mitt Romney about how to reverse America’s decline. Meanwhile yesterday President Obama’s remarks to the Veterans of Foreign Wars conference continued what appears to be an election-year conversion to the anti-declinist view (more on this below) as he rejected accusations of decline and called the 21st century another "American century." Governor Romney will likely present his own take in his VFW remarks today.

All of this came to mind as I recently read Jim Mann’s engaging new book The Obamians profiling the Obama administration foreign policy team. Like Mann’s other books, this one is generally thoughtful, balanced, and insightful. Yet what emerges from Mann’s book is an unflattering (perhaps more unflattering than the author intends) reminder of just how many strategic mistakes the Obama administration made when it first took office. Taken at face value the book portrays the combination of hubris and naiveté that consumed the Obama team during their first year in particular. Most of their signature policy initiatives from that time became strategic failures: the embrace of China around a "G-2" partnership; the support for Medvedev as a pillar of the Russia "re-set"; the ideological commitment to unconditional negotiations with the Iranian regime that prevented support for the Green Movement or tightened sanctions during a more opportune window; the failed push for Israeli-Palestinian peace based on unprecedented pressure on Israel; the belief that the war in Afghanistan could be simultaneously escalated (with a troop increase) and ended (with a politically-driven drawdown date).

Beyond these specific mistakes, what also springs from the book is the overriding sense of how President Obama and his team internalized a belief in America’s decline as they sought to frame American foreign policy. This animated their worldview and became a self-fulfilling prophecy, as they consciously chose to cede American leadership to other actors on the world stage and downplayed American influence and capabilities. It is one thing to understand and act on shifts in global power balances, such as the relative decline in the EU and the relative ascendance of China and India. But it is another thing altogether to deliberately position the United States as a declining power.

In Mann’s description, part of the Obama team’s belief in America’s diminished power came from what they saw as fiscal resource constraints. He cites Obama administration officials lamenting that, unlike the supposedly ample budgets of the Clinton years, the U.S. now has very little money to devote to national security concerns, and thus can exercise less global influence than during the 1990s. That today’s national security budgets face considerable pressures is true, but Mann’s account and the Obamians’ attitudes gloss over two important points. First, in comparison with the allegedly halcyon days of abundant resources during the Clinton administration, the Obama national security team actually has substantially more money — roughly twice as much — at its disposal. For example, the FY 2000 defense budget (during Clinton’s last year) was $295 billion, whereas the FY 2011 budget is almost twice that at $549 billion — which rises to over $700 billion when the Iraq and Afghanistan accounts are included. The percentage increase in the diplomacy and development budgets, known as the "Function 150 account", over the same time span is similar. The combined budget for the State Department and USAID in FY 2000 was around $23 billion, whereas the comparable FY 2011 budget was over $48 billion (the FY 2010 budget was even higher). The international affairs budget actually hit a 30-year low in 1997, in the midst of the Clinton presidency. In short, it is easy to view history through greenback-colored lenses and assume that previous eras had abundant resources — and forgot that the 1990s were characterized by severe reductions to both the defense and international affairs budgets from the post-Cold War "peace dividend."

Second, Mann fails to probe a primary reason why the Obama national security team feels the fiscal pinch. National security is not a budget priority of this White House, especially in comparison with domestic entitlement programs. The only line in the federal budget that the Obama administration has targeted for specific reductions is Defense, while leaving relatively untouched the main drivers of the fiscal crisis and the largest portions of the federal budget: domestic entitlement programs. What the Mann book elides is that these budget realities reflect deliberate policy choices and priorities of the White House.

Recently this White House seems to have realized that they may have prematurely bought into the decline notion — at the very least, they have realized that it is not helpful to Obama’s reelection prospects for voters to believe the administration embraces decline — and they responded with a time-honored Beltway gambit, touting an author making the opposite argument on the president’s reading list. However, this election-year conversion follows three years of damage to America’s global standing, and the bills for this erosion will come due in the coming years. (Curiously, Mann portrays Secretary Clinton as differing from Obama in still affirming American preeminence).

Finally, if the United States does face the real prospect of decline, should American leaders be resigned to this fate — or should they resolve to resist it? The picture that emerges from the Mann book is of an Obama administration that chose the former path. American power and influence is diminishing, they seem to believe, and one task of statecraft is to manage this new reality.

Perhaps so. But I recently came across a quote from an American statesman from a previous generation that displays a fierce resolve against succumbing to decline. Bill Clements served as Deputy Secretary of Defense during the Nixon and Ford Administrations from 1973-77, and he famously admonished his staff: "Let us never send the president of the United States to the conference table as the head of the second-strongest nation in the world."

This resolve is all the more remarkable when considering the historical context. During the years of Clements’ Pentagon service the United States faced the most sustained erosion of its global standing since becoming a world power. It had just lost its first war in Vietnam; seen its first president ever to resign from office; was enduring the triple economic whammy of oil price shocks from the OPEC embargo, inflation, and stagnant growth; and was witnessing its foe the Soviet Union make strategic advances around the world. American decline was not just a fear, it was a fact. Yet Clements did not resign himself to merely managing this decline, but urged his staff and colleagues to work to renew American power.

This should be remembered today. Some data points of decline may be unavoidable, but how we respond is a choice.

(For those interested in further commentary on the decline debate, check out the National Intelligence Council’s blog on its upcoming Global Trends 2030 report, which this week considers various angles on the question of American decline).

Will Inboden is the executive director of the William P. Clements, Jr. Center for History, Strategy, and Statecraft at the University of Texas-Austin. He also serves as an associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and as a distinguished scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law.

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