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January 27, 2012

Reacting to Robert Kagan on American Decline
Posted by David Shorr

Now that the White House and President Obama himself (thanks Josh Rogin) have given Bob Kagan a heaping helping of buzz for his New Republic piece, I want to offer a few thoughts. First off, the cheesy partisan debate over perceived decline has been bugging me for a long time, so kudos to Bob for helping spur a more substantive discussion. (Take a look at Dan Drezner and Stephen Walt to see what Bob was drawing on.)

As indicated by President Obama's warm endorsement, Kagan lays the ground for a bipartisan internationalist consensus. Responding to calls for the US to pull back from our role as a global power -- often couched in terms of being financially unaffordable -- he rightly asks about the costs of such a pullback itself. It's worth quoting at length:

If the decline of American military power produced an unraveling of the international economic order that American power has helped sustain; if trade routes and waterways ceased to be as secure, because the U.S. Navy was no longer able to defend them; if regional wars broke out among great powers because they were no longer constrained by the American superpower; if American allies were attacked because the United States appeared unable to come to their defense; if the generally free and open nature of the international system became less so—if all this came to pass, there would be measurable costs. And it is not too far-fetched to imagine that these costs would be far greater than the savings gained by cutting the defense and foreign aid budgets by $100 billion a year. You can save money by buying a used car without a warranty and without certain safety features, but what happens when you get into an accident?

American power indeed plays a constructive hegemonic function in undergirding the international economic and political order. We have the job and giving it up would be a dereliction and likely come to grief. I would stress one amendment, however. The more successfully we are at gaining international support and cooperation, the more we'll be able to buttress the international system and share the associated burdens. Indeed, that's the strategy behind President Obama's emphasis on shared international obligations and responsibilities. 

I'd like to focus on one other passage of the Kagan piece, and it's a point he, Drezner, and Walt all dwell on. Bob offers a response to the perception that "the United States can no longer shape the world to suit its interests and ideals as it once did." Confession time: I have harped on this exact challenge pretty regularly. Again, let me quote Bob at length: 

And of course it is true that the United States is not able to get what it wants much of the time. But then it never could. Much of today’s impressions about declining American influence are based on a nostalgic fallacy: that there was once a time when the United States could shape the whole world to suit its desires, and could get other nations to do what it wanted them to do, and, as the political scientist Stephen M. Walt put it, “manage the politics, economics and security arrangements for nearly the entire globe.”

He then proceeds to list the many aggravating episodes of the Cold War when other international players defied America's wishes. It's an impressive list, yet one of the examples didn't seem quite right. In 1956, France, Israel, and the UK invaded Egypt against President Eisenhower's wishes to seize control of the Suez Canal. And then were forced to withdraw. So can't we make the opposite interpretation that the crisis' outcome reinforced American influence? Was Eisenhower's influence eroded or enhanced by the episode?

I do understand Bob's warning not to consider these challenges to be 'new under the sun.' Even if we consider the problem of influencing other actors and steering events to be a hardy perennial, however, doesn't it still seem like the salient underlying challenge for foreign policy at the present moment? Can it be argued that the difficulty of exerting influence needs to be kept in mind, and is too often underestimated?

And this is where I have to play mood-killer to all this good bipartisan comity. Because I see a major gap between Kagan's sober reminder that world events don't yield so easily to America's control, and Republican talking point after talking point argument after argument that assume the opposite.

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