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February 07, 2012

How to Respond to a Changing World: Stimulant or Anesthetic?
Posted by Jacob Stokes


Mitt Romney’s foreign policy platform rests on the notion that he will ensure another “American century,” and he has criticized Obama by saying the president “fundamentally believes that this next century is the post-American century.”

That formulation has drawn a sharp response over the last week. Fareed Zakaria argues in the Washington Post that Romney’s argument is based on a flawed reading of global politics:

This is a new world, very different from the America-centric one we got used to over the last generation. Obama has succeeded in preserving and even enhancing U.S. influence in this world precisely because he has recognized these new forces at work. He has traveled to the emerging nations and spoken admiringly of their rise. He replaced the old Western club and made the Group of 20 the central decision-making forum for global economic affairs. By emphasizing multilateral organizations, alliance structures and international legitimacy, he got results. It was Chinese and Russian cooperation that produced tougher sanctions against Iran. It was the Arab League’s formal request last year that made Western intervention in Libya uncontroversial.

Later, Zakaria blasts Romney’s criticisms of Obama’s foreign policy, saying Romney’s response ignores global realities:

By and large, you [Romney] have ridiculed this approach to foreign policy, arguing that you would instead expand the military, act unilaterally and talk unapologetically. That might appeal to Republican primary voters, but chest-thumping triumphalism won’t help you secure America’s interests or ideals in a world populated by powerful new players. You can call this new century whatever you like, but it won’t change reality. After all, just because we call it the World Series doesn’t make it one.

In Foreign Policy, Charles Kupchan expands on this second point, noting that accepting the recent and ongoing expansion and de-centralization of world power simply means accepting facts. Such a shift doesn’t equate to American “decline.” Instead, recognizing these shifts will allow the U.S. to identify the real challenges facing us in world affairs and then craft appropriate responses for husbanding American power:

To acknowledge the need for the United States to adjust to prospective shifts in the global distribution of power is not, as Duke University professor Bruce Jentleson recently pointed out in Democracy, to be a declinist or a pessimist. It is to be a realist. And safely guiding the United States through this coming transition requires seeing the world as it is rather than retreating toward the illusory comfort of denial…

Shepherding the transition to this more pluralistic world is arguably the defining challenge facing U.S. statecraft in the years ahead. Romney appears ready to pave over this challenge by denying that such change is afoot and attempting to portray Obama's policies as "an eloquently justified surrender of world leadership.”

To be sure, there’s an argument to be made that, as Tony Karon of TIME tweets, “nationalist political culture requires sustaining illusions.” In other words, Romney is in the middle of a fierce nomination fight and will likely carry the banner for the GOP in a heated general election. Drawing on themes of nationalism will almost surely help him prevail in those contests. Fair enough. Obama did much the same thing in his State of the Union speech and subsequent highly public embrace of Robert Kagan’s piece rejecting “decline.” (A tactic for which Rosa Brooks took the president to task.)

But the rhetoric has to meet reality somewhere, and that's where there’s a difference between progressive and conservative approaches to “greatness” and “decline” set of questions. As Bruce Jentleson wrote in that Democracy piece, progressives use the changing global landscape as a call to increase our ability to compete with the rest of world, confident that we can still be a—if not the—global leader across the spectrum of power (diplomatic, economic, military, soft power). As Jentleson writes, “It’s not that progressives don’t believe in American greatness; it’s that we invoke the past as stimulant not anesthetic. America can and should play a leading role in the twenty-first-century world. But to do so we need a foreign policy geared to how the world is, not how it used to be.”

In contrast, it seems Romney prefers the approach of ignoring reality. Hopefully he'll wake up. The world won’t wait.

Video: "Halftime in America" superbowl ad


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