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Pushing Back on American “Decline”

President Obama’s critics often accuse him of not endorsing America’s leadership role in the world, and it’s not hard to see how they come to that conclusion. Not only has the president made some telling comments on the subject, but his actions have also indicated that he’s not entirely comfortable with outward displays of American power.

This couldn’t have been clearer than in Ryan Lizza’s New Yorker piece, when Obama’s aide said that he sees himself as leading the world “from behind.” The reason for this, some non-interventionists argue, is that the playing field has shifted so that America can no longer take the prominent global leadership role it once did. Therefore, the U.S. should get accustomed to its new position in the world and change its actions accordingly.

This notion of American decline will play a prominent role in the 2012 election, Robert Kagan said today at a discussion at the Center for American Progress. “[T]his is the terrain that to some extent the 2012 election will be fought on,” he said. “The candidate who does the better job of saying we can come back, we can make it, we can win the future is going to have a better chance of getting elected.”

Obama has been making the case for “winning the future,” at least in terms of domestic policies. But in terms of foreign policy, he’s been willing to relinquish a dominant position. Because of the country’s deficit problem, some Republicans have been hesitant to push back on this issue. This is misguided—getting through our debt crisis is a priority, but it shouldn’t shape our foreign policy philosophy.

During the election, the GOP will need to address the future of America’s role in the world. It is an issue unrelated to our economic policy. And they need to get across to the public that a future of declining American power is not one that we’ll be “winning.”


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