It’s comforting to see President Obama resist talk of American decline. In the State of the Union, for example, he said: “Anyone who tells you otherwise, anyone who tells you that America is in decline or that our influence has waned, doesn’t know what they’re talking about.” Obama is even going so far as to tout a New Republic essay by Robert Kagan (like me a Romney adviser), based on his forthcoming book “The World America Made.”
Both are an extended–and convincing–argument against the thesis that there is anything inevitable about American decline. Kagan points out that there is nothing new about predictions that our best days are behind us–the same case could have been made, and was made, more convincingly in the 1970s. In fact by most measures of comparative power the U.S. is more powerful than ever today, with only one major rival on the horizon–China–which will have a hard time converting its growing economic power into geopolitical influence to match ours.
Aside from the logical power of the argument, there is another reason why Obama is embracing the anti-declinist case. As Foreign Policy’s website notes: “For the White House, the Kagan article, and the forthcoming book it’s based on, “The World America Made,” offer the perfect rebuttal to GOP accusations that Obama has willingly presided over a period of American decline or has been ‘leading from behind’ on foreign policy.” But of course, Kagan’s work contains no such rebuttal.
It simply says there is nothing inevitable about our decline–it does not say Obama’s policies are staving off that decline. Kagan’s essay (I haven’t seen the book yet) is entirely silent on the subject of the president’s policies. But even if Obama doesn’t believe the U.S. is fated to decline, one can easily argue that his policies–from racking up trillions of dollars in new federal debt to slashing the defense budget–are leading us in that direction.
I believe Charles Krauthammer is right when he writes “decline is a choice” but, as I have noted before, I dissent from his conclusion that Obama has made a conscious decision to minimize American power because he does not believe it is a force for good. This is utterly contrary to human nature–since Obama is the president of the United States, he has every incentive to maximize the power of his own government. But intentions are one thing; actions another. And even if Obama embraces the rhetoric of American greatness, you can make an excellent case, as Romney has, that his actions are undermining that very objective.