A Retreat From Power?
In an article that appeared in these pages seven years ago, Owen Harries, the editor of the quarterly National Interest, predicted that if the United States were to decline over the coming decades, it would not be as a result of overtaxed capabilities, or what was then being called “imperial overstretch.” It would be because “the American people and their leaders [had] decided that they want other things more than they want to remain the leading power in the world.”1
Seven years and one collapsed Soviet empire later, Harries’s warning has proved both prophetic and ironic. America does appear, finally, to be in the early stages of its oft-predicted decline as the world’s preeminent power, and the cause is neither ineluctable historical currents nor overstretch. A combination of post-cold-war disorientation, a constellation of competing political forces at home, and the surprising triumph of the very “declinist” thinking Harries was then attacking has led American political leaders to accept the inevitability of a more limited American role in the world. But what Harries could not have foreseen was the part conservatives and Republicans would play in justifying and carrying out this “impulse to retreat” (as he dubbed it in 1988).
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