Friday, February 02, 2007

Iraq and American Decline? Resting the Myth

I've noticed considerable pessimism regarding the future of American global power in both the current media and recent scholarship. In fact, there's something of a resurgence in popularity of the decline thesis put forth most prominently by Paul Kennedy in his book, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000.

Victor Davis Hanson noticed the same trend in one of his recent syndicated commentaries, yet he responds with a vigorous rejoinder, clarifying some of the issues surrounding the future of U.S. power after Iraq:

Writing of the decline of the West — and the United States in particular — has been a parlor game from the time of doomsayers Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee to Paul Kennedy’s pessimism of the 1980s. Now the most recent serial epitaphs center on the Anglo-American experience in Iraq that will soon end, it is foretold, in defeat and a global loss of American prestige to the detriment of the West at large.
Hanson goes on about recent claims of American impotence in the Middle East, the rise of Chinese world financial leadership, the emerging nuclear dangers from North Korea and Iran, and the overstretch of the U.S. military around the world:

Yet most of this entire bleak scenario is media-driven and bears little semblance to reality....

The American economy is in transformation but booming, still three times larger than its closest competitor in Japan. Last month federal income revenues reached an all-time high, as interest rates, unemployment, and inflation are at historic lows. Globalization continues unabated — a synonym for Westernization and Americanization in particular. China will soon have a rough rendezvous with environmentalism, unionism, suburban malaise, and most of the other dislocations that the West has long ago weathered from the onset of industrialization in the nineteenth century.

What is changing, however, is not the influence and power of the United States, but perceptions of such prompted by America’s own unhappiness over the inability to establish a democracy quickly in the heart of the ancient caliphate after the three-week victory over Saddam Hussein. Our technological prowess and spiraling wealth have left the Western public with expectations of instantaneous results. In war — after Panama, Bosnia, and Kosovo — that means victory without losses; in peace, the absurd notion that if we aren’t perfect in our execution, we are not good in our intent.

Europe — with its vaunted constitution in peril, stagnant economic growth, unassimilated minorities, demographic stasis and puny militaries — treads carefully. The notion that Americans may think they are in trouble cheers many. But privately they rightly fear even more that the United States might just do what continental intellectuals dream of — withdraw from the world stage. That would mean pacifist Europeans would have to rely on their utopian principles to reason with an energy-rich Russia, a nuclear Iran, and radical Islamist or autocratic regimes cross the Mediterranean and in the nearby Middle East.

So there is real danger from the fallout from Iraq. But it is not that the United States must pack up, in an admission of its new limitations. Rather the daily mayhem and its attendant criticism have tired Americans to the point that the notion of pulling in our horns and letting the world be seems attractive and guilt-free as never before.

In recent posts I've made similar points regarding the enduring nature of U.S. global leadership. I was particularly perplexed, for example, at Charles Krauthammer's recent argument on the weakening of U.S. international power, especially since Krauthammer was one of the most forceful proponents of U.S. hegemony and regime change in Iraq. In another entry, I responded to Christopher Layne's theoretically-grounded argument on the coming end to American unipolarity. Plus, in a post this week I commented on a review of Chalmers Johnson's new book, Nemesis: The Last Days of American Empire.

There'll be more iterations from the current declinist school in the future, and I'll keep responding with the case for
continued American global leadership.

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