Whether or not the U.S. is declining is the wrong question

As co-chair of the editorial board of the journal International Security, I couldn't be more delighted by the attention that Michael Beckley's article questioning China's rise (and America's supposed decline) is getting. See here, here, and here. But I fear that people who are seizing on Beckley's article to pooh-pooh fears of U.S. decline -- including our own Daniel Drezner -- are mostly asking the wrong question.

As I've noted elsewhere, the issue isn't whether the United States is about to fall the from the ranks of the great powers, or even be equaled (let alone surpassed) by a rising China. The world may be evolving toward a more multipolar structure, for example, but the United States is going to be one of those poles, and almost certainly the strongest of them, for many years to come.

Instead, the real issue is whether developments at home and overseas are making it harder for the United States to exercise the kind of dominant influence that it did for much of the latter half of the 20th century. The United States had a larger share of global GDP in the 1940s and 1950s, and it wasn't running enormous budget deficits. The United States was seen as a reliable defender of human rights, and its support for decolonization after World War II had won it many friends in the developing world. It also had good relations with a variety of monarchies and dictatorships, which it justified as part of the struggle against communism. These features allowed the United States to create and lead combined economic, security and political orders in virtually every corner of the world, except for the portions directly controlled by our communist rivals. And the U.S. and its allies eventually won that struggle too, driving the USSR into exhaustion and watching the triumph of market economies and more participatory forms of government throughout the former communist world.

The United States remains very powerful -- especially when compared with some putative opponents like Iran -- but its capacity to lead security and economic orders in every corner of the world has been diminished by failures in Iraq (and eventually, Afghanistan), by the burden of debt accumulated over the past decade, by the economic melt-down in 2007-2008, and by the emergence of somewhat stronger and independent actors in Brazil, Turkey, India, and elsewhere. One might also point to eroding national infrastructure and an educational system that impresses hardly anyone. Moreover, five decades of misguided policies have badly tarnished America's image in many parts of the world, and especially in the Middle East and Central Asia. The erosion of authoritarian rule in the Arab world will force new governments to pay more attention to popular sentiment -- which is generally hostile to the broad thrust of U.S. policy in the region -- and the United States will be less able to rely on close relations with tame monarchs or military dictators henceforth. If it the United States remains far and away the world's strongest state, its ability to get its way in world affairs is declining.

All this may seem like a hair-splitting, but there's an important issue at stake. Posing the question in the usual way ("Is the U.S. Still #1?", "Who's bigger?", "Is China Catching Up?" etc.,) focuses attention primarily on bilateral comparisons and distracts us from thinking about the broader environment in which both the United States and China will have to operate. The danger, of course, is that repeated assurances that America is still on top will encourage foreign policy mandarins to believe that they can continue to make the same blunders they have in the recent past, and discourage them from making the strategic choices that will preserve U.S. primacy, enhance U.S. influence, and incidentally, produce a healthier society here at home.

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Stephen M. Walt

Yes, you can be a neoconservative, and still be wrong

One of the nice things about writing for Foreign Policy is the energy and creativity of its leadership, as exemplified by their relentless quest for new publishing innovations. Just yesterday, for example, FP launched a new fiction section, clearly intended to highlight writing on international affairs that doesn't have much basis in reality.

I refer, of course, to Elliott Abrams' brief essay entitled "A Forward Strategy of Freedom," where he argues that neoconservative ideas and policies are responsible for the "Arab Spring." It's been apparent for a long time that being a neoconservative means never having to say you're sorry (or even admit that you're wrong), but this essay displayed a degree of historical amnesia unusual even by neoconservative standards. It's not really worth a sustained critique, so I'll just make a few quick points.

First, there's no evidence that the Bush administration's "forward strategy for freedom" had anything to do with the Tunisian's fruit seller Mohammed Bouazizi's tragic decision to set himself afire, an act of protest that started the wave of upheavals that has convulsed much of the Arab world ever since. Or is Abrams' suggesting that Bush's 2nd inaugural inspired Bouazizi? More tellingly, neither the liberal forces that drove much of the uprisings against the Mubarak regime nor the Islamic forces that have profited most from Mubarak's departure give credit to Bush & co. for inspiring their efforts. And it's not hard to see why: both the Muslim Brotherhood and the more fundamentalist Egyptian Salafis have been anathema for the neocons from the get-go.

Second, the entire neoconservative strategy for spreading democracy depended heavily on U.S. military power, and it focused almost entirely on countries like Iraq, Syria, and Iran.  The Bush administration in which Abrams served continued to coddle Mubarak, the Saudis, and America's other authoritarian allies, for the same reasons that previous administrations did. The Arab spring emerged elsewhere, however, and had little to do with the deployment of American military power. Obama's Cairo speech is a far more plausible candidate in this regard (though I'd have my doubts about its impact too), but strangely, Abrams doesn't mention it.

Meanwhile, in the one place where the neocon strategy was fully implemented -- Iraq -- it was a colossal failure. The United States spent trillions of dollars and thousands of its soldiers' lives, and the end result is a deeply divided society and a dysfunctional political system that is drifting steadily back towards authoritarian rule and is at least partly aligned with Iran. So what were the neocons right about?

Third, the neoconservative hypocrisy about democracy was exposed in 2006, when the United States refused to accept Hamas' victory in the Palestinian legislative elections. You don't have to like Hamas or its charter to concede that they won the election fair and square, but that didn't stop the Bush administration from ignoring the outcome completely. In fact, Abrams subsequently tried to foment a Fatah coup against Hamas in Gaza, only to have his putative allies routed and discredited. Another neocon blunder, in short. And isn't it a bit odd that this deeply committed apostle of democracy has no problem with Israel continuing to violate the human rights of the millions of Palestinians it controls via its illegal occupation of the West Bank and its continued restrictions on movement in Gaza? Why isn't he pressing Israel to either give these people the right to vote, or to let them have a viable state of their own so that they can vote there? Some neoconservatives (e.g., Paul Wolfowitz) have been sympathetic to such aspirations, but as far as I know Abrams is not one of them.

Finally, let's not lose sight of all the other things that neoconservatives got wrong. They were wrong about Saddam's WMD. They were wrong about his alleged links to Al Qaeda. They were wrong that the occupation of Iraq would pay for itself. They were wrong that it would be easy to create democracy there once Saddam was gone. And given America's toxic image in much of the Arab world, they were wrong to believe that fostering democracy in the Arab world would create legitimate and pro-American regimes.

Weighed in the balance, therefore, the neocons got far more wrong than right, and it would be refreshing if they'd just man up and admit it.

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