Having just spent several days in Israel and Palestine
for the launch of Molad
, a new Israeli think tank, I had hoped to devote this column to some of the takeaways of my trip. However, I was reminded this week that the first thing a stay in Israel and Palestine teaches, or ought to teach, is that a 1,000-word column is not the easiest format for nuanced exploration of whatever one has learned. So instead of a trip report, I’m going to turn a regional lens on another source of full employment for foreign policy pundits these days: the twin tropes of American decline and American essentialism. Or, as expressed by liberals and conservatives, Palestinians and Israelis, secular and religious observers alike, “America can no longer do as much as it did before,” and “America needs to do more.”
Like so much else, this isn’t unique to the Middle East. You hear it from Europeans about Vladimir Putin and from Asians about China. What’s fascinating is how seldom the “more” they call for refers to something that a weak, declining power would be likely—or able—to do. No, the “more” that must be done is usually something that would reinforce or assert an American role more reminiscent of the Cold War superpower, or even the post-Cold War sole superpower—that is, the America that the same people calling for “more” usually assert we no longer are: more security guarantees for the Gulf states; more pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu; more involvement in Iraq. To say nothing about reining in Putin, getting Georgia into NATO and selling more—and better—weapons to Taiwan.
In fact, decline is such a convenient reason for explaining why the United States is not behaving as the speaker wants it to that, if it didn’t exist, it would have to be invented. In fact, however, that’s exactly what happened: American decline was invented,
and it is now widely available to explain whatever Washington is not doing at any given moment.
Tom Wright and Ely Ratner have written a strong rebuttal
of the case for absolute decline. They argue that America’s demography and energy resources, and the relative strength of U.S. institutions at home, combined with the favorability of international norms to the U.S. and new weakness in the powers formerly known as “rising,” actually make Washington a power to bet on in the decades ahead.
Whether or not one is ready to embrace the “rising power” paradigm, it’s time to look again at what our allies and partners mean when they say “decline.” Is the phenomenon they’re pointing to absolute decline, relative decline or decline in the convergence of their interests and America’s interests?
In some important ways, the power of other global actors, state and nonstate, has risen dramatically. This amounts to a relative decline in American power. Sophisticated weapons, information, financing and the ability to organize and communicate globally are more available to everyone, from African farmers and Eurasian statelets to terrorist groups and human rights campaigners.
That last sentence, rather than a one-size-fits-all explanation, offers a challenge not just to the U.S. but also to the ally or partner accusing the U.S. of decline: Power is diffused, and we exist in a state of competition. This leveling ought to have given many of America’s partners a greater power—and a greater sense of their own power—to make their way in the world. Instead, those partners who tend to complain most vociferously about U.S. decline are, perhaps, projecting their anxieties in the face of their own relative decline as well.
It’s also worth considering absolute decline as measured not against the reality of what American power could and couldn’t accomplish in the Cold War but against the perception of what American power could accomplish in the 25 years since the Cold War. If the standard of Washington’s influence is the reunification of Germany, the establishment of NAFTA and the WTO, and two rapid victories against the Iraqi army, then the subsequent record does look like decline.
But consider what Washington was never able to do over the same period: get rid of Fidel Castro, defeat the Sandinistas and Hezbollah, or catch Joseph Kony
and Ayman al-Zawahiri. The U.S. was unable to resolve the conflicts between Israel and Palestine, or those over Taiwan and Cyprus. Nor could it set African, Haitian or Pakistani economic and social development on sustainable courses. When framed that way, the current mix of nagging problems, crises, half-successes and setbacks looks almost familiar.
Finally, what if the problem is less a decline in absolute or relative power than a shift in the calculus of interests used to determine where and how to employ power? Ultimately, the Iraq and Afghanistan occupations have not amplified U.S. power; instead of being a sign of decline, resisting calls for the further use of U.S. force could represent a strengthening and husbanding of power. So reason realists on both sides of the political divide, as well as the decision-makers in the Obama administration and, by all accounts, a majority of the American public when it comes to committing U.S. military forces to Syria, Mali, Central Africa or, for that matter, Ukraine and other Russian neighbors.
At the same time, this is where America’s partners have powers they are not using, or not using successfully. American public opinion on the use of force swings predictably over time, and elite opinion is quite vulnerable to savvy arguments that tap into American moral tropes or strategic interests, or that present as the face of an intervention plucky underdogs, such as the Bosnians and Kosovars, or compelling figures such as—hard as it is to remember now—Ahmed Chalabi and Hamid Karzai.
American engagement has always been most enlightened when America’s self-interest is clear. The contours of American interests—where energy comes from, where trade goes, where reliable partners and unrelenting foes can be found—have changed. Thus, American self-interest in the Middle East and elsewhere has changed.
Whether that translates to decline will be the result of a parallel set of conversations about whether and how American society and our governing institutions can grasp and reorganize ourselves to meet our new self-interest—whether that’s educating our people, renewing infrastructure, modernizing institutions of governance or updating our own political constructs of what effectively promotes U.S. interests and values abroad. If you want to know whether the U.S. is in decline, watch Middle America. If you want to know whether the rules-based international order is in decline, watch the Middle East.
Heather Hurlburt is a senior fellow at Human Rights First in Washington. With experience in the White House, Congress, the State Department and overseas, she focuses on the space between diplomacy and domestic politics. Her WPR column, Full-Spectrum Diplomacy, will appear every Monday while Richard Gowan is on leave of absence.