The Decline of American Declinism

Walter Russell Mead has some typically thoughtful things to say on the persistence of American power and influence. But if Mead is right that this week’s Nuclear Security Summit is an illustration of the ways in which America still sets the global agenda, it seems that he might not have paid as close attention to the BRIC and IBSA summits that followed it. In addition to both summits articulating alternatives to the Obama administration’s Iran policy, the BRIC summit also produced a joint declaration setting a 2010 deadline for reforming the IMF and World Bank to better reflect the shifting geopolitical balance of power. So although the U.S. is not quite freefalling, “the rest” still rises.

Meanwhile, Greg Scoblete argues that Mead fails to consider the impact of Iraq and Afghanistan on the long-term accounting of American power. He’s right, but I’m not sure I agree with Scoblete’s application of the wars to that calculus. In particular, I don’t think it’s possible that we’ll see a Surge II in Iraq, just as I don’t think it’s possible that the Afghan surge will be extended significantly.

Certainly, both wars have been costly to America’s power. But if, as Mead correctly maintains, the “great American decline scare” of 2006 failed to materialize, it’s precisely because of President George W. Bush’s decision to double down in Iraq in 2007 — a decision bookended by President Barack Obama’s decision to double down in Afghanistan in 2010. Both decisions effectively transfered long-term ownership of failure back to Iraq and Afghanistan, thereby limiting our own political losses, and setting the stage for the Bush “third term” followed by the Obama reset.* The picture Mead draws today would not be quite as rosy otherwise.

Scoblete is right in that the long-term costs of the war for the U.S. have yet to play out. But neither is the future assured for China, Russia, India, and the rest. For now, the U.S. has managed to correct course, but it has not come at the expense of any other power. So the relative shift of power continues.

*Note: This post was revised for clarity.