The debate over whether or not the United States is in decline is more than just a parlor game among pundits and academics, as the answer to that question informs starkly different policy choices for the country. For significant portions of the anti-interventionist left and right -- the latter represented by the small but vocal constituency of GOP presidential candidate Rep. Ron Paul -- a United States that is in decline ought to cut back on its engagements abroad and avoid playing the role of the world’s policeman, and instead focus on rebuilding America’s domestic institutions, particularly its economy. While President Barack Obama faces no challenger for the Democratic nomination, this “fix America first” sentiment is strong among key segments of his own core voter base as well. On both left and right, the need to turn inward is often coupled with concerns over the rise of China and the belief that Beijing’s power is growing while America’s is being frittered away in a series of ill-advised interventions.
The pro-intervention groups, especially the foreign policy “establishments” in both political parties, tend to discount the talk of decline. America’s ills have been exaggerated, they argue, and the capabilities of other rising powers overrated. Besides, who else will sustain the current liberal international order if not for Washington? It is not surprising that Obama is said to be reading Robert Kagan’s latest offering, “The World America Made,” which is a full-throated defense of these very arguments.
The problem is that both sides are talking past each other, often cherry-picking facts to buttress their own arguments. In an interesting case of mirror-imaging, both declinists and anti-declinists often take the most negative or the most positive scenario regarding U.S. economic growth and vitality and juxtapose it against the opposite one for China. The reality, as Ian Bremmer chronicles in his forthcoming work, “Every Nation for Itself,” is that there are no guaranteed "winners" or "losers" in the near future. The United States is not fated to fall, nor China to rise; both nations have major challenges before them that will test the flexibility and responsiveness of their political systems to provide solutions.