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American Decline: Another BRIC in the Wall

Thursday, Feb. 21, 2008

I didn't find much to disagree with in Dan Drezner's Newsweek corrective reminding folks that reports of America's demise have been greatly exagerrated. Drezner concurs that in relative terms, America is certainly in decline. Part of that is the short term effects of the Bush administration's various misadventures, and part of it due to the rapid rise of what Parag Khanna calls the Second World (and what others refer to as the BRIC's: Brazil, Russia, India and China).

Drezner makes some good points about the resilience of American markets, as well as the structural realities that make them the global choice for idle capital in search of a dumping ground. He also cited China's strengthening of its regulatory procedures for export goods in response to American lobbying as an example of American influence.

What I think he neglected, though, are the emerging structural constraints to the exercise of American power, both hard and soft. One of the lessons of Iraq is that weak and failed states (whether of organic causes or the result of regime change) are resistant to America's military capabilities. One of the lessons of Iran's nuclear program is that the BRIC's can use tactical maneuvers to frustrate American strategic aims. The error in both cases, I believe, was to underestimate the extent to which our size renders certain operations impractical. The result is that we've offered the world a playbook for how to limit our effectiveness.

So is America's decline a permanent condition? To the extent that it's unlikely that we'll regain our former degree of dominance, yes. But are we condemned to now fade away as a global hegemon? I don't think so. With some restraint and intelligence, we're almost certain to repair the damage of the Bush years. Most importantly, we need to learn how to let others do the job for us. By that I mean, supporting talented regional leaders to act as tactical leverage points. (The French role in the Iran nuclear standoff comes to mind.) That way we can accomplish our strategic goals while leaving a lighter footprint. The military muscle will still be there. But the big stick is more effective if you remember to walk softly.

So what do you think? Is America in permanent decline or getting ready for a comeback? Shoot me a line at judah worldpoliticsreview com (fill in the blanks), and let me know what you think. I'll post some of the responses tomorrow.