Issue #9, Summer 2008

Rise of the Declinists

With America mired in two wars and a recession, is the country being eclipsed on the world stage?

Another important step would be for the United States to become more, as Zakaria puts it, “Bismarckian” playing the role of a global honest broker that works to set the agenda, define the issues, create coalitions, and forge solutions building off the growing global consensus behind democracy and liberal free markets. But the United States should not seek cooperation for its own sake, or become captive to unrealistic expectations about multilateralism. Even the most capable global institutions have limits, especially those like the U.N. Security Council, which is increasing split between liberal democracies and autocratic powers such as China and Russia. That said, if the United States took global cooperation seriously again–by trying to make existing institutions even more effective and perhaps building new ones–it would go a long way to restoring American legitimacy.

This is not something that only liberals understand. Increasingly, internationalist conservatives have come to admit the importance of the United States leading by consent. That’s why some influential conservative thinkers like Robert Kagan and leaders like Senator John McCain have come to champion such ideas as an “alliance” or “league” of democracies in which the United States could work with other liberal democratic countries. This could be a formal institution, or an informal consultative process. In either case, democracies would come together to discuss common problems, from transitional issues like climate change and nuclear proliferation to collective security threats. Eventually, it could be a mechanism through which democratic nations could combine their political, economic, and military resources.

Although similar ideas have been championed by liberals for years, some on the left today fear that such an alliance would be a Trojan horse to further undermine the United Nations. On the contrary, it would provide a needed supplement to divided forums like the Security Council, and it would bring the United States even closer to those who share its values and goals. It could help bestow legitimacy on action that democracies believe necessary but autocratic nations oppose–intervention in Darfur, for example.

But to take proactive steps such as these, one must believe that America’s decline is not inevitable. It’s true that how this story turns out depends on whether Americans work to understand and adapt to the dramatic global changes that Khanna and Zakaria detail. But just as there is a certain cyclical quality to fears of declinism among policy thinkers and pundits, so exists the possibility of renewal. As Kennedy pointed out two decades ago, despite the rise of other nations and the threat of imminent decline, the United States still remains in a class of its own. The question is how we respond. “Because [the United States] has so much power,” Kennedy wrote, “because it is the linchpin of the western alliance system and the center of the existing global economy, what it does, or does not do, is so much more important than what any of the other powers decides to do.” The fact that so many nations are watching closely to see how America answers those questions shows how indispensable it remains.


More from Democracy: A Journal of Ideas

Conscience of a Constructor by Clay Risen

Read More »
Issue #9, Summer 2008
Post a Comment


Let Chollet pipe of Amerik-kkk-a in his childish way!!!

In reality, U. S. Imperialism's terminal crisis has been building for several decades; the bust, for after all, was perfectly predictable and inevitable, and is merely the flip side of the long speculative and credit boom. The empire can no longer afford its mounting overhead costs, and its increasingly numerous victims, both at home and abroad, will become far more restive and dangerous to the ruling class, especially as unemployment, underemployment, and poverty mount. Even the gullible Amerik-kkk-an sheople will begin to wonder why hundreds of billions of ever- more -worthless dollars are being squandered on perpetual imperialist wars, while the sheople lose their homes and get booted out into the cold- while Cheney, Bush, et. al. laugh all the way to the (insolvent) bank!!! Ha ha ha!!!! They might well ask the question: why can't the U. S. be like the U. K. and decline gracefully, and use the resources it could save by eschewing U. S. Imperialism to, say, finance and implement universal, single- payer health care?

Aug 5, 2008, 7:15 PM

Perhaps the hegemonic paradigm of world leader is passe. Even if this were not the case, could we return to the lost trajectory of Thoreau's days and become the introspective model for liberty and civil republicanism to which many of the world's nations and their people aspire? What is there to lose in this prospect of restoring our modest glory of an inwardly focused nation? Then, again, what are we still to lose by continuing to pursue this trajectory of carrying the proverbial big stick? This is not a Manichean contest between two fictive extremes but two conflicting legacies viz. Thoreau and the expansion introduced by President Polk (annexation of Texas and the Oregon Territory coupled with a war against Mexico). We have been following in the latter path. Is it too late to make an about face and pursue the former?

Sep 8, 2008, 7:03 PM

Post a Comment



Comments (you may use HTML tags for style)


Note: Several minutes will pass while the system is processing and posting your comment. Do not resubmit during this time or your comment will post multiple times.