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.
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