How do Kagan, Obama and Romney know that America is not in decline?

At the State of the Union Address on 26 January, President Barack Obama assured that the United States is still the most influential nation on Earth:

Anyone who tells you otherwise, anyone who tells you that America is in decline or that our influence has waned, doesn’t know what they’re talking about

America remains the one indispensable nation in world affairs – and as long as I’m President, I intend to keep it that way.

His words on America’s place in world affairs drew cheerful applause among enthusiastic legislators of both sides and both chambers of Congress.

 According to an article published in Foreign Policy, while drafting his speech President Obama was influenced by an article of the well-known conservative intellectual Robert Kagan published in The New Republic: “Not Fade Away: Against the Myth of American Decline”. Mitt Romney, the leading runner in the Republican race, who counts on Kagan as a political advisor on national security, has also insisted several times that this is not a “post-American century”.

But, how do Mr. Kagan, Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney know that America is not in the early stage of a historic decline? Kagan’s argument is based on two main points. Since we discussed not so long ago the possible implications of the fall of Western hegemony for the idea of human rights, we should now look with a critical eye to what makes Kagan, Obama and Romney be so dubious about our premise, namely, that the world as we know it is falling apart.

Kagan’s first point is that this is not the first time that somebody claims the US to be in an existential crisis. In fact, we heard the same mantra over and over again in the 20th century, particularly when the country suffered deep and prolonged economic crises in the 1890s, 1930s and 1970s. Others tried to intimidate American superiority in the past (the Soviet Union in the 1960s and 70s and Japan in the 1980s and early 90s), but nowadays they are not longer a threat. Kagan says that we must be particularly sceptical towards the increasingly noisy pessimistic accounts, considering that only a decade ago many said that there was a “great disparity” of power between the US and the rest of the world.

Kagan’s brief historical review must be considered carefully, but it is not exempt of criticism. If the current world is defined by one feature, this is the speed by which things change. Gigantic financial enterprises disappear overnight, countries owe twice as much as they own, transnational companies go from zero to nearly a billion ‘friends’ in a decade. We can compare the present time with the early 20th century, but globalisation did not exist back then. Something else was missing in last century: a group of large and emerging economies: the BRICS, which brings us to the second of Kagan’s points.

The American economy is not living its best moment, while emerging countries (led by the so-called BRICS: Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) are doing quite well, with high rates of continuous growth and increasing role in financial markets. However, Kagan warns, the US (and Europe, for that matter) is not the only one facing critical challenges. The BRICS also have their own problems, even if most of them go unnoticed to international analysts.

Kagan makes a valid point here. New economies, markets and governments are asking to have their say in Geoeconomics. The data seems to give them credit. However, there is some room for doubt about prospects in the near future. According to Open Budget Index, the economic policies (framed by The Economist as ‘State Capitalism’) championed by countries like Brazil, China, South Africa, Malaysia and Russia make government finances less transparent. For Daniel Korski, 2012 is the year of the HUBRICS:

Ten years after a Goldman Sachs economist coined the word “BRIC”, to signify their economic potential and growing influence, it may be time to amend the acronym, describing the world’s fast-growing economies by adding two letters – an H and a U – to highlight what these countries also have in common: not just fast-growing economies, but a set of risks, a prideful unwillingness to acknowledge their problems and a reluctance to work with the West to address both their own and common concerns.

Robert Kagan concludes his piece with an interesting rhetorical question:

Perhaps the greatest concern underlying the declinist mood at large in the country today is not really whether the United States can afford to continue playing its role in the world. It is whether the Americans are capable of solving any of their most pressing economic and social problems.

It seems that Kagan is suggesting here that Americans need to adopt a sort of Jeffersonian attitude in global affairs, that is, one that defines national interests narrowly and tries to have an influence “by setting an example rather than imposing a model”. Walter Russell Mead wrote two years ago that Democrats “on the left and the dovish side (…) are increasingly Jeffersonian, more interested in improving American democracy at home than exporting it abroad”, and that both Carter and Obama adopted a Jeffersonian approach in the beginning of their mandates. Is Robert Kagan leaning towards this side now?

Koldo Casla



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