Why the Decline of America Can Be a Good Thing for America
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That striking 49% figure is no isolated outlier. As Charles Kupchan and Peter Trubowitz point out in an article in the journal International Security, a December 2009 Pew poll got the same 49% response to the same “mind its own business” question. It was, they comment, “the highest response ever recorded, far surpassing the 32% expressing that attitude in 1972, during the height of opposition to the Vietnam War.”
Along the same lines, the CCGA survey found significant majorities expressing an urge for their government to cooperate with China, but not actively work to limit the growth of its power, and not to support Israel if it were to attack Iran. Similarly, they opted for a “lighter military footprint” and a lessening in the U.S. role as “world policeman.” When it comes to the Afghan War specifically, the latest polls and reporting indicate that skepticism about it continues to rise. All of this adds up not to traditional “isolationism,” but to a realistic foreign policy, one appropriate to a nation not garrisoning the planet or dreaming of global hegemony.
This may simply reflect a visceral sense of imperial decline under the pressure of two unpopular wars. Explain it as you will, it’s exactly what Washington is incapable of facing. A CCGA survey of elite, inside-the-Beltway opinion would undoubtedly find much of America’s leadership class still trapped inside an older global paradigm and so willing to continue pouring hundreds of billions of dollars into Afghanistan and elsewhere rather than consider altering the American posture on the planet.
Imperial Denial Won’t Stop Decline
Despite much planning during and after World War II for a future role as the planet’s preeminent power, Washington used to act as if its “responsibilities” as the “leader of the Free World” had been thrust upon it. That, of course, was before the Soviet Union collapsed. After 1991, it became commonplace for pundits and officials alike to refer to the U.S. as the only “sheriff” in town, the “global policeman,” or the planet’s “sole superpower.”
Whatever the American people might then have thought a post-Cold War “peace dividend” would mean, elites in Washington already knew, and acted accordingly. As in any casino when you’re on a roll, they doubled down their bets, investing the fruits of victory in more of the same -- especially in the garrisoning and control of the oil-rich Persian Gulf region. And when the good fortune only seemed to continue and the sole enemies left in military terms proved to be a few regional “rogue states” of no great importance and small non-state groups, it went to their heads in a big way.
In the wake of 9/11, that “twenty-first century Pearl Harbor,” the new crew in Washington and the pundits and think-tankers surrounding them saw a planet ripe for the taking. Having already fallen in love with the U.S. military, they made the mistake of believing that military power and global power were the same thing and that the U.S. had all it needed of both. They were convinced that a Pax Americana in the Greater Middle East was within their grasp if only they acted boldly, and they didn’t doubt for a moment that they could roll back Russia -- they were, after all, former Cold Warriors -- and put China in its place at the same time. Their language was memorable. They spoke of “cakewalks” and a “military lite,” of “shock and awe” aerial blitzes and missions accomplished. When they joked around, a typical line went: “Everyone wants to go to Baghdad. Real men want to go to Tehran.”