America: She Ain’t Declining

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on April 10, 2012

So argues Walter Russell Mead in a persuasive piece. He also provides an explanation for what is really going on:

The U.S. will still be a leading player, but in a septagonal, not a trilateral, world. In addition to Europe and Japan, China, India, Brazil and Turkey are now on Washington’s speed dial. (Russia isn’t sure whether it wants to join or sulk; negotiations continue.)

New partnerships make for rough sledding. Over the years, the trilateral countries gradually learned how to work with each other—and how to accommodate one another’s needs. These days, the Septarchs have to work out a common approach.

It won’t be easy, and success won’t be total. But even in the emerging world order, the U.S. is likely to have much more success in advancing its global agenda than many think. Washington is hardly unique in wanting a liberal world system of open trade, freedom of the seas, enforceable rules of contract and protection for foreign investment. What began as a largely American vision for the post-World War II world will continue to attract support and move forward into the 21st century—and Washington will remain the chairman of a larger board.

Despite all the talk of American decline, the countries that face the most painful changes are the old trilateral partners. Japan must live with a disturbing rival presence, China, in a region that, with American support, it once regarded as its backyard. In Europe, countries that were once global imperial powers must accept another step in their long retreat from empire.

For American foreign policy, the key now is to enter deep strategic conversations with our new partners—without forgetting or neglecting the old. The U.S. needs to build a similar network of relationships and institutional linkages that we built in postwar Europe and Japan and deepened in the trilateral years. Think tanks, scholars, students, artists, bankers, diplomats and military officers need to engage their counterparts in each of these countries as we work out a vision for shared prosperity in the new century.

The American world vision isn’t powerful because it is American; it is powerful because it is, for all its limits and faults, the best way forward. This is why the original trilateral partners joined the U.S. in promoting it a generation ago, and why the world’s rising powers will rally to the cause today.

Relatedly, I might be willing to commit various crimes in order for us to get a more discerning foreign policy commentariat in the United States. The “America is in decline” argument is obviously full of holes, and yet, more analysts don’t step forward to puncture it. Instead, they embrace the myth, and seek to propagate it. I don’t know if that is because there is something alluring about spreading the argument that American power is fading, but it does a serious disservice to foreign policy analysis to accept as an unshakable premise the notion that America is going the way of Rome. The truth, as Mead makes clear, is far more complicated than that.

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