TCS Daily


Rising Declinists: Is US Influence Waning?

By Alan W. Dowd - May 10, 2006 12:00 AM

The American people are wading through another one of those decennial doldrums, when we question our place and purpose in the world. For instance, the Los Angeles Times and Bloomberg News recently published poll results revealing that more than six in ten Americans believe the country is headed in the wrong direction. This comes on the heels of a Gallup poll indicating that 54 percent of the country is dissatisfied with America's position in the world.

Our neighbors are picking up on our despair. From the perspective of The Guardian newspaper in Britain, "A string of foreign policy setbacks has highlighted growing flaws in Washington's long cherished assumption of international primacy." Gazing across the Atlantic and the Pacific, Howard French of the Paris-based International Herald Tribune concludes that "American influence over China has peaked, and may have entered an era of long-term and perhaps accelerating decline." He worries about "the declining moral influence of the United States" over Beijing.

Yet history reminds us that even when the doldrums set in, even when the US influence appears to be in decline, it has an uncanny ability to surprise the doomsayers at home and abroad.

Consider America's ebbing power in the aftermath of World War II. As historian Derek Leebaert writes in The Fifty-Year Wound, just a year after the end of the war, the Army had just 12 battle-ready tanks in Germany. US forces in the Pacific were equally under-equipped and under-prepared, as Leebaert details: Each division of the Eighth Army was a thousand rifles short, the Fifth Air Force still had no jet fighters in 1949, and there were just 500 US soldiers based in Korea. Thus, as world war gave way to cold war, "The United States neither looked nor felt ready to contain anybody," as Leebaert observes.

Worries about America's decline mushroomed as the Cold War began in earnest, when "we lost China," when communist forces rolled through Korea, when Chinese "volunteers" pushed MacArthur's troops back across the 38th Parallel. Indeed, the bloody interplay between the US and communist China throughout the second half of the 20th century calls into question the notion that America has ever had any "moral influence" over the People's Republic.

As the 1950s wore on, Sputnik rocketed into orbit and Moscow bludgeoned Hungary into submission. The US had no answer for either.

It was in those halcyon days of the New Frontier, as Leebaert reminds us, that The New York Times predicted Soviet industrial output would exceed America's by the end of the 20th century. In fact, the CIA surmised that the Soviet economy would be three times larger than America's by 2000. (Today, the doomsayers and declinists substitute the PRC for the USSR.)

Even during Kennedy's Camelot, it looked as if the US had fallen fast and hard from its World War II perch. What else could be said of a superpower that couldn't oust a petty Third World dictator 90 miles off its coast?

A decade later, the world witnessed what historian Paul Johnson calls "America's suicide attempt" in Vietnam. After the war, the United States appeared to be in a geopolitical freefall. While Washington retracted and retreated, Moscow's proxies descended across the Third World. Coming on the heels of Vietnam, d├ętente itself was arguably an expression of American weakness. It's no wonder that a 1976 survey unearthed by Leebaert reveals that Americans wanted "to be Number One once more."

Not long after Iran's unchallenged takeover of the US Embassy in Tehran, Paul Kennedy was laying out in grim detail how the United States was tumbling inexorably toward an inevitable collapse. He explained how "the American share of world power has been declining relatively faster than Russia's over the past few decades;" predicted that US defense outlays and commitments were unsustainable and were pushing the United States toward the same "imperial overstretch" that undid earlier powers; and concluded that America's capacity to carry its postwar "burdens is obviously less than it was several decades ago."

Of course, it was the Soviet Union that soon collapsed under the weight of empire.

Even in the 1990s, America's footing was uncertain. For all its power, Washington was growing increasingly allergic to post-Cold War challenges.

In Europe, two successive US administrations seemed helpless to stop the vivisection of Bosnia. In fact, as the Balkans hemorrhaged, French President Jacques Chirac concluded that "the position of leader of the free world is vacant." (When the US finally intervened in the former Yugoslavia, it came four years too late for perhaps 200,000 Bosnians and Croats.)

In Africa, disorganized clans were able to chase the mighty US military out of Somalia. The US then averted its gaze from Rwanda's machete massacre.

In Asia, North Korea crashed into the nuclear club; India and Pakistan shook the subcontinent with a spasm of nuclear tests; and China conducted a reckless foreign policy of gunboat diplomacy in the Taiwan Straits.

Even in America's backyard, Washington dithered over how to remove a pip-squeak junta in Haiti. "Rarely," as historian David Halberstam recalls, "had the United States looked so impotent."

In each instance, the US played the role of a spectator or prisoner to events.

Yet by the end of the decade, French politicians had promoted the US from the ranks of superpower to "hyperpower." By 2002, between the lightning wars of regime change in Afghanistan and Iraq, British scholar Timothy Garton Ash concluded that America had "too much power for anyone's good, including its own." When US forces knifed into Baghdad and decapitated Saddam Hussein's regime in the span of three weeks, the consensus was that US power was in ascendance.

But then, as liberation gave way to looting, and looting to "a long, hard slog," the US was suddenly overstretched and in decline -- right back where it supposedly was in the late '40s and early '50s, early '60s and late '70s, mid-'80s and mid-'90s.

Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow at Sagamore Institute for Policy Research.

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39 Comments

Imperial overstretch
According to the polls America can't even rule its own people. Popular disgust with those responsible for our government will take it down-- and replace our current rulers with an incompetent pack of Democrats lacking any vision for the direction we should be taking.

It would be much wiser for our bottom line if whoever ends up trying to inspire us to greatness forgets this mission of trying to tell the world how to live. Let them live. They know what they like. Empire is too expensive, and it kills so many people we're offending everyone.

sources of popwer
Three kinds of leadership: moral, economic, military. We gave up moral leadership with Abu Graib and WMD "failures" (lies). Our economic health is threatened by running third world level budget and trade deficits. Our military is strong but not infinite. We cannot act appropriately in Darfur because we are tied down in Iraq.
(summary: Bush bad).

On the positive side, our university system, the best in the world, attracts the brightest from around the world. And who says liberal professors don't help America?

Finally, what is the "Sagamore Institute for Policy Research"? Where does their funding come from? What does it take to become a "fellow" there?

No
the U.S. gave up moral leadership with its Rwanda policy. Far from just averting its eyes, the U.S. actively obstructed any other nation from intervening. The moral failures are American, not simply of this Republican administration.

Finally, deal with issues, not the ad hominems in your last paragraph. Does the author have a point or not?

The U.S.
has been an empire for a long time. Nearly 100 years by my count. It's a little late in the game to back out now. Besides, you know enough about the constitution to know that America does not rule its people, the people rule America. So confusion or uncertainty in government policy is a reflection of the deeply divided nature of the citizens, by both economic class and region.

Remember, people get the government they deserve.

ad hominem?
Many (most) of the posts on this site come from people whose credibility comes from being a "fellow" at some organization. I have come to believe that a reaonable fraction of these are "astroturf" setups that are mainly PR outfits for one or another business or right wing political agenda. If that's true, I should assess their statements as I would those of Scott McClellen or Howard Dean, rather than, say, Milton Friedman or Alan Dershowitz, people who come by their beliefs for personal reasons.

I did not attack Alan Dowd or the "Sagamore Institute for Policy Research", only asked for information. My hypothesis is that if they are legit, someone will explain. The traffic on this site should be such that no explination also is information.

p.s. I agree with you abour Rwanda, sadly.

p.p.s I agree with Dowd about the resilliance of America. We can bounce back quickly if we clean up our act.

influence is not empire
The closest thing we came to having an empire was when we controlled the Phillipines. We gave that up voluntarily back in the 30's.

you mistake
disgust with things Bush has done, with support of Democrats.

For example, many Republicans that I know are very upset with Bush because of his lack of a tough immigration policy. However, it's very unlikely that any of these people will switch their support to the Democrats, because the Democratic position, in their eyes, is even weaker than Bush's.

wrong direction polls
The big problem with these kind of polls, is that they are meaningless.
The reason for this is that there are many reason's one might think the US is going the wrong direction.

One person might think the US is going the wrong direction on Iraq.
Another might think the US is going the wrong direction on immigration.
Another might think the US is going the wrong direction on taxes or govt spending.

Another reason is that there is often more than two directions.

For example, if one thinks we are going the wrong direction on Iraq, this does not imply that the person thinks we should pull out. It is equally likely that the person wants the US to be even more aggressive.

wrong as usual
We gave up nothing with Abu Graib.
Except to those consumed with Bush hatred, Abu Graib was a minor footnote. A very small handfull of soldiers misbehaved, and have been punished. A nothing story.

We gave up nothing with the intelligence on WMDs. The entire world thought Iraq had them at the time. Extensive evidence has come forth since the war supporting that belief.

To the left, we lost our moral authority when we refused to give the UN a veto over our foriegn policy.
They can't admit that, because they know such a position is unacceptable to the majority of US citizen's. So they invent implausible cover stories like Abu Graib, Guantanamo, NSA spying, lieing about WMDs.

Doesn't matter
what the fellow's agenda is. He either has a point or he doesn't and it has to be assessed on its own merits. Ad hominem assessment of the value of a point of view is in practise no different than discounting views because of race or any other non-rational reason to dismiss an argument. It has substance or it doesn't.

Remember, when Einstein wrote his great work on general relativity, he was a postal clerk. Questions of legitimacy are simply institutionalized prejudice.

As it turns out, we both agree generally with Dowd's thesis.

ad hominem
As a self declared intellectual, you should be aware that ad hominem means attacking the man, not the argument.

Your last comment did not deal with the arguments, but instead implied that since the man did not work for some prestigious think tank (read far left), that his arguments weren't worth considering.

More than that
the annexation of the independent kingdom of Hawaii, the seizure of the Spanish possessions in the Caribbean (of which in the case of Cuba a puppet government was set up and overthrown, and might now be considered a rebellious province), the territorial wars of expansion against various aboriginal groups in western North America.

Of course the U.S. is an empire. It's a very successful one and has developed a rather good balance of direct rule matched with reliance on client states and a clear understanding of what are its natural interests and natural borders. The Roman emperors, Hadrian in particular, would be envious.

I think I've got it
you define empire as any expansion that happened anytime.

Under your definition, every country in the world is an empire.

Polls
Mark, you might be right that "these kind of polls" are meaningless, but the reason you stated for it is not correct.

You're talking about specific issues. A survey question about whether one thinks the US is moving in the right or wrong direction is broad and includes all those issues you mentioned, and probably many, many more issues too. Its up to the respondent to process their own position on all the issues they can think of and then conclude whether they would answer right or wrong direction. The answer "right" or "wrong" is a summation of all conceivable issues in that respondent's mind. There are not more than two directions. Its right or wrong, or the respondent can say they don't know.

The 2 most important factors in the reliability of polls are the sample and the question wording. Question wording is huge. A subtle change in wording can make a significant difference in the results because it can add bias.

If it walks like a duck
but you know the rest of this. Of course not every nation in the world is an empire, though many, even including Belgium, have gone through imperialist phases. Empire is not something narrowly defined as one of autocratic, aristocratic governments. The Romans built most of their empire as a republic, and for exactly the same reasons and motivations as did the U.S. Nor do I regard imperialism as necessarily wrong or unethical, as assorted leftist philosophers did. But I do think that you cannot properly grasp the responsibilities and obligations placed on a nation without understanding what it is and how its problems may be similar to those faced by similar organizations in the past.

There you go again, talking about something you know nothing about.
I am living in Europe and you can take it from me, the perception of the US has been falling ever since the illegal invasion of Iraq.

There is no turning back.

The Europeans, who used to love all things US, who rushed to our aid after 9/11, have been insulted and ignored by the current administration. The people here no longer love all things US. In fact here is a lot of fear and distrust, and the Whitehouse is making matters worse daily.

That is why you need to look at the time-dependent trend
Right now less than 25% of he public believe we are goning in the right direction. 8 years ago, the figure was 45%-55%

So public perception of the US has dropped quite significantly.

http://www.pollingreport.com/right.htm

Keeping the Powder Dry and in Full Supply
Countering Aggressive Rising Powers
By Thomas Donnelly
American Enterprise Institute (AEI), May 9, 2006

...The telling of the Iraq story is likewise distorted [from the Pentagon's Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR)] "The weight of effort in Iraq has shifted over time, from defeating the Iraqi military and liberating the Iraqi people, to building up Iraqi security forces and local institutions, and to transitioning responsibility for security for the Iraqis." What about the counterinsurgency part? Indeed, the main lesson the Pentagon seems to have learned from Iraq is, "LET'S NEVER DO THIS AGAIN."

Is it reasonable to presume that our current level of effort in the region -- a rotational force of about 20 brigade-sized units, counting Iraq, Afghanistan, the horn of Africa and elsewhere -- is the limit to what we can anticipate in the future?

...In short, the Pentagon seems to have understood NEITHER THE STRATEGIC CULTURE OF THE AL QAEDA-LIKE ENEMY -- and the connection between terroris and the political culture of the greater Middle East -- NOR THE STRATEGIC CULTURE OF THE U.S. AS ARTICULATED IN THE BUSH DOCTRINE. Thus, we have a military ill-prepared to sustain current effort and incapable of rising to the probable future demands of American leaders. We seem to be ignoring the possibility of an escalating clash of strategic cultures.

But a world marked by American superpower aspirations, the millennial aims of the Islamists, and Chinese great-power pretensions, spiced with derelict states wielding the most destructive weapons, would seem an injunction to keep ones' powder dry and in full supply.

http://www.aei.org/publications/pubID.24349,filter.all/pub_detail.asp

Post WW2 - freak conditions
"Consider America's ebbing power in the aftermath of World War II"

You gots to be kidding!!! The USofA came out of the war as the only industrial nation with an intact population and factory system. Our present sorry state is caused by 50 years foreign policy of screwing our friends and helping our enemies after the Marshall Plan ended.

The last paragraph
is full of misstatements. The United States is a superpower, it does not merely aspire. China is a great power, it does not merely pretend. And only some Islamists, a minority at that, have millenial intentions, but then so too do some religious sects in the U.S.

If he makes so many mistakes here, why should I believe any of the rest of what he writes?

The Dangerous Gap between Reach and Grasp
ColinH,
"American superpower aspirations" means the aspirations of a superpower; such as regime change in Iran -- and that's not all you misunderstood:

Countering Aggressive Rising Powers
By Thomas Donnelly
American Enterprise Institute (AEI), May 9, 2006

...The Department of Defense's 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review asserts that "China has the greatest potential to compete militarily with the United States" and notes the development of comprehensive Chinese military power.

...As alarming as China's rise may be, an even more world-shaking event would be the rise of an Islamist, Al Qaeda-inspired great power -- indeed, a state of any sort -- in the greater Middle East... Al Qaeda's basic motivation is an internal one, and its purposes are revolutionary and political to establish a multinational caluiphate ruling according to Islamic sharia.

...There is a dangerous gap between our strategic reach and our military grasp; the desire to maintain a global preponderance of American power -- in President Bush's terms, a "balance of power that favors freedom" -- is a very tall order for the U.S. military for a variety of reasons. First, it's inherently a big task for a force SUBSTANTIALLY SMALLER than it used to be. Second, there aren't many allies to be found, either internationally and militarily. And third, there are a lot of enemies and potential enemies. As President Clinton's director of central intelligence, James Woolsey, put it long ago, we slew the Soviet dragon only to find the garden infested with snakes. Smaller, but still poisonous.

http://www.aei.org/publications/pubID.24349,filter.all/pub_detail.asp

An Al Qaeda inspired great power?
Paranoid nonsense. Revolutionaries by their very nature are incapable of running a state. In virtually every case, they are replaced by a new ruling order after the upheaval has settled down. As ideological purists, they very quickly come into fundamental conflict with most of the economic structure of society and are disposed of. The classic example illustrating it best is the disposal of the Jacobins in revoluionary France. Robespierre soon found himself on the guillotine, displaced by a middle class power structure that discovered that the country could not function in a state of permanent chaos.

implausible inventions
Wow Mark. That post is sickly delusional. I kind of feel bad now for ever attacking you personally.

Everything you said is totally wrong, but I'll just pick the punchline to respond to.

"So they invent implausible cover stories like Abu Graib, Guantanamo, NSA spying, lieing about WMDs."

You know, I'm glad to hear these things are inventions of the left, otherwise they might be real, and that would really be a kick in the nuts if those things were real. Wait a second, why do I feel like I've been kicked in the nuts (every day for about the last 6 years)?

And thats really the point. Dowd missed a huge factor when talking about America being at a low point: George W Bush. Literally the worst President in American history. I do believe America will recover again, and it will start to happen the day Bush leaves office. That still won't be enough, America is shamed for years to come because Bush was re-elected. We're all Americans, so the shame taints us all, even those of us who knew better.

I think Dowd's piece was more of a half-truth than a valid assessment. His points might be wholly true, but not solely for the reasons given. He picked certain events, mostly military based, to derive conclusions I assume he made before even doing research for the piece. Just because we can't/won't conquer another country or control it like a puppet does not mean America doesn't have any influence on other countries. I do believe America's influence or respect in the world has ebbed and flowed throughout history, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't be concerned about being in an extremely low-point right now.

So what makes the US's "imperialistic" phase different from every other countries?
Every one of the expansions that you previously listed was in the past, often long in the past.

Secondly, the territories in question are now part of the US, not beholden territories.

Wrong
The U.S. will not recover the day George Bush leaves office. It will only recover when left and right start to talk about those things they can agree on rather than those they disagree on. A House Divided cannot stand, et.al.

distorted perceptions
I have no doubt that the people you hang out with hate the US more than they used to.
I can live with that.

bob's delusions prevent him from reading
I never said that those events didn't happen. I said that they were being used as cover stories to hide the real motives of those pushing them.

That a hard core stalinist thinks Bush is a bad president is hardly surprising. Nor does it need active refuting.

that's only true
if the exact same wording is used in each poll in the trend.

As a world class expert on everything, you should have known that already.

I believe
he was refering to how we let the military whither away after WWII. Those were the examples that he gave.

Precisely my point
there is no essential difference. That the expansions happened in the past is a characteristic of successful empires. All empires go through a transition from expansion to consolidation, and the U.S. went through that sometime in the first half of the 20th C.

The end of overt expansion doesn't mean the end of serious interest in what goes on elsewhere. My point is simply that as a successful empire the U.S. has from time to time neglected the fact that it has interests around the world, usually when isolationism has been fashionable (close the borders, close off foreign trade, ban outsourcing, you know the list).

Iran
"Paranoid nonsense. Revolutionaries by their very nature are incapable of running a state."

If only that were true.

You right Colin
I agree with you ColinH. I said we'll START to recover the day he leaves office. An obstacle will be removed. We had a chance in 2004 to make it happen, I sensed then that the world would have rejoiced at Americans' sensibility in getting Bush out of office. We could've elected a monkey, it didn't matter as long as Bush was kicked out. Its going to be that much harder to recover now.

Which really plays well into the rest of your post. I believe the reason left and right are so divisive is because of the nature of Bush's leadership. Bush The Divider. I made that call very early in his presidency. Even my liberal friends told me at the time I was reaching. Now I rub it in their face. Its the whole, you're with me or against me thing. Bush's style tries to make you pick a side, so there is no gray area, there is no middle. There is only left or right, so if you don't pick the right you automatically get shoved to the left.

What you said is a good lesson I feel I've, hopefully we've (everyone), learned from one party controlling all the government. We should never let it happen again. We want the parties to talk and negotiate to get things done, they don't have to do that when one party has all the power. No doubt thats a large factor in the extra-massive amount of corruption going on today with our politicians. Lets be honest, its mostly Republicans, probably because they've had a taste of ultimate power.

Land of liberty
Actually by my count we've been an empire since 1637. In the Pequot War the colonists escalated a difference of opinion between the now-extinct Pequots and a dubious trader named John Stone into the first colonial massacre of an entire village (estimated 7-800 deaths). None were spared, and surviving Pequots were only allowed to escape on the condition that they would have to be adopted into the surrounding tribes. Thus at a stroke, the Pequots became extinct and their former home became what we now know as Connecticut.

As for the people ruling America, not the reverse, that's what I've been arguing for some time here. The public lands are the property of the public. The government just manages them in our names. Unfotunately, the overwhelming mass of Americans is very unclear on points like these, having been educated in public school civics classes. So ask the average voter and they will tell you those lands are "government property".

People do indeed get the government they deserve.

earned respect
I did not attack Dowd, only asked what his affiliation meant. Implicit in the question is the ad hominem -- if his affiliation carries little weight then his argument carries less weight. I think that's the way the world works, people have to pay dues to earn respect.

The same applied to Einstein. He was a nobody when he published his paper on special (not general) relativity in 1905. Also in 1905 he published on the photoelectric effect (quantum mechanics) and on Brownian motion. The papers were easy to read (and still are, though quaint), and obviously had beautiful original ideas. By the time Einstein published general relativity, he was a Professor in Berlin on the top of his profession. Dowd is no Albert Einstein.

I almost agree
At least Bush has an agenda, however odious and unpopular it may be. All the Democrats stand for is offending no one. There are no good choices on the horizon in 2008 from any quarter.

Declining US
One of the main reasons for the poll results and the seeming decline is the constant negativity of the media. All we hear in a constant refrain is how bad we are, how wrong we are, what a terrible nation we are. I am so sick and tired of this harangue!
Then the British press chimes in--who are they to throw rocks? But when they hear it from the left in this country they figure they must be right!
Right now the big problem is the Republican Congress which has forgotten what it is to be conservative. They have no guts, nothing but greed.
Bush will be vindicated for his foreign policy in the long run, but will be found wanting in his national policy.

You are right about that.
But that does not speak to the poll results I posted, does it?

In fact the US public has become very disillusioned with the direction the US is going in.

And who can balim them. The economy sucks, we are engaged in an illegal war, we are not able to help the public in natural disasters, like hurricanes, we have not improved national security, we have increased domestic spying, we have tortured prisoners, we have outsources many jobs, we have lost silcon valley to India, we have lost the airline industry to Europe, we have lost the auto industry, etc. etc. etc. etc.

Ya. There are reasons why people are not happy with the way the country is going. Bush has screwed US for personal gain.

I disagree
I'm looking at guys like Joe Biden, **** Durbin and yes, even Russ Feingold, as no-nonsense, tough Democrats as good potential Presidentes. I've liked John McCain too, but thats changing as he kowtows to the religious right for support.

It'd be a tough decision if it comes down to Hillary vs. McCain. Although it shouldn't be. Bush has left such a bad taste in my mouth for Republicans it'd be tough to vote for one.

Who to vote for?
If it all comes down to Hilary vs McCain I'll look over the list of other posible choices. Wikipedia lists 61 minor parties (other than the Greens and the Libertarians) to choose among. Certainly a vote cast for one of them will do more for the country than a vote for either of two craven politicians who have proven they will say and do anything to keep the allegiances of the deluded rubes.

I'm with you. I've always like Joe Biden's non-nonsense approach. Given the choice between making a popular statement or making sense, he'll do the right thing every time. He doesn't act like a politician. He has also been fizzling on the national stage, following his early announcement that he's running.

So we'll once again be getting the government we deserve, in the time-honored formulation.

I might decide to resurrect the Eat the Rich Party, whose platform is that we should serve the rich-- for dinner. We think they have something of real nutritional value to offer the country, that has raised them to be so fat and happy.

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