Diplomatic Decline and Constitutional Ascent

Two recent commentaries on the recurrent question of American decline illustrate the warped terms of American self-conception, the consequent irrelevance of the declinism debate—and the ways in which America’s own political tradition might better inform our understanding of our power in the world.

In one, Harvard’s Joseph Nye argues with some persuasiveness that American power may or may not be fragile in absolute terms but that we are likely to remain ascendant in relative terms.  However, we will be “‘first’ but not ‘sole’”: The likeliest scenario, he projects, is not the rise of another superpower like China but rather “the rise of the rest”—the emergence of a multipolar world in which the capacity to maintain alliances and work with others will be key.

In the other assessment, Rob Asghar rejects the notion of decline altogether, noting, among other reasons, that “today’s trajectory is not tomorrow’s destiny,” that American culture is uniquely conducive to growth and that we are more aware of our own flaws than of our competitors’.

Each of these analyses is persuasive in its way.  Asghar is correct to direct our attention to the bygone days when we were instructed to prepare for submission to our emergent Japanese masters, who it turns out were instead incapable of letting anyone go out of business.  Nye persuasively—more on this in a moment—notes the end of “the unipolar moment.”  Meanwhile, the American culture of creative destruction, which both authors observe, positions the country for continued economic success.

But both also miss a larger question: not how much power America has, but how much power America needs.  (Asghar, it should be said, is speaking less of political or diplomatic decline than of economic decline.)  The framework of the political declinism debate seems to accept it as a given that power is like money: more is always better; less is inherently bad.  Foreign affairs becomes a field for the harvesting of glory and the exhibition of strength rather than the defense of interests: Cluck and strut rather than thrust and parry. American self-esteem depends not merely on strength but on relative strength.  We must be not merely secure but stronger than anyone else.  Neither alarmed declinists nor their triumphal critics calibrate power to such actual requirements as the abilities to protect our territory, our citizens and our legitimate interests.  (Recall, for example, Mitt Romney’s complaint about the shrinking size of the U.S. Navy, which was wholly abstracted from any discussion of what size the American Navy needed to be: It was smaller, and smaller was bad.)

To be sure, in a balance-of-power world, relative power matters—so one can hardly dismiss our capacity to influence events relative to other nations.  But neither should we dismiss living as Washington told us in his Farewell Address was possible: according to our own choices about our own interests, secure within our own borders and in the enjoyment of “republican liberty.”  To be sure, we cannot do that in so isolated a manner as Washington imagined.  His world is gone.  But that does not mean a world in which more power is better is upon us.

On the contrary, our own political tradition teaches otherwise.  Concentrations of political power, on that teaching, are inherently to be feared—for our own sake as much as for others’.  We are operating metaphorically, of course: Machiavelli, in Chapter 16 of The Prince, reminds us that nations are not individuals, that rules for one are not rules for the other, that the two in fact are often inverted.  Yet what the American Framers warn for unchecked individual power is closely applicable to unchecked national power too.

Unchecked individuals are likely to have inflated views of their own beneficence, to be unable to perceive the need for limits on their own power and to be unwilling to tolerate sharing it with others.  Nations tend to act the same way.  Indeed, the more we see ourselves as exempt from these rules the more we can be sure we are falling prey to them.  Yet the crushing costs of empire—measured in an executive overflowing its constitutional banks, a desiccated legislature, a servile people and substantial military expenditures, among others—suggest power’s burdens need consideration alongside its benefits.

Nye says it is “fortunate” that President Obama has “rejected the suggested strategy of ‘managing decline.’”  Fair enough. But this again casts power in relative terms rather than asking how much power we have relative to our needs.  A better framework, which Nye suggests, is managing the transfer to a world of shared rather than sole power, not unlike the system the U.S. constitution embraces within its own borders—or used to.

Therein lies the challenge.  Sole superpower status has so inflated the presidency that foregoing it means a president giving up a measure of his or her own power, something presidents have proven notoriously loathe to do.  Doing so would be a worthy challenge for the next president, and for the electorate that chooses him or her.  The task is not managing American decline abroad.  It is choosing constitutional ascendance at home.