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America as an idea

To repair his nation's declining power and pride, and to make the United States more exceptional, President Barack Obama needs to become harder and softer at the same time.

By James Fallows

American power is declining as Barack Obama begins his presidency. American power has been declining through the entirety of my conscious life.

The first presidential election I remember with any clarity was in 1960. Part of the argument John F. Kennedy made against Richard Nixon and the record of the Eisenhower years was that a “prestige gap” had left the United States at a disadvantage relative to the Soviet Union, not to mention the alleged dangers of a missile gap. By the late 1960s, the United States was suffering its first-ever military defeat and was estranged from many of its allies because of the Johnson-Nixon policies in Vietnam, not to mention being torn apart by the worst domestic disturbances in more than a century. By the mid 1970s, it had been forced off the gold standard and had endured its first presidential resignation and its first peacetime rationing and price controls with the arrival of OPEC and its “oil shocks”.

In the late 1970s, under Jimmy Carter, the United States suffered (in Tehran) the first captivity of its overseas diplomats since the age of Barbary pirates and a prime interest rate of 21per cent. In the early 1980s, under Ronald Reagan, it incurred its biggest peacetime trade and budget deficits and endured the dollar’s loss of half its value against the yen, the biggest one-day trading loss in its financial history, plus massive demonstrations against its defence policies in the capitals of its major allied countries. Meanwhile, a development of tremendous benefit forhumanity as a whole—the connection of the billion-plus people of China to the world market economy—also ensured a decline in the relative economic position of the United States.

Under the first president George Bush, the Soviet Union ceased to exist and the US, which had led a vast alliance in the first battle against Saddam Hussein, stood for a while as the one unquestioned superpower. But in the nearly 20-year span from the destruction of the Berlin Wall to the inauguration of Barack Obama, the United States underwent dramatic ups and downs and changes in both its real and perceived power. By the time of Obama’s arrival, its relative monopoly on world military power was probably the greatest in its history, but its troops were struggling to maintain control in Afghanistan and Iraq. Its economy was still the world’s largest, as it had been for the preceding century, but it stood as the world’s largest net debtor nation, the one with the largest trade deficit, and the one whose financial system had drawn the rest of the world into serious dislocation.

The point of chronicling the long decades of decline for the United States, including in eras that in retrospect seem like times of unquestioned dominance, is not to dismiss the possibility that today’s declines represent something new and more serious. But this history is a reminder of how variable and complicated is the make-up of American strength, and of how important it is to assess the American capacity for rebound and recovery. The past decade has vividly demonstrated the US ability to squander its financial, military and diplomatic reserves and to exhaust much of its supply of moral standing and international goodwill—but also its ability to change political course and begin replenishing what it had used up.

The essays in this volume examine important aspects of American decline—and potential recovery—of the Obama administration, and their implications for US relations with the rest of the world. In introducing them I would like to draw attention to the history, process and politics of managing past episodes of US decline and what they may suggest for the years ahead.

The United States’ external relations have often been volatile and have frequently seemed contradictory or even hypocritical, because of a tension built into the nation’s identity from the start. The United States is both a nation and an idea. As a nation, it has the traditional interests of all other state players in power politics—advancing its businesses, defending its citizens and territory. As an idea, it is meant to appeal to people around the world regardless of nationality. Most Americans assure themselves that, in the long run, the two roles are more or less aligned, and that in expanding US power they will also expand liberties for human beings generally. But obviously there are contradictions and trade-offs. To give only the most obvious example: through the 1950s and 1960s the United States supported dictators in the larger cause of containing Soviet communism, and it makes similar trade-offs every day.

One way the American pubic handles these contradictions is through internal political criticism of the country’s role in the world: congressman Abraham Lincoln opposing the Mexican-American War; Mark Twain opposing the Spanish-American War; Senator J. William Fulbright opposing the Vietnam War. But most citizens prefer not to think that their country is doing harm in the world. This is a part of self-protective human nature, which may be a larger than normal part of American nature.

So in the United States, the main result of the contradictions built into the nation’s foreign policy is a ceaseless veering back and forth. For a while, the nation will act in a mainly self-interested way, until it feels too much like an ordinary, petty, self-interested state and not true enough to its identity as the first nation founded upon an idea. Then it will act mainly on principled grounds, or its definition of principle, until it feels that it is paying too steep a penalty in practical terms. The shifts are easy to tick off in overall policy: the United States was slow to enter World War I, on grounds of self-interest; but once in, under Woodrow Wilson it was ready to rebuild the world on the idea of democracy. As that proved frustrating, it withdrew in the 1920s to tending its own business again. It intervened deeply and for a decade in Vietnam; was so wounded in the process that it averted its eyes to the subsequent Khmer Rouge slaughter in Cambodia; and eventually was ready to intervene in Iraq again. Similar cyclical shifts also show up in policy towards specific nations and regions, notably China and the oil-producing states.

Ideally, the United States would avoid these vacillations with a policy that was always guided by morals yet not moralistic, that was always aware of practicalities yet not venal. The greatest leaders in their greatest moments managed such a balance, for a while. The rest of the time, leaders have been too practical, or too idealistic—and after a while, the electorate has grown uncomfortable and responded to leaders who promised to shift back the other way. After the disgraced Richard Nixon, the upright-sounding governor, Jimmy Carter. After President Carter, who seemed overwhelmed by complexities and care, the confident-sounding governor, Ronald Reagan.

What is unusual about the US’s latest change is that the electorate was reacting against excesses in both directions. The Bush-Cheney administration managed to seem simultaneously too crassly blind to principle, as when setting aside Constitutional checks observed even during World War II, and too fancifully ideological, as when turning a blind eye to the difficulties and tragic pitfalls involved in trying to occupy and democratise a country it had just invaded.

The new administration therefore faces the challenges of both the “hard” and “soft” aspects of American power. That distinction was of course familiar long before the modern tags were applied. It is what Sun Tzu had in mind when saying that the best victory was the one that came without combat, and what Clausewitz meant when referring to war as a continuation of politics by other means. It is what every US president means in the obligatory passage in the typical State of the Union address saying that to be strong abroad we must also be strong at home.

The hardest of hard components of US strength and influence, its uniformed military, is still dominant compared with others in the world. This is so despite its overstretch in Iraq and Afghanistan, despite the certainty of tighter budgets ahead, despite the inevitable increase in China’s relative strength and that of some other countries, despite the futility of tanks and aircraft carriers as protection against urban terrorist attacks. But the industrial and economic strength on which the military ultimately rests has obviously been sapped. We won’t know for many years whether the new administration’s promises and plans for revitalising America’s productive economy will work or not. Many of the essays that follow examine the opportunities for, and difficulties of, realising these plans, but these are early assessments of a process that will unfold well beyond Barack Obama’s time in office, however long that turns out to be.

That is why the new administration’s very rapid attempt to improve the “soft” part of America’s influence over the world has been so striking. Barely three months after taking office, by the time of the ritualised 100-day assessments of his start as president, Barack Obama had sent more signals, more quickly, about more aspects of the United States’ approach to the rest of the world than any predecessor in modern times. Abraham Lincoln had to do more within his first three months in office, as the Civil War began, but that is exceptional in all of US history. Franklin Roosevelt enacted more legislation during his first 100 days than Obama did, but Obama signalled a larger change in policy in international affairs.

Within his first week in office, President Obama had signed orders outlawing torture as an instrument of US policy, beginning the shutdown of the Guantanamo detention camp and preparing for withdrawal from Iraq. In the following months we witnessed the speech on the ultimate elimination of nuclear weapons in Prague, his taped greeting to the public of Iran on the Persian New Year, the lifting of restrictions on family contacts with Cuba and the handshake with Hugo Chavez at the Summit of the Americas. Gestures like these did nothing directly to resolve the genuinely difficult issues with the respective countries, most difficult of all with Iran. But they cost nothing and indirectly positioned the US better for the long game of winning respect and support. Obama showed he understood that the United States is more attractive and therefore influential internationally when it seems confidently at ease, not defensive or cocky.

Even his impromptu answer at a press conference in Strasbourg, after his first NATO summit, signalled Obama’s sophistication about the signals likely to increase or reduce support for American causes worldwide. When a British journalist asked the new president whether he believed in “American exceptionalism”, he replied thus:

I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism. I'm enormously proud of my country and its role and history in the world. If you think about the site of this summit and what it means, I don’t think America should be embarrassed to see evidence of the sacrifices of our troops, the enormous amount of resources that were put into Europe postwar, and our leadership in crafting an alliance that ultimately led to the unification of Europe. We should take great pride in that.

Modern US history is essentially the story of a race, between the problems the country creates for itself and its ability to solve or escape them. We don’t know how the balance will turn out this time, and the answer to that question will affect people in the United States and around the world. The essays collected in this volume represent as good an early assessment of the prospects as is possible. I believe they will stand re-reading when the United States’ 45th president is sworn in.