Those of us who write about foreign policy—or any topic, for that matter—yearn for the day when the president of the United States lauds our work. That is exactly what happened in January to Robert Kagan, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and an adviser to the Romney campaign. Just before delivering the State of the Union address, President Obama told a collection of news anchors that his thinking had been influenced by Kagan’s recent cover essay in The New Republic, “Not Fade Away: The Myth of American Decline.” It is not often that a president running for reelection praises his chief rival’s counselor.
Kagan’s article, which draws on his new book, The World America Made, contests the emerging consensus in foreign-policy circles that American primacy is eroding thanks to the shift in global power from the West to the “rising rest.” China and other nations are steadily ascending, this view holds, while the United States and its allies are stuck in an economic rut. The long era of Western hegemony seems to be coming to an end.
Kagan begs to differ. He contends that U.S. primacy is undiminished and that Americans, as long as they set their minds to it, are poised to sit atop the global pecking order for the indefinite future. The nation’s share of global economic output has been holding steady, and its military strength “remains unmatched.” China, India, Brazil, Turkey, and other emerging powers are certainly on the move, Kagan acknowledges, but he maintains that only China will compromise U.S. interests. The others will either align with the United States or remain on the geopolitical sidelines. The biggest threat to U.S. hegemony is that “Americans may convince themselves that decline is indeed inevitable”—and choose to let it happen. Kagan wants to persuade them otherwise and to call forth the political energies needed to ensure that the United States remains “the world’s predominant power.”
Although it sounds reassuring, Kagan’s argument is, broadly, wrong. It’s true that economic strength and military superiority will preserve U.S. influence over global affairs for decades to come, but power is undeniably flowing away from the West to developing nations. If history is any guide, the arrival of a world in which power is more widely distributed will mean a new round of jockeying for position and primacy. While it still enjoys the top rank, the United States should do its best to ensure that this transition occurs peacefully and productively. The worst thing to do is to pretend it’s not happening.