With Great Power Comes Great Temptation: Or How Not to Turn the Dial to 11

A recent essay by Robert Kagan on the myth of American decline has garnered a lot of attention. I won’t spend too much time reciting what he wrote, but in the piece he quite persuasively argues that all the talk of American decline is a myth. The argument is two-fold, U.S. influence and power in the past has been exaggerated (particularly during the Cold War), and the United States is in a stronger position now than what the current political discussion will have you believe (the great recession has led to the perception of waning U.S. power etc.).

As I said, the article, on empirical grounds, is quite persuasive. There is a tendency to embellish U.S. influence and power in the past while at the same time lamenting the impotence of an aging giant in the face of younger, fresher rising powers. It is a compelling tale, and it suits the ideology of certain groups who want a more restrained U.S. foreign policy (myself included). The idea is that a relatively weaker United States must do less because it can’t afford to keep spending like it has, and this will fit into neat constructs such as offshore balancing (often mistakenly labeled neo-isolationism). If Kagan is right on the empirics, then a certain level of cognitive dissonance is bound to occur. How do you reconcile the fact that the United States is not in decline with the belief that the United States can not afford to continue its forward-leaning posture (a euphemism for interventionism or whatever you might like to call it)? The answer is simple: You don’t have to.

Even if you agree with Kagan, again on the empirics, it does not mean you have to subscribe to his prescription for foreign policy. When Josh Rogin at Foreign Policy broke the story this week that President Barack Obama was a big fan of Kagan’s essay, some saw this as a vindication of the neoconservative view. This is of course nonsense. There is a huge leap between agreeing with Kagan’s premise about the myth of decline and accepting the policies Kagan believes should flow out of that proven power advantage.

A quick aside here, Kagan never actually articulates what he wants the United States to do with our ‘newfound’ power, except stressing that “[p]reserving the present world order requires constant American leadership and constant American commitment.” I call this code for familiar neoconservative notions of preventive war, militarization of foreign policy, and blunt force trauma, but if someone has a better interpretation I’ll amend my statement.

It may be redundant so say this, but having power does not necessitate an obligation for using it, let alone using it the way neoconservatives would. There are smarter ways of maintaining global dominance than turning the military dial up to 11. As Andrew Exum tweeted the other day, “I thought Bob Kagan's article was pretty neat as well. Yet I still think invading Iraq was seven shades of dumb.” But there is another issue beyond what is the most effective way of reaching your goals. The United States is an independent variable in international relations, able to create new threats and conflicts on its own. Its posture provokes uncertainty amongst certain states, while its military operations, both small and large, can have debilitating effects on regional stability. We still do not know the long-term implications of U.S. Afghanistan policy on South Asian security, but we have already seen how short-term policies have created unnecessary security problems in the region, The United States inadvertently caused a Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan, while also strengthening the military’s dominance in Pakistan through aid and cooperation, to the detriment of Pakistani society. Avoiding such errors of excess by confusing ability with policy would be the most prudent rule of thumb, decline or no decline.

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