It was the late 1980s, and historian Paul Kennedy had just published his The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. In his bestselling tome, Kennedy posited the relative decline of the American empire, earning him an invitation to a show hosted by Sam Donaldson. To Donaldson, who had interrogated many a shyster in his day, and who radiated something of the slick shyster himself, the temperate Kennedy, all caveats and nuances, proved no more than a cocktail nibble. Donaldson pointed out that the Soviet Union was in pretty bad shape, that the United States had never seemed stronger. What on earth was Professor Kennedy talking about?
Cut to the mid-1990s. Kennedy was anonymous again, the Berlin Wall was being sold piecemeal on the Internet, and conservative American publicists were proclaiming the triumph of American power. In Time magazine, columnist Charles Krauthammer thanked God that America ruled. In Foreign Policy, David Rothkoph of Kissinger Associates boldly argued that the U.S. had to impose its culture and values everywhere, because such actions would shape the world to come. By the early part of the 21st century, it was a Scotsman, Niall Ferguson, who had become lead vocalist for Pax Americana, though his was less a brash than a practical approach: in numerous articles and a book, Colossus, he explained that America, like it or not, was an empire and had to accept that responsibility for the sake of international stability and liberal wellbeing.
Since those days, the Iraq war has sucked much air out of the triumphalists' breasts. America has started its descent into another deep trough of national self-confidence. By applying a hard eye to American shortcomings in Iraq, but also by affirming the limits of American clout there, the Iraq Study Group report released earlier this month was probably the first formal, if unintentional, expression of this latest American decline. Suddenly, pessimism and political reticence seemed legitimate, and experts were on hand to ooze despondency.
For example, Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote a piece in the November-December issue of Foreign Affairs in which he announced the end of U.S. dominance in the Middle East. "By tying down a huge portion of the U.S. military, the war has reduced U.S. leverage worldwide. It is one of history's ironies that the first war in Iraq, a war of necessity, marked the beginning of the American era in the Middle East and the second Iraq war, a war of choice, has precipitated its end."
Washington Post columnist Robert Samuelson was even grimmer: "With hindsight, we may see 2006 as the end of Pax Americana. Ever since World War II, the United States has used its military and economic superiority to promote a stable world order that has, on the whole, kept the peace and spread prosperity. But the United States increasingly lacks both the power and the will to play this role. It isn't just Iraq, though Iraq has been profoundly destabilizing and demoralizing. Many other factors erode U.S. power: China's rise; probable nuclear proliferation; shrinking support for open trade; higher spending for Social Security and Medicare that squeezes the military; the weakness of traditional U.S. allies, Europe and Japan."
Haass and Samuelson have a point in arguing that the U.S. is being buffeted by forces it controls very imperfectly. However, is that enough to declare defeat? Power in general, and global power in particular, is a function of so many variables that any diagnosis of decline–or absolute domination for that matter–is usually incomplete. When Krauthammer and Rothkoph were hailing a U.S. victory by technical knockout, the European Union, China, and India were fast advancing in their economic expansion, at America's expense. As Haass and Samuelson cover their heads, and ours, in ash, they cannot see that the Bush administration, for all its faults, has fundamentally altered the template of international relations since September 11, 2001, in America's favor and in a way that transcends a bare material assessment of its influence.
How has the U.S. done so? By opening the Pandora's Box of democracy. You laugh. Certainly, we have seen in recent years that democracy need not mean liberal democracy. Whether we are dealing with Islamists in Iraq, populists in Venezuela, or high-handed nationalists in Russia, democracy, or some manifestation of it, can often lead to illiberal results. The skeptics might, further, protest that the administration has pretty much abandoned its democratic project for the Middle East. Everywhere, it seems, democracy is on the defensive, from Beirut to Baghdad to Kabul, and the U.S. is removing much mud from its eye.
Perhaps, but that's not quite the point. Even illiberal democracy is, in some way, a concession to greater pluralism–itself usually a fatal cancer at the heart of any autocracy. A thousand liberal democracies are not about to bloom, but the idea of using democracy as a powerful mallet against despotic regimes is now out there, and it's out there because George W. Bush put it out there. His worst enemies may be the ones best exploiting his ideas (and as we have seen in the Palestinian territories, where Hamas won a fair election last January, there is only so much democracy even the U.S. can take); however, it might be best to delay any final verdict on American global supremacy until democratic dynamics have played themselves out more.
For all the hostility that it provokes today, the U.S. is still likely to remain the default reservoir of assistance called on by a majority of democrats in their times of struggle.
Recently, I participated in a radio program on the future of the Middle East with Haass. When the host, Warren Olney, asked him about democracy in the region, Haass was curt, as he had been in his Foreign Affairs article, saying he didn't think it should be an American priority. It was no surprise that a hardened realist would hold such a view, since ideas stand for little in the icy realist gospel. But Haass failed to draw the right conclusions from his own appraisal of American regression in the region–as being partly a result of the weakening of U.S. allies, particularly Egypt and Saudi Arabia, in the face of a rising Iran. What could bolster U.S. allies better, I found myself wondering, than manageable democratization that might make their leaders more legitimate? What could Iran's stern regime fear more than democracy at home and in its neighborhood?
Iraq has poisoned the democratic waters, with many Arabs fearing instability from American-induced political change. But because real democracy is the best long-term weapon the U.S. has to halt Iran's ascendancy, fight violent Islamism, and protect its allies (if not necessarily their regimes), it will have to devise ways of advancing a liberal agenda while not shooting itself in the foot, or alarming its friends. That will mean working patiently and adapting democracy to its different contexts, but also knowing when to push hard if that becomes necessary. The alternative is that the U.S. might find itself with much less of a significant role in an Arab world now in the midst of defining its own future.
Reason contributing editor Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Lebanon.