Tuesday, February 05, 2008

The Root of our Perceptions

Fantastic summary in today's WSJ online by Bret Stephens. Titled "Marinating in Decline", he points out that: though we are thought by the MSM drive-by thug-ocracy to be in steep decline, both economically, militarily, and in global prestige, that the opposite is both true and provably so, and that these ideas are entirely the result of liberal horror at having an agressively successful republican in the White House for 8 years.

- Our economy will remain the largest in the world by far, no matter what happens, for many decades
- Our military budget and our commitments abroad are low and minor respectively, and historically
- our prestige is underrated: Our allies have mostly all been reelected, while our adversaries have all been defeated or gone down to electoral defeat, such as Chirac and Schroeder in France and Germany, and replaced with staunch allies in Sarkozy and Merkel...T

In 1788, Massachusetts playwright Mercy Otis Warren took one look at the (unratified) U.S. Constitution and declared that "we shall soon see this country rushing into the extremes of confusion and violence." This, roughly, is the origin of American declinism -- and it's been downhill ever since.

A couple centuries later, an international relations theorist at Yale named Paul Kennedy sought to explain the decline of great powers in terms of a ratio between military commitments and economic resources. The Reagan military buildup and the deficits that went with it, he warned, had brought the United States to the point of "imperial overstretch." Not quite. Within a few years, the Soviet Union collapsed, Europe and Japan (with no military burdens to speak of) entered a long period of economic stagnation, and the U.S. consolidated its position as the world's only true superpower.

Declinism is again in vogue. "America's unipolar moment has inspired diplomatic and financial countermovements to block American bullying and construct an alternate world order," writes Parag Khanna in a recent New York Times Magazine cover story titled, cheerfully, "Who Shrank the Superpower?" In Sunday's Los Angeles Times, Fred Kaplan observes that "the United States can no longer take obeisance for granted." Mr. Kaplan's new book, "Daydream Believers: How a Few Grand Ideas Wrecked American Power," sounds just a bit derivative of Nancy Soderberg's "The Superpower Myth" (2005), Roger Burbach's "Imperial Overstretch" (2004) and Charles Kupchan's "The End of the American Era" (2003).

American "decline" is the foreign-policy equivalent of homelessness: The media only take note of it when a Republican is in the White House. Broadly speaking, declinists divide between those who merely accept America's supposed diminishment as a fact of life, and those who celebrate it as long overdue. As for the causes of decline, however, they tend to agree: declining (relative) economic muscle, due in large part to the rise of China; an overextended military bogged down needlessly in Iraq and endlessly in Afghanistan; the declining value of America's "brand" on account of Bush administration policies on detention, pre-emption, terrorism, global warming -- you name it.

Yet each of these assumptions collapses on a moment's inspection. In his 2006 book "Überpower," German writer Josef Joffe makes the following back-of-the-envelope calculation: "Assume that the Chinese economy keeps growing indefinitely at a rate of seven percent, the average of the past decade (for which history knows of no example). . . . At that rate, China's GDP would double every decade, reaching parity with today's United States ($12 trillion) in thirty years. But the U.S. economy is not frozen into immobility. By then, the United States, growing at its long-term rate of 2.5 percent, would stand at $25 trillion."

Now take military expenditures. Yesterday, the administration released its budget proposal for 2009, which includes $515.4 billion for the regular defense budget. In inflation-adjusted dollars, this would be the largest defense appropriation since World War II. Yet it amounts to about 4% of GDP, as compared to 14% during the Korean War, 9.5% during the Vietnam War and 6% in the Reagan administration. Throw in the Iraq and Afghanistan supplementals, and total projected defense spending is still only 4.5% of GDP -- an easily afforded sum even by Prof. Kennedy's terms.

Finally there is the issue of our allegedly squandered prestige in the world. There is no doubt America's "popularity," as measured by various global opinion surveys, has fallen in recent years. What's striking, however, is how little of this has mattered in terms of the domestic political choices of other countries or the consequences for the U.S.

In the immediate aftermath of the Iraq War, nearly every government that joined President Bush's "coalition of the willing" -- Australia, Great Britain, Denmark and Japan -- was returned to power. France's Jacques Chirac and Germany's Gerhard Schroeder, the war's two most vocal opponents, were cashiered for two candidates who campaigned explicitly on a pro-American agenda. The same happened in South Korea, where the unapologetically anti-American President Roh Moo-hyun has been replaced by the unapologetically pro-American Lee Myung-bak. Italy's equally unapologetic pro-American Silvio Berlusconi seems set to return to office after a brief holiday.

None of this is to say that perceptions about America play a decisive role in the politics of most other countries. It is to say that anti-Americanism, like illegal immigration, is fool's gold politics. Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel were not installed in office principally to mend relations with Washington. But to the extent that both seek to liberalize their economies, or strengthen NATO, or take a responsible position vis-a-vis Iran, it brings them closer to Washington's way of thinking.

Meanwhile, McDonald's -- the icon of everything anti-Americans detest about the U.S. -- is doing a booming business overseas even as sales in the U.S. flatlined last year. Another icon, Boeing, is having no trouble booking orders (meeting them is another matter) for its new 787 Dreamliner to such customers as Spain's AirEuropa and Bahrain's Gulf Air. The quintessentially American film, "National Treasure," has earned nearly half its gross revenue -- about $160 million -- in foreign ticket sales since its release in late December. So much for America's loss of "soft power."

Happily for Mr. Kaplan, I look forward to receiving his forthcoming book. I'll put it right up there on the shelf with another favorite: "19-0: The Historic Championship Season of New England's Unbeatable Patriots." I'm guessing it will fetch a price on eBay.
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