But it is a tricky thing to extrapolate these limits into a theory of American decline. Decline compared to what? Compared to the heady, unipolar moment immediately following the collapse of the Soviet Union? Or compared to the coldest days of the Cold War, when the Soviet Union sent military aid and advisers to Syria, Egypt, Libya and Iraq, attempting to block American actions at every turn?
The scholar Joseph Nye describes a layer cake of American influence. On the first level, military power, America remains unchallenged. On the second, economic influence, the world has been multipolar for a while now. On a third level -- a transnational realm of bankers and terrorists, Facebook and hackers -- power is diffused to a wide range of actors, both good and bad, who now have the ability to sponsor Sept. 11, 2001 or Jan. 25, 2011.
In the complex determination of national influence, those with the best story, the most compelling narrative, have an advantage. In the Middle East, does the old dictator speaking on Egyptian state television, talking of past glories, really seem the wave of the future? Does Iranian theocracy, which in reaction to democratic protests has collapsed into military control, seem worthy of emulation? These systems may be imposed at the barrel of a gun. But on the streets of Cairo, self-government is the hope. It seems the system most likely to result in progress, social vitality and national achievement. And it seems that way because it is.
At least since Franklin Roosevelt, American leaders have viewed the appeal of democratic ideals as a source of national power. America now has less direct control, say, in Germany and Japan than it did in the 1950s. But both are monuments to American influence. Democracies do not always do our bidding, but in the long run they are both more stable and peaceful than countries ruled by the whims of a single man. Democratic transitions are difficult and uncertain, especially in places with shallow democratic roots. But it is strangely disconnected from American history and ideals to regard a popular revolt against an oppressive ruler as a sign of American decline.