WASHINGTON -- For those who are prone to be prone to such things, recent events in Egypt are further evidence of declining American global influence. President Hosni Mubarak, having taken a lot of American aid, now seems immune to both American advice and pressure. The protesters, one article complained, didn't even bother to burn our flag. We are seeing, according to some observers, a "post-American Middle East."
Never mind that the protesters are using Western technology to demand individual rights. Or that many of the young, secular bloggers who laid the groundwork for the revolution alternate between Arabic and English and have visited or studied in America. Lay aside the fact that Egyptians in the streets have focused their demands on only two actors, the Egyptian regime and the American government -- not the United Nations or the Arab League or China. In fact, China's response was to remove the word "Egypt" from its Internet search engines and lay low, hoping the storm passes.
Such considerations should not be allowed to detract from our sense of impotence -- a paradoxical tribute to our ambitions. People in Holland or Costa Rica do not celebrate or decry their lack of sway in Egyptian politics. Only Americans feel vindication or guilt at the limits of their power.
Those limits are obvious along the Nile. The outcome of the current confused struggle in Egypt matters greatly to American interests. The emergence of a Sunni version of Iran in Egypt would be a major blow. A democratic transition, even a messy and partial one, might eventually isolate or domesticate the extremists and defuse hatred for America. But the course of events in Egypt is determined by an internal balance of nationalism and religion, fear and hope, that America can only influence on the margins. That is frustrating, but hardly new.
And the limits of a certain American policy approach in the Middle East have never been more obvious. Decades of aiding a military dictator, who presides over a corrupt, unresponsive government, who has managed his economy into stagnation and scarcity, and who has driven most legitimate opposition toward the radical mosque, have not produced stability. There's a reason shahs are sometimes followed by mullahs -- because religious extremism is the opiate of a humiliated people. Who can seriously argue that the denouement in Egypt will be better because Mubarak cannot seem to take a hint and board a plane?
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.