Is America's preeminent world role over?
That's what a recent New Yorker essay, based on interviews with presidential advisers, claimed. It characterized the new Obama foreign-relations style as "leading from behind" -- given the supposed inevitable American decline and growing unpopularity. The president is said to agree with pundits such as Fareed Zakaria and Tom Friedman, who have often outlined the parameters of what the post-American world would look like.
But if American abrogates its preeminent leadership position of the last 65 years, wouldn't the world look a lot like it did in the pre-American days of the 1930s? Then, a Depression-era United States was just one of many powers and reluctant to assert leadership abroad.
Eighty years ago, a newly Westernized and anti-democratic Japanese powerhouse, in the fashion of today's rising China, was carving out uncontested Asian spheres of influence. An oil-, rubber- and iron-hungry imperial Japan claimed it needed more natural resources to fuel its industrial revolution, and so spread an authoritarian Asian co-prosperity sphere of influence as an alternative to alliance with an economically depressed and psychologically withdrawn America.
Most Americans then were tired anyway of overseas commitments. Our ancestors felt that their considerable sacrifices in World War I either had gone unappreciated or had solved little -- not unlike the way we are becoming exhausted by Afghanistan, Iraq and now Libya.
A newly confident, united and ascendant Germany was growing angry at other European countries. It nursed a long list of financial grievances over feeling used and abused. Sound familiar? A weak Britain and France had almost no confidence in their own declining militaries -- sort of like the sad spectacle of their impotence in Libya that we have witnessed over the last two months.
Much-vaunted international institutions, like the bankrupt League of Nations, were about as effective in the role of world watchdogs as the corrupt United Nations is today. Europe and America were emerging from the nightmare of financial insolvency.
The so-called international community cared as much in the 1930s about rising, aggressive totalitarian states in Germany, Italy, Japan and Russia as it does today about ascendant China or Iran. Millions of Jews, then as now, heard crazy threats of their annihilation, and desperately -- and in vain -- looked to the protection of the United States.
In other words, the post-American world could look a lot like the rather terrifying pre-American version of seven decades past. Why in the world would we wish to return to it?
The declinists insist we have no choice. Globalization has spread power. America has depleted its resources, both natural and financial. And our prior leadership abroad is something worthy of apology rather than pride anyway. Think of receding postcolonial Britain around 1946 as our model, not the confident, rising postwar United States of Harry Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower.
But decline is always a choice, not an inevitable fate. America's known fossil-fuel reserves -- natural gas, oil, coal, shale, tar-sands -- are larger than ever. The problem is not finding more energy but marshaling the will to use the vast new sources of energy we have recently discovered.
Our military is not just larger than the alternatives, but vastly larger and ever more lethal. Given the enormous size and productivity of the U.S. economy, we have the means -- but not yet the will -- to rapidly pay down our huge debt. In a world short on food, America is the world's greatest agricultural producer.
Other industrialized populations age and decline; ours is still growing. America is widely criticized abroad even as it remains by far the favored destination of global immigrants. Diverse religious practice is still vibrant in the United States. Elsewhere, it is fossilized in Europe, nonexistent in China, and intolerant in the Middle East.
While riots, strikes or revolutions sweep southern Europe and the Middle East, the United States remains stable and quiet -- despite far greater racial, ethnic and religious diversity. Globalization is still mostly a phenomenon of American innovation and originality to be licensed and outsourced abroad.
There have been plenty of thugs who threatened their neighbors over the last 30 years. Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic, Manuel Noriega and the Taliban were all deposed from rule only by American power. The "lost" war in Iraq resulted in a democratic and, for now, still viable government in place of genocide. Afghanistan is depressing, but the medieval Taliban still have remained out of power for nearly a decade.
In short, the old pre-American world was as unstable and dangerous as would be a new post-American update. But both retrenchments were choices that an unsure and depressed United States made -- not symptoms, then or now, of inherent weakness or inevitable decline.