Two foreign policy experts debated America’s role in today’s world and how it may change in the coming decades in the Janus Forum Lecture Series’ second event Wednesday afternoon.
During the lecture, titled “The Voice of America: Have We Been Silenced?” Robert Kagan, a senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, predicted that America will hold an influential role in the 21st century, while Charles Kupchan, a professor of international affairs at Georgetown University, described a rearranged global order in which the United States may not exclusively predominate.
Kagan spoke first, asserting that in today’s world, “America has the loudest voice around” – though it may not always be a welcome source of input. Kagan emphasized that he was not “saying that America can never be in decline” – instead, he felt that the day when “the United States will not enjoy the position that it currently enjoys” is not in the immediate future. Kagan noted that since the country’s inception, there have always been people who have subscribed to various theories of declinism, including Patrick Henry in the 18th century.
But generation after generation, America has persisted in the face of adversity, despite “constantly (worrying) that it lost the best of itself,” Kagan said. This paranoid American psyche is “overly influenced by current events,” he said, creating a “nostalgic fallacy in present notions of decline.” Such perceptions create a glorified past that may not actually have been as great as it is remembered to be.
Kagan also outlined some of America’s advantages, stressing that its geographical location remains a constant asset. Its position as an island power ensures that it is in a “very safe neighborhood” geopolitically, compared to countries like China, which must compete with nearby powers such as Japan.
With respect to the current unrest in the Middle East, Kagan dismissed the false perception that there was a time when the United States could direct other nations. In fact, Kagan said, with the exception of reconstruction immediately following World War II, the United States was historically “far from being able to get what it wanted whenever it wanted.”
“We are less influential than some times in the past, but we are also more influential than other times in the past,” Kagan added.
Today’s America faces many economic, domestic and international challenges, Kagan acknowledged, but he disputed the charge that the rise of other countries such as Brazil, Russia, India and China will amount of “detraction from American power and influence.”
Kagan cited the United States’ ability to adapt and improve, often emerging from economic recessions more quickly than other countries.
“We are a long way still from seeing the decline of the United States and, more importantly, of the world order that it has supported,” Kagan concluded.
Stepping up to the podium, Kupchan noted that he was not arguing that the “United States is in decline, if by that phrase we mean the country’s best days are behind it.”
Focusing on the current economic landscape, military situation and the current global liberal order, Kupchan said he was “less concerned about the numbers” and was more alarmed by America’s inability to shift its democratic system “out of neutral.”
With respect to America’s economy, Kupchan said it is a “political problem more than an economic problem,” adding that the United States once held 50 percent of global Gross Domestic Product. It currently possesses 25 percent of global GDP and “will see that share decrease,” according to Kupchan. He went on to predict that the “global pecking order will be turned upside-down” as the West “will find itself (controlling) below 50 percent of global GDP.”
Addressing America’s military might, Kupchan asserted that the military gap is “much greater and more durable,” citing China’s recent landing of a plane on an aircraft carrier, which he called an “upside-down Ukranian bathtub.” But Kupchan warned that while “China is (currently) far behind us,” the “balance of power in that local strategic theater (will begin) to equilibrate,” adding that “military power is only one dimension” of global might.
“We can’t afford to invade Iraq when we don’t need to,” said Kagan, adding that the United States will likely adopt strategies of diplomacy and will need to consider military engagements more carefully to adapt to a changing global climate.
With respect to the world’s currently American-led liberal order, Kupchan said “democracy is overrated,” since rising BRIC powers may adopt democratic forms of government that are a “kind of democracy that is not Western.” Kupchan predicted that the United States will not be able to rely on rising democracies, citing that “our top national security priority is being undermined by India,” referring to the country’s ongoing trade with Iran as the United States continues to enforce heavy sanctions on Iran.
In developing the future world order, Kagan said he believes that “we will get some, and we will give some.”
The United States must “look at that world with eyes wide open,” he added.