By Tom Switzer
American power is past its zenith, and even Nixon saw it coming.
WHETHER or not Mitt Romney misinterpreted Bob Carr's remarks about American decline, one thing is clear: the Republican presidential candidate is running not just against Barack Obama, but also the notion that the era that has defined international relations since World War II is drawing to a close.
For Romney, only a new ''American Century'', a term coined by Time magazine founder Henry Luce in the 1940s, can guarantee a world of peace and prosperity. ''A strong America is the best deterrent to war that has ever been invented,'' he argues. If elected in November, his goal would be ''to preserve America as the strongest military power in the world, second to none, with no comparable power anywhere in the world''.
Yet Romney's pronouncements are in striking contrast to those of another presidential candidate 40 years ago. In the lead up to the 1972 election, this US politician tried to prepare his fellow citizens to adopt policies which would smooth the path to a new, more limited role in foreign affairs.
It was not anti-war Democrat George McGovern, but the anti-communist Republican Richard Nixon who declared: ''When we see the world in which we are about to move, the United States no longer is in the position of complete pre-eminence or predominance [and] that is not a bad thing. As a matter of fact, it can be a constructive thing.''
A man who had earlier championed a Pax Americana was now acknowledging that Americans had to learn to adapt themselves to their status as only one power in an emerging five-centre multipolar international system.
In July 1971, Nixon declared: ''In five years, 10 years, perhaps it is 15, but in any event within our time,'' America's global pre-eminence would be replaced by a multipolar world, in which the United States, the Soviet Union, western Europe, Japan and China would be leading powers.
Imagine if Romney or Obama welcomed the end of US pre-eminence. The Washington Beltway consensus would denounce them as declinists, perhaps even un-American. Yet Nixon's remarks sparked no outrage four decades ago.
Nor was it an isolated incident. In 1972 Nixon suggested: ''I think it will be a safer world and a better world if we have a strong, healthy United States, Europe, Soviet Union, China, Japan, each balancing the other.''
Here was Nixon, a long-time champion of an ''American Century'', acknowledging what no president since has been willing to recognise: that we live in a plural world and that US power is past its apogee. ''It is when one nation becomes infinitely more powerful in relation to its potential competitor that the danger of war arises,'' Nixon declared in language more reminiscent of 19th-century balance-of-power realists Metternich and Bismarck than 21st-century Wilsonian idealists Bush and Romney.
Compare Nixon's rhetoric with that of the current Republican candidate: ''I will insist on a military so powerful no one would think of challenging it.''
Of course, Nixon's prediction about the end of US global predominance was premature. His assessment of Soviet military power and Europe's economic strengths was exaggerated.
Nonetheless, Nixon did recognise the limits to the US role as world policeman in an increasingly more plural system that is starting to become more evident.
Bloodied by quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan, crippled by debts of European proportions and stubbornly high unemployment, shattered by a crisis of confidence, the US can no longer impose its will and leadership across the globe. Meanwhile, the rise of China and the emergence of India, Brazil and Turkey suggest that power is becoming more diffuse. On the campaign trail, however, Romney and even Obama unashamedly advocate American pre-eminence, exceptionalism and greatness.
Nixon recognised the perils of such grandiose visions. For the old cold warrior, framing choices in terms of all or nothing made little sense. Instead, US foreign policy had to find a balance behind the extremes of withdrawal and gung-ho crusading, where discrimination and prudence took precedence over consistency and comprehensiveness.
Tom Switzer is a research associate at the University of Sydney's United States Studies Centre and editor of Spectator Australia.