The Sydney Morning Herald

By Tom Switzer

With the US election just four months away, the American political and media class is focusing on mundane issues such as debt, jobs and taxes.

But among the foreign policy elite the really big problem facing Americans is how their nation is going to keep its flattering but onerous title of No. 1. As the distinguished left-liberal columnist E. J. Dionne has argued: ''American decline is the spectre haunting our politics.''

Both presidential candidates insist that their goal is to ensure US pre-eminence in the world.

In his State of the Union address this year the President, Barack Obama, declared: ''Anyone who tells you that America is in decline, or that our influence has waned, doesn't know what they're talking about.''

Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee, champions a new ''American century'', an idea coined by Time magazine's founder Henry Luce to describe US global predominance after World War II.

In the words of a leading neoconservative commentator Robert Kagan, who has influenced both candidates, the US ''enjoys a unique and unprecedented ability to gain international acceptance of its power.''

And yet, every day, Americans read about their country's declining power and influence.

The dollar is weak. Debt is of European proportions. Infrastructure is ageing. Economic growth is exceptionally sluggish for a nation that is three years out of a recession.

A polarised political system is beholden to special interests. And when it comes to defeating tribal warlords in medieval societies, the US finds itself wrong-footed and outwitted; not so much an eagle as an elephant.

Early in his term, President Obama heralded a ''new beginning'' between America and Muslims, yet US popularity has again fallen in the Islamic world. Its ''favourability rating'' in Egypt, Turkey and Pakistan is lower than in 2008, George Bush's last full year in office.

But it is not so much that the US is reviled. What is more serious is the loss of credibility and prestige and, consequently, a reduced ability to lead and persuade. Washington's demands and requests are increasingly ignored; by its long-time foes in Tehran and Pyongyang, to its largest aid recipients, Cairo and Jerusalem.

Its influence is fading at global summits, too: from the G20, where the Germans reject Obama's loose fiscal policy prescriptions; to climate conferences, where the Chinese chug along the smoky path to prosperity; to security talks, where the Pakistanis refuse to sever ties between their intelligence services and the Taliban.

To be sure, even at the height of the Cold War the US did not exert total control over events all across the globe. It could not prevent the Cuban and Iranian revolutions and it suffered defeat in Vietnam, but the US nonetheless exercised enormous influence around the postwar world.

Today, moreover, the US remains the world's largest economy, the issuer of its reserve currency, its lone military superpower; and many countries around the world want American protection. With higher immigration and fertility rates than other developed nations, the US is also in a relatively good position to deal with an ageing population.

All true. It's just that US power and influence has waned, and will continue to wane in what the American journalist and author Fareed Zakaria calls ''the post-American world''.

In recent times, we have witnessed the emergence of new power centres in several key regions. By most accounts, China's economy will become the world's biggest within a decade. And with its military budget rising about 10 per cent per year, Beijing could convert more of its wealth into military assets.

As a Harvard University professor of international affairs, Stephen Walt, has pointed out, if China is like all previous great powers, including the US, its definition of vital national interests will grow as its power increases — and it will try to flex its muscle to protect an expanding sphere of influence. A Sino-American security competition could result, with potentially serious consequences for Australia.

True, China has its own problems, not least demographic. Still, at some point in the next decade, it will become the No.1 world economy. The emerging powers of India, Turkey and Brazil have also achieved economic growth and political stability and are becoming more assertive in the world.

Meanwhile, Americans are increasingly less concerned about foreign policy than at any time since the heyday of isolationism between the world wars. In a polity that is acutely sensitive to public opinion — one that is driven by polls, focus groups and the relentless 24/7 internet and media cycle — this means that foreign policy is severely downgraded in politicians' calculations.

This is the strange new world that Americans find themselves in. All their lives they have known their country as the most powerful, most prosperous and economically and culturally the most influential one in the world.

For many Americans of different political and ideological persuasions, losing global pre-eminence means losing the country they know and love.

It was not George Bush but the Democrat former secretary of state Madeleine Albright who declared: ''We are the indispensable nation; we stand tall and see further than other countries into the future.'' And it was not Bush's deputy Dick Cheney but the present Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, who argued: ''Americans have always risen to the challenges we have faced. It is in our DNA. We do believe there are no limits on what is possible or what can be achieved.''

Yet history has left American exceptionalism behind: the world has moved beyond the capacity of any one state to shape the global agenda. If the next president does not prepare his fellow citizens for this reality, the American people's reaction to setbacks at home and abroad is more likely to be angry and irrational.