It is again becoming common to characterise the United States as a bystander to international affairs. That this argument has often been made — and proven premature — is unlikely to assuage those who believe this time is different. 

Iran’s uranium-enrichment program continues. North Korea has ominously pledged to conduct a “new form” of nuclear test. Internecine slaughter in Syria has produced one of the worst humanitarian crises of the past two decades and made it into a recruiting ground for a wide array of jihadist outfits. Relations between China and many of its neighbours continue to deteriorate. Russia’s annexation of Crimea seems to cast doubt on America’s will and capacity to uphold a rules-based international system. Perhaps more than any other development in recent years, however, the fall of Iraq’s second-largest city to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria — an organisation so brutal that al Qaeda disavowed it in early February — has convinced a wide segment of the global commentariat that US influence abroad is in terminal decline. 

At the risk of sounding insouciant, however, one could produce a comparable catalogue at any point in US history since the end of the Second World War. Indeed, one of the ironies of the postwar era is that while the US has often appeared helpless at certain moments and even during protracted stretches, it has come to wield an inordinate amount of influence — reflected principally in its development of and centrality within a liberal international system. 

Many who lament US decline contend that it was a hegemon in the immediate postwar period. While its shares of military and economic power resources were indeed much higher in the late 1940s than they are today, that disproportion of power did not always yield commensurate influence. Just four years after the war’s conclusion, the Soviet Union detonated a nuclear bomb, certifying the end of America’s atomic monopoly. One month later, on 1 October 1949, Mao Zedong declared the People’s Republic of China. As a 1997 PBS documentary observed, these developments made Americans feel “increasingly frightened by a world that seemed to be spinning out of control.” They prompted a directive that President Truman issued on 31 January 1950, instructing the Secretaries of State and Defense to “undertake a reexamination of our objectives in peace and war.” 

In their seminal response to that request, NSC-68, Paul Nitze and his colleagues acknowledged that the United States possessed “the greatest military potential of any single nation in the world” as well as “a marked atomic superiority over the Soviet Union”; they further noted “the economic superiority of the free world over the Soviet world.” Their overall tone, however, was urgent, and often dire. Warning that a “continuation of present [political, economic, and military] trends would result in a serious decline in the strength of the free world relative to the Soviet Union and its satellites,” they concluded that “the integrity and vitality of our system is in greater jeopardy than ever before in our history” and that “our free society finds itself mortally challenged by the Soviet system.” The 1950s and 1960s appeared to provide ample evidence in support of these judgements. After all, notes Joseph Nye, a supposedly hegemonic United States was unable to “‘roll back’ communism in Eastern Europe, prevent stalemate in the Korean War, defeat Vietnam’s National Liberation Front, or dislodge the Castro regime in Cuba.”

With the march of an apparent Soviet juggernaut across vast swathes of Africa and Asia, the 1970s sowed even greater alarm among US observers. In a famous March 1975 essay advising the United States to “go into opposition” at the United Nations, Daniel Moynihan observed that it “regularly finds itself in a minority (often a minority of one or two or at most a half-dozen) in [the General Assembly] of 138 members … We are witnessing the emergence of a world order dominated arithmetically by the countries of the Third World.” 

At the end of 1978, national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski gave an interview to the New York Times summarising his worldview. While he did not endorse the declinist thesis of the time, he did not temper his concern when asked to identify “the principal threats to the United States in the future.” The “worst problem of all,” he explained, “is the possibility” that the ongoing “increase in Soviet power” “would intersect” with “the disintegration of political fabric” in “an arc of instability” traversing Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Indonesia. 

Three weeks later, in an interview with Time, Henry Kissinger assessed that with the “Soviet march through Africa, with Cuban troops, from Angola to Ethiopia, and the Soviet moves through Afghanistan and South Yemen,” the geopolitical momentum had turned against the United States. Echoing Brzezinski, he warned of “a confluence of Communist organisation and radical currents which together [could] produce major historical changes.” 

Robert Tucker, then a professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University, was even grimmer than Kissinger: “the principal developments of 1979,” he said, “registered the continued decline in the nation’s international position.” Indeed, he regarded this conclusion as banal: “the impact of the events which have brought this decade to a close has been such as to make the fact of America’s decline very nearly a commonplace.” 

The 1980s did little to assuage concerns about declining US influence. Diplomat George Ball argued that “the most notable development of 1980 was the decline of America’s standing and authority with its friends and allies — and indeed with other non-communist nations.” In 1984, the editor of Foreign Affairs concluded that “the world of 1984 is in a much more dangerous condition than it was in 1972–73.” 

The environment, he continued, “is all too forbiddingly reminiscent of that which prevailed in the period prior to 1914.” In his judgement, the US response to “the oil embargo and fourfold oil price rise of 1973–74” had contributed to “a renewed decline of respect abroad for US policy and wisdom, in addition to its specific economic impact.” 

In May 1988, Washington Post correspondent David Remnick lamented that “American influence abroad makes the money picture [the post-Black Monday economy] look positively vibrant. The splendid military mission in the Caribbean … seems now a depressing event, merely another embarrassment in line with the jumbled efforts in Nicaragua, the Philippines, and Lebanon.” He likened Ronald Reagan to Norma Desmond of the 1950 hit Sunset Boulevard, “aping his starlit days by the emerald swimming pool while the world around him moves ineluctably on.” Around the same time, political economist David Calleo memorably warned that America’s “relative decline has begun to turn absolute.” 

The proposition of declining US influence even managed to survive the end of the Cold War — albeit with less force. A year after Charles Krauthammer famously declared “the unipolar moment,” David Gergen intoned that the United States could not “achieve order in its streets or even in its capital, much less in the rest of the world.” 

“Unless more Saddams appear out of the overseas mist to endanger the nation’s vital interests,” he warned, “the continuing, deep-seated domestic problems of the United States are likely to make it more reluctant as an international leader.” 

In a 1995 book, Chalmers Johnson asked “why the United States has lost economic influence and must rely on others to help it.” If it “is not totally to lose control over its own national security,” he warned, “it must regain its economic competitiveness.” The following year, historian Donald White published a book claiming that America’s influence in international affairs had, in fact, been declining since the Vietnam War. As the decade came to a close, Samuel Huntington channelled Moynihan from a quarter century earlier: “On issue after issue, the United States has found itself increasingly alone, with one or a few partners, opposing most of the rest of the world’s states and peoples.”

Declinism has not, of course, gone uncontested in the postwar era. Even so, considering how often the US is said to have been in decline during the past seven decades, and how many strategic outcomes have run counter to US national interests in that time, it is surprising that current references to its postwar “hegemony” are so widespread and so often go unchallenged. As Robert Kagan explained in a much-discussed essay in January 2012: 

…impressions about declining American influence are based on a nostalgic fallacy: that there was once a time when the United States could shape the whole world to suit its desires … There was never such a time … The exertion of influence has always been a struggle, which may explain why, in every single decade since the end of World War II, Americans have worried about their declining influence. 

The analytical misjudgement Kagan spotlights can only yield policy misjudgments — two of which immediately suggest themselves. For those who contend not only that the United States is in decline, but also that this decline is akin to a terminal illness, better to be accepted with grace than fought with vigour, it is likely to yield a policy of retrenchment. 

Mainstream analysis has largely, and properly, rejected this proposal. Countering threats to vital US national interests, mobilising coalitions to address the world’s most urgent challenges, and sustaining an international system that nurtures peace and prosperity are among the objectives that require robust US engagement. 

Paradoxically, however, the same starting premise — namely, US influence is declining — can yield the opposite, equally fallacious, prescription: overextension. 

The more one believes that the United States once exercised hegemony; that it no longer does; and that it should undertake to reclaim that perch, because global order requires US dominance; the more likely one is to seize upon every outcome that runs counter to US interests, however inconsequential, as evidence of its impotence. Adopting a “do something now” doctrine would be especially unwise in view of America’s sluggish economy. 

The unfortunate reality is that the United States cannot put out every strategic fire or respond to every moral outrage. As McGeorge Bundy explained nearly half a century ago, shortly after stepping down as President Lyndon B. Johnson’s national security advisor: 

…what happens in the world is not determined by Americans alone … Nations in all continents, in the last ten years, have shown a persistent tendency to have histories of their own which are only marginally related to the actions of the United States … The role of the United States is seldom central in the internal affairs of other states … Anyone who thinks that the lines of influence from Washington are like so many strings to so many puppets has never sat at the pulling end. 

It is odd that such a self-evident proposition would ever have needed articulation, let alone elaboration. That it requires reiteration today — when America’s shares of power resources are considerably lower than they were at the time of Bundy’s assessment, and when the pathways from power resources to desired outcomes are far more complicated — is perplexing. 

Jacob Heilbrunn, Steve Clemons, and Andrew Bacevich are among the numerous observers who have recently addressed what Scottish historian Denis Brogan termed the “illusion of American omnipotence.” Richard Haass offers a particularly crisp reaffirmation of that proposition: the United States must “accept the limits to what can be accomplished and in some cases needs be accomplished”; that concession, in turn, “will require setting priorities.” 

In that regard, a July 2000 report by Graham Allison and Robert Blackwill deserves close reexamination: it unapologetically distinguishes between and specifies “vital,” “extremely important,” “important,” and “less important/secondary” interests. Robert Art, Bernard Brodie, Donald Nuechterlein, and Elmer Plischke have also produced notable taxonomies. While every individual would place different interests in each category, the point is that US foreign policy should proceed from a rigorously derived hierarchy of interests. 

The preceding should not be interpreted as an effort to rationalise a complacent US foreign policy. However many strategic mistakes, even blunders, the United States has made, its position today would be far weaker had it principally been a witness to events rather than a shaper of them. Stephen Walt recently listed what he considers to be six major successes of postwar US foreign policy: the Marshall Plan, which helped to resuscitate Europe; the formation of economic arrangements and institutions such as the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and the World Trade Organization, which have contributed to enormous gains in global trade and output; the Non- Proliferation Regime, which has helped ensure that only nine countries, not several dozen, have nuclear weapons; the opening to China, which helped integrate a country of some 872 million people into the international system and prevented US–China relations from devolving into hostility; the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, after whose signing the two countries have never gone to war; and German reunification, which helped to spare Europe further ravage. Those successes, among others, have been the product of creative thinking and sustained reinforcement, not wishful dithering. 

As long as the international system evolves, though, the United States will encounter new circumstances in which it is incapable of advancing its national interests substantially or at all; as in every decade of the postwar era, commentators in the 2020s and every decade thereafter will doubtless find many occasions on which to lament US impotence in international affairs. The United States cannot hope to avert every strategic setback. It should instead do its best to discern and align its foreign policy with core transformations of international order. 

To that end, Paul Kennedy’s counsel from a quarter century ago is equally apt today: “the only serious threat to the real interests of the United States can come from a failure to adjust sensibly to the newer world order. Given the considerable array of strengths still possessed by the United States, it ought not in theory to be beyond the talents of successive administrations to arrange the diplomacy and strategy of this readjustment.” 

One need not be starry-eyed about the dangers of today’s world to conclude that the United States has done a reasonably good job of achieving what Nitze and his colleagues called its “fundamental purpose”: fostering “a world environment in which the American system can survive and flourish.” 

The prospect of a war on the Eurasian landmass has diminished significantly, the nuclear sword of Damocles that loomed over humanity for the second half of the last century has disappeared, and the United States no longer faces an implacable antagonist with ideological and territorial ambitions that traverse the globe. Amid the latest din about declining US influence, one should not forget such enormous accomplishments.