When President Obama addresses the nation from the well of the House of Representatives tonight, he will face a country weary of economic distress and pessimistic about America’s place in the world. According to an NBC-Wall Street Journal poll conducted in December, over 60 percent of Americans believe that their country is “in a state of decline.” A Pew poll taken last month also found that for the first time in 40 years, a plurality of Americans (49 percent) agreed with the statement that America “should mind its own business internationally.” With rising authoritarian powers like Russia, China, and Venezuela causing America and its allies no end of frustration, and popular journalists producing a seemingly endless stream of books and articles declaring the end of American global hegemony, it’s not difficult to understand why these attitudes are so pervasive. While it may go against his softish multilateralist instincts, the president should use his first State of the Union address to reject this trendy declinism.
Were he to do this, President Obama would be acting against his own impulses, as this sense of declinism is something which he and others in his administration have at times encouraged through their words and actions. In the early months of his presidency, Obama was assailed by conservative critics for carrying out a global “apology tour,” in which he explicitly rejected the notion of American exceptionalism and acknowledged the legitimacy of complaints about alleged American unilateralism and arrogance. From China to Iran, the administration has downplayed the importance of human rights in bilateral relations, apparently believing that vocal American support for democracy abroad discredits its advocates in repressive nations. Last year in Ukraine, Vice President Biden explicitly endorsed the weaning of America from superpower status when he stated that, “We are trying to build a multipolar world.”
What the world needs now, however, is not “love, sweet love,” but America’s robust acceptance of its global leadership role. The president’s offers of an outstretched hand have repeatedly been met by a clenched fist, and those fists will only harden and multiply as American power recedes. Attempts to reset relations with Russia have produced nothing. And, the mullahs have reduced the diplomatic track with Iran to a farce. There is a sense, as Nick Cohen of The Observer writes, that whereas Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon were “terrifying figures,” often to a fault, “Obama, by contrast, doesn't frighten anyone.”
In international relations, it is a good thing to be feared by one’s enemies, provided one even believes that he has them. There was a glimmer of this resolution in the President’s Oslo speech, what with his talk of the sometime necessity of war and how America has “helped underwrite global security for more than six decades.” As Charles Krauthammer has written, decline is more of a choice than an immutable feature of global power politics. Here’s hoping that, for the remainder of his first term in office, President Obama chooses wisely.