The decline of the U.S. has been a hot topic in policy debates and popular culture in the U.S. for the last few years. Since the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers and the Iraq War blunder, these debates have dominated the scholarly, intellectual and policy worlds. The debate has even generated its own polarization between "declinists" and "anti-declinists."
A significant problem with this debate in the U.S. was that in a short period of time the emerging polarization in the debate started to import the pattern of bipartisanship in the U.S. However, the decline or the resilience of the U.S. super power in the world would have global repercussions, which would affect the international system as a whole.
Thus it would also be important to look at the perception and understanding of this debate in different parts of the world. Several times in this column and multiple times in different venues I tried to provide an external perspective about the debate. For a significant segment of the international community the real reason for the decline of the U.S. was not the crumbling infrastructure, the failure of the education system or the social problems in American society.
What was more effective in creating this impact in the international arena in the decline debate was the U.S.'s action or inaction in world politics. Especially in the last few years, U.S. policy in Syria and indecisiveness in the foreign policy realm were considered signs of the U.S. decline in the world.
The fact that the U.S. was avoiding its superpower responsibility in the face of major crises in the world, and the fact that the superpower of the world increasingly lost its deterrence force against the oppressive regimes around the world, were considered indicators of this decline in the international arena.
Because of that, many around the world regarded this decline not as an involuntary power transition in the international system, but a voluntary abandonment of the superpower status, a decline by choice. As a result of this thinking, many non-American analysts around the world were criticizing the U.S.'s lack of resolve and action in the international arena while at the same time arguing about the decline of the U.S.
This perception generated major concerns among allies around the world. The question was whether the U.S. was a reliable ally or not. The same perception encouraged different regimes around the world to be more courageous in their violation of international norms and principles. During the seven years of the Obama presidency, different actors around the world have tried to understand and make sense of this "decline" and its possible fallouts.
In the last year of the Obama presidency however, we started to see an increasing confusion about the perception of the "decline" of the U.S. Many around the world are re-thinking the debate and whether this was really a choice for those who wanted to have a lighter footprint. One of the primary reasons of this is the beginning of the election year in the U.S.
For the last few elections we started to see a gradual decline in the level and capacity of some of the debates between presidential candidates. Most of these debates revealed not policy proposals or innovative ideas about the problems that the U.S. is facing in the country or in the international system. Instead we are increasingly hearing about the fears and worries of the presidential candidates.
Instead of unifying the voters in the country by providing different ideas and perspectives, some candidates have been marketing fears and trying to rally people around this fear. The external threat perception and fear that was so prevalent in the presidential races in the Cold War were very different than the new threat perception that has been on the agenda of some of the candidates this year.
The fight against these fears also suffered from the same lack of sophistication. Policies proposing to build a wall to keep immigrants out of the country, putting some kind of chip into the body of immigrants to track them down like FedEx boxes and banning the entry of Muslims to the country all sound not very "super powery."
The more concerning part was that these arguments, which might have been spelled out by a small segment of the population and candidates at the extreme ends of the political spectrum, now carried to the mainstream politics. The frontrunners and ambitious candidates, some of whom have been in elected and executive offices before, can express these opinions easily in front of the TV cameras.
These candidates might be thinking that politics and policy are different and what happens in the election campaigns stays in the election campaigns. However this is not the case for a superpower in a digital age.
To see and hear the fear of the nominees for the highest executive position, who will have the nuclear codes and who will be the commander-in-chief of the biggest military in the world, and the ways that these candidates offer to deal with the "fear factor" along with the level of these debates significantly impacting the U.S.'s image and stature around the world.
After watching this campaign season in the U.S., many around the world started to think that the U.S. is really declining and this decline might not be a matter of choice. This of course is a paradoxical situation given that the campaign slogans of some of these candidates include words and verbs about resisting decline, such as making America great or reigniting American promise.
In the international community people may not know through which policies these candidates will achieve the stated outcomes in the campaign season, and the politics some of the candidates pursue in this campaign strengthen the perception about the U.S. as a declining power.
About the author
Kılıç Buğra Kanat is Research Director at SETA Foundation at Washington, D.C. He is an assistant professor of Political Science at Penn State University, Erie.