The art of declining politely: Obama's prudent presidency and the waning of American power

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Predictions of 'American decline' have come and gone before, apparently in cycles, leading some to regard it as a cultural trope stemming from domestic insecurities rather than a serious prospect. There is reason to believe, however, that this time is different. Fundamental erosion of the United States' decades-long primacy may finally be at hand, and wise analysis should resist the temptations of contrarianism or denial. Critics of 'declinism' have offered important caveats with which we should qualify any overly simplistic or deterministic portrait of America's trajectory from hegemon to lesser status. This article gives such qualifications due weight while nevertheless seeking to steer our gaze back towards the core truth at the heart of the declinist thesis. That is: unless something very significant changes to jolt the course of events onto a different track, the relative power of the United States-measured in terms of its advantage over others in economic and military capacity-will be shrinking significantly over the decades to come. Happily, the nation's current president seems to have a disposition well fitted to leading the nation into the opening stages of an era of relative decline. President Obama has made headlines in recent months for his boldness in orchestrating the killing of Osama bin Laden. A fuller survey of his foreign policy, however, reveals that its most signal feature has been prudence and circumspection regarding American power and its exercise. Major divergence between the ends pursued and the capacities available for their pursuit is one of the cardinal sins giving rise to strategic failure. It is thus fortunate for the United States that it should have a president who, even if he may not be inclined to cast it in such words himself, seems disposed not to 'rage against the dying of the light' of American primacy, but to practice the admirable art of declining politely.


Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)803-824
Number of pages21
JournalInternational Affairs
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jul 2011