I’ve always found Victor Davis Hanson, the historian and National Review columnist, a bit cartoonish and over the top. He has a habit of letting his passions and conclusions get waaaay out in front of the evidence. This is the guy, you might recall, who back in February was proclaiming that “We are quite literally … teetering on an Obama implosion.” That was just two weeks after Obama’s inauguration.
So when I saw a Hanson column headlined “Circling Sharks Smell American Blood,” I figured I knew what to expect: yet another conservative condemnation of Obama’s performance on his Asia trip, in which observers all over the world noted a more humble approach to geopolitics and America’s role in the world.
For many on the right, such an argument is no doubt tempting. However illogicially, it offers a way to project the blame for America’s relative decline onto one person — a man who they already hate for other reasons. And while Hanson indulges in a bit of that, he also acknowledges that there is something much deeper going on, with its roots and blame going back decades and implicating leaders of both parties.
Add it all up and there is a growing sense that America is in fact hemorrhaging — as both friends and enemies abroad smell blood in the water. The president through conciliation and concession — not to mention constant talk — is trying to superficially restore the influence we once earned by virtue of our economic power and self-confidence in our exceptional past and singular values.
But being both loud and vulnerable is not a winning combination, since political influence and military power are ultimately predicated on economic strength.
The United States needs to re-establish itself as financially credible and responsible so that when we lecture — about everything from global warming to Iranian nukes — we do so from a position of strength. That means we need to stop borrowing other nations’ money.
America also can’t afford to keep importing high-priced oil that we won’t produce at home. And we should stop promising ever-more government entitlements to ever-more voters that we can’t even begin to pay for.
For as we continue in our self-indulgence, a more defiant world seems to be saying that the old rules of the game have changed. In response, America should keep quieter abroad — and try finding a bigger stick.
I’d quibble with some of Hanson’s assessment — it is geologically impossible, for example, for the United States to produce enough additional oil here at home to significantly alter our strategic need for overseas sources — but at its core, he’s right. Our relative position in the world has indeed changed, for reasons that long predate Obama. The challenge for the new president is two-fold: Address the underlying causes of that decline, from fiscal irresponsibility to military overreach to energy dependence; and manage that changed reality both out there, in the world beyond our borders, and here at home as well, where the image of an American colossus astride the world will not be surrendered easily.
The truth is that we will never again be the unrivaled unipower we were in those years after the collapse of the Berlin Wall; that was an historic anomaly, and could not have been sustained regardless of our policies. No such power imbalance ever lasts long; countervailing powers always arise. However, with sacrifice and effective leadership, there’s no reason whatsoever that we cannot continue to vigorously defend our national interests and remain a powerful force for progress on the world stage.
On the other hand, if we don’t respond with sacrifice and effective leadership — and how we define those things is a subject of valid debate — events will take a different course. The global power structure is rearranging itself, as it does periodically throughout history.
For America and the world, much that was once settled is now up for grabs.