James M. Lindsay

The Water's Edge

Lindsay analyzes the politics shaping U.S. foreign policy and the sustainability of American power.

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Is America’s Global Influence in Decline?

by James M. Lindsay
October 4, 2013

Earlier this week, I did an interview for the show Digital Age with host Jim Zirin. The topic was “Is America’s global influence in decline?” I don’t know that I actually answered Jim’s question, but over the course of our conversation we discussed the partial government slowdown, the Snowden affair, the possible balkanization of the Internet, President Obama’s sagging approval ratings, Congress’s reluctance to endorse military action against Syria, the limits of military force, Iran’s nuclear intentions, and Egypt’s future, among other topics.

You can watch the interview on YouTube here.

The more I reflect on the question of American influence the more I realize I am of two minds on the answer. I have always been skeptical of America’s ability to remake other societies. The troubles the United States encountered over the last decade in Iraq or Afghanistan are not new. A hundred years ago, Woodrow Wilson vowed “to teach the South American republics to elect good men!” He discovered that his pupils didn’t take kindly to his teaching. Sustained interventions in the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, and elsewhere left behind a love for baseball and a disdain for Yankee imperialism, but not much else.

I have always been more bullish about the ability of the United States to influence the foreign policy choices that other countries make. America’s military superiority, its economic vitality, and its ability to rally other countries are unmatched. Those advantages are deeply rooted and surprisingly robust. Whenever the United States meets setbacks, whether it’s the launch of Sputnik, withdrawal from Vietnam, or Middle East oil embargos, experts announce America’s decline. Then a few short years later, newspapers and magazines fill up with articles pointing out that the experts were wrong.

The current partial government shutdown and the looming debt ceiling crisis may turn out to be more of the same. The government shutdowns on Bill Clinton’s watch prompted much handwringing about the future of American influence. The United States went on to enjoy several years of extraordinary economic growth, and talk of a failing America faded from discussion.

The same thing might happen with the current government shutdown. But it’s hard not to shake the feeling that things really are different this time. If the United States does default on its debt—which should be unthinkable but is now the topic of the hour—the consequences would be catastrophic. It is precisely because the costs of a default are so obvious that we are not likely to go over the brink.

But even if we avoid default and a continuing resolution gets passed, the problem of how to fund the United States government in a sustainable fashion remains. A government that is open for business but lurches from short-term funding bill to short-term funding bill is not one that can make long-term investments or inspire the confidence of others. A chronic crisis will sap America’s economic strength and dim its appeal as a political model to be emulated. That would erode American global influence.

Then, of course, the United States might just be repeating on old pattern. Perhaps Washington will get out of the hole it has dug for the country and we will wonder yet again why everyone underestimates America’s resilience.

So here’s to hoping that that Bismarck was right that “God has a special providence for fools, drunks, and the United States of America.”

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