Should we rejoice or not in America's decline?

Richard Handler on the rise and decline of those talking about America's rise and decline.

I was at a party not long ago where the conversation turned to America's place in the world (yes, it was that sort of party).

The discussion revolved around whether superpower America was in decline, and whether that was a good thing. In other words, should we rejoice or sound warning bells?

One woman, sipping sweetly on a glass of wine, said that she wished longingly for the day when America would slip from the global stage. America, she declaimed, was a malignant presence in world affairs.  But when asked what she would replace it with, she waffled. That was when the little imp in the back of my head, the one with the tragic vision, made me utter out loud, "Be careful what you wish for."

Fast forward to the present. That's precisely the retort Richard Haass gave when he was asked this same question at a Donner Foundation lecture in Toronto. (It is to be broadcast on CBC Radio Ideas on Wednesday, Jan. 5.)

Richard Haass, president of the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations, shown here when he was George W. Bush's special envoy to Northern Ireland in 2003. (Reuters)

The president of the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations, probably America's most influential foreign policy group, Haass no doubt goes to his share of chattering-class parties all over the world.

What's more, he has worked in the State Department, been a senior adviser to former president George Bush (senior) and then secretary of state Colin Powell. Plus, he has worked at the National Security Council.

In other words, he is a quintessential establishment figure.

Drawing down

Now, before you all race to your keyboards to boo, I should also say that Haass is not totally an America right-or-wrong cheerleader.

In July, for example, he wrote a piece in Newsweek called "We're not winning. It's not worth it. How to draw down in Afghanistan."

As well, in his Donner Foundation lecture he observed that America makes its share of mistakes, including the invasion of Iraq, which was initially support by a broad American consensus.

In any case, he said, right now the U.S. simply can't intervene everywhere in the world it wants to. It just can't afford it.

Now, this constraint should console many people, including even my wine-sipping acquaintance at the party a while back and those who spell America with a K as in "Amerika," to denote what they feel are its fascist undertones.

But Haass insists that while you contemplate this eventuality you ask yourself this question: "What would you replace it with?"

You could shout: Democracy! Or people power! Or people power with a green sustainable future without the intrusions of transnational corporations exporting jobs, exploiting workers and sucking profits for themselves.

But then the question becomes: Who can guarantee all these swell things?

The stability thing

Haass actually thinks a green future is sustainable and that it is the only way to go in a world that is too full of carbon and climate change (I told you he wasn't your usual American cheerleader.)

He is, what many would call, a foreign policy "realist." In other words, someone who believes that states wage war (and peace) for their own advantage and the better the leading superpower is at applying its power for a larger purpose, a global order, the more others can prosper as well.

But who shall lead? Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao gestures to U.S. President Barack Obama before their talks at the Diaoyutai State Guest House in Beijing in November 2009. (David Gray/Reuters)

Now you might think a realist's chief worry would be those nation states that would replace fading powers, especially in regional arenas.

The obvious example is Asia's rising tiger, China.

Haass is clearly uncertain what kind of superpower China will become, whether it will take its global power seriously or exercise it exclusively in its own self-interest.

Foreign policy realists, it seems, are stability junkies. And what Haass fears most is not one power replacing another, whether in Asia or the Middle East. But international disorder, a multinational stage always on the verge of anarchy.

Back to the future

Now we can quarrel about America's influence-whether it is "benign" or not. Haass used that word twice in his talk. It seemed a clumsy choice but it clearly echoed a fundamental belief.

In the end, Haass believes that even with America's mistakes, the world is a much better place than it would otherwise have been.

Of course this is not everyone's take. Paul Kennedy, the dean of American decline analysts, thinks otherwise.

A Yale-based British historian, Kennedy wrote the seminal 1987 book, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict From 1500 to 2000 and he's helped define the territory ever since.

In a recent essay in The New Republic magazine, he claims the answer to whether America is losing influence is downright easy.

You don't need a doctorate or a fancy position, a glass of wine at a party will do. Just look at where almost everything is made these days. How America is in hoc. And the fact other nations aren't afraid of it anymore.

Unlike Haass, Kennedy is not worried about this American decline. "All that is happening really," he writes, "is that the United States is slowly and naturally losing its abnormal status."

"Things are not going badly wrong. Instead, things are just coming back to normal."

The new normal for a Paul Kennedy is the old multi-power world where countries jockey for influence. Back to the future.

Kennedy has the more benign "long view" of the jockeying of states. While Haass, the American mandarin, is fearful that America may lose not only its pre-eminent status, but even the ability to manage itself.

He warned his Canadian audience that if his country can't get its economic house in order, the rest of the world will force it to.

In a way, he was asking whether America might become the new Greece? Not the classical model of democracy, but the bankrupt nation in the European Union.

How then could it manage the world if it can't manage itself?

My wine-sipping acquaintance would definitely enjoy this debate, I think. Chickens coming home to roost would be poetic justice, in her view.

Still, Haass wants us to be careful what we wish for. History is clearly not a consoling fairy tale for an American on the slide downwards. Nor perhaps for anyone else in her orbit.