Since its victory in the Cold War, America’s global hegemony has rested on three pillars: economic power, military might, and a vast capacity to export its popular culture. The recent emergence of additional powers – the European Union, China, India, and a Russia driven to recover its lost status – has eroded America’s capacity to shape events unilaterally.
Even so, America remains by far the world’s most powerful country; its decline has more to do with its incompetent use of power than with the emergence of competitors. It is American leaders’ “suicidal statecraft,” to use Arnold Toynbee’s pithy phrase for what he considered the ultimate cause of imperial collapse, that is to blame for America’s plight.
Consider the Middle East. Nothing reveals the decline of the United States in the region better than the contrast between America’s sober use of power in the first Gulf War in 1991 and the hubris and deceit of today’s Iraq war.
In 1991, America forged the most formidable international coalition since World War II, and led it in a fully legitimate war aimed at restoring regional balance after Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. In 2003, America went to war without its trans-Atlantic allies after manipulating false assertions. In doing so, the US embarked on a preposterous grand strategy that aimed no less at simultaneously dismantling Iraq’s tyrannical regime, restructuring the entire Middle East, destroying al-Qaeda, and helping democracy to take root throughout the Arab world.