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No Doubt: U.S. Remains 'Tremendously Influential'


President Obama's recent State of the Union message contained an answer to Republicans who claim he believes American is in decline.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Anyone who tells you that American is in decline or that our influence has waned doesn't know what they're talking about.

MONTAGNE: That same day, the president spoke at length about an article he said underscores exactly the message he's trying to make. In a briefing with TV anchors, Mr. Obama discussed a Robert Kagan essay in the New Republic called "The Myth of American Decline." That means the president was quoting a neoconservative writer, who is also an advisor to Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.


As the lives of foreign policy writers go, Mr. Kagan has hit the jackpot, just as he prepares for publication of a new book, "The World America Made." And he's in our studios.

Mr. Kagan, welcome.

ROBERT KAGAN: Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: Ok. Why aren't we in decline?

KAGAN: Well, a lot of what people think is decline is based on a very faulty memory of what things used to be like. People have a sense that America used to call the shots, used to be able to dominate the world, get everyone to do what we wanted them to do. And of course that's ludicrous.

Anyone who remembers even the early Cold War years knows that we couldn't do anything about the revolution in China. We couldn't do anything about the Soviets getting a nuclear weapon, etcetera, etcetera. So we're making a bad comparison.

And if you look at the fundamentals of power, on the economic side, the United States produces 25 percent of the world's GDP, and has for the past 40 years. That hasn't changed. People note the rise of China and Asia, which is true, but most of that has come at the expense of Europe's declining GDP.

In terms of military power, even with defense budget cuts that I think are unfortunate, the United States is still by far the most powerful nation in the world. So I think the United States remains tremendously influential.

INSKEEP: Although you make a point, that when we have a lousy economy, like we have had the last several years, Americans get kind of anxious about their place in the world.

KAGAN: Well, in a way, it's one of the good things about our country, we are constantly nervous that some one is about to take us overtake us. Not so many years ago, it was Japan that was going to rule the world, while the United States sank into obscurity. Before that, it was the Soviet Union.

What's interesting about these economic difficulties we've gone through, if you look at the great economic crises in American history - in the 1890s when we had a great depression, in the 1930s, in the 1970s with the oil crisis - in the very next decade, the United States rebounded, and in a way, outstripped other countries in the world even more than before. So we do have a great capacity to recover.

INSKEEP: Let me mention a few things that cause people to worry about the future of the United States. I couldn't have this conversation without mentioning the war in Iraq; which is now seen by many people as a great mistake that cost trillions of dollars and costs a lot of Americans influence, and maybe suggest a deeper problems in our system. Does it suggest those problems to you? This is a war you supported.

KAGAN: It is a war I supported. I think it was fought very badly and unintelligently, with far too few troops. I think we could've handled the problem with greater ease, although it certainly was costly. I think that we will recover. And, in fact, already have recovered in a way.

Who would've imagined that just a few years after the Iraq War, the Arab League, Europeans, and others around the world would be calling for the United States to use force again, as they did in Libya? I mean that is pretty astonishing and it shows resilience of the American leadership.

INSKEEP: This is a hard question for you, because you are an adviser to Mitt Romney, the leading Republican presidential candidate at the moment. But your analysis suggests that perhaps Republicans have been mis-describing the last couple of years. Because actually they have a narrative of decline, that president Obama's foreign policy has dragged the United States down. You're suggesting that actually there's been a rebound in the last couple of years.

KAGAN: I actually think that's what Republicans are arguing, and certainly what Governor Romney is arguing, is that some of the policies that the administration is undertaking could lead the United States into decline; certainly the defense budget cuts, the shift in defense strategy. There are things to worry about and things can go in the wrong direction.

What I am trying to push back against is this notion that we need to manage American decline - that it's inevitable. I think that can lead us to take some very unfortunate actions. And I'll be perfectly honest. I'm delighted that the president liked my essay because it suggests that he doesn't believe in American decline. And he does believe in American leadership.

And I would like to have a campaign where both the candidates believe in restoring and strengthening American leadership. I happen to think that Governor Romney is going to be better at that.

INSKEEP: So what do you make of the fact that the leading Republican presidential candidate likes your thinking enough to have named you an adviser, and the president of the United States likes your thinking enough to have gone on and on about it to a gathering of network anchors?

KAGAN: I'm delighted.


KAGAN: And I'm flattered and I appreciate it.

INSKEEP: Does it suggest that the differences on foreign policy between the two political parties in this country are not quite as large as their rhetoric would suggest?

KAGAN: Well, I've always believed that there is a much more bipartisan consensus than people think there is on foreign policy. And when you get into campaigns, people try to sharpen the differences. But I think that you don't get nearly as much change, from one president to another, as people think there's going to be. Look at how many people think there hasn't been even that much change between George W. Bush and Barack Obama on a lot of issues.

There was a broad view in the United States, that the United States has a vital role to play. And I would like to see both parties supporting that position.

INSKEEP: Robert Kagan is the author of "The World America Made." Thanks very much.

KAGAN: Thank you.

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.