Through the patriotic haze of an American political campaign year, it is tempting to believe our own hooey.
America is exceptional and not in decline, Barack Obama insisted in his most recent State of the Union address. Mitt Romney, his leading GOP rival, insists against the opinion of most economists that the US economy can achieve average annual growth of 4 percent a year and anyone who says otherwise is a defeatist.
In fact, both are dead wrong. Gravity does affect the US just like any other nation, and 4 percent average annual growth for a mature economy is a pipedream.
US power - measured in terms of its relative economic importance and its diplomatic influence - is slipping all over the planet. US influence was written off as irrelevant in Europe's debt crisis, and is being chased out of the Middle East by popular consent and unhappy results on the Iraqi and Afghan battlefields. In Latin America, America's "backyard," Washington's writ increasingly is displaced by Brazil, just as it has been checked by Russia in the post-Soviet "near abroad."
The US is slipping in Asia, too, losing its position as the most important trading partner with Asian nations (we lost Australia, Japan, India and South Korea to China in that category since the Great Recession).
Yet, for all this, we insist on our exceptionally delusional self-image. With minor tweaks, the US continues to approach the world with the same basic assumption under Obama that it did under his notoriously blinkered predecessor: the belief that, in the end, Washington's rule is law, and that a world ordered to benefit the United States will, by definition, benefit humanity. It is downright anti-American to think otherwise.
The decision to thumb our nose at the world last week and propose another in a long series of Americans as president of the World Bank is just the latest example. Jim Young Kim, Dartmouth's president, appears to be a very intelligent, decent man. But as Financial Times columnist Edward Luce rightly notes, "if the World Bank board was required to find the best qualified candidate for the job, Dr. Kim would be unlikely to find himself on a shortlist."
Somehow, it still comes as a surprise to Americans that the post-Cold War unipolar world, never entirely accepted by the rest of the planet, is over.
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American policy, or "grand strategy" as the think-tank set would term it, should stop clinging to the phantom limbs of that period - the reckless "preemptive war doctrine," the use of NATO in out-of-theater interventions, the "gentlemen's agreement" that gives the World Bank's top job to a Yank and the IMF's to a Eurocrat.
Instead, the US should stress the unique capabilities that it still retains: the mojo to convene the summits and create the multilateral systems that will enable emerging nations to avoid stumbling into regional wars even as the stabilizing effects of US power - which has maintained the status quo in much of the world since the end of the World War II - wanes.
All this will end badly, again, if the US continues to sleepwalk into this new world the way it careened toward the financial brink in 2008. Some tough foreign-policy choices need to be made, and there's little sign that serious thinking about this is going on in Washington - though Obama's sotto voce whisper to President Dmitri Medvedev about serious nuclear-arms cuts in his second term suggests he may actually know this, even if he's unable to say so publicly during an election.
So what should the next president do to right this mess?
A strategy to manage America's transition from Mount Olympus to a world that includes many influential players will require bilateral guarantees in some parts of the world, new or reinforced multilateral organizations in others and mutual-defense treaties in others.