James Rubin, a former Assistant Secretary of State in the Bush administration, writes in the New Republic:
Ironically, the net effect of the Bush years may have not only been structural economic damage caused by an unexpected explosion of trillions of dollars of debt due to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and attendant military spending, but also the damage done to perceptions of American military superiority caused by the difficulties in achieving victory in Iraq, not to mention the very real strains on the military services. In short, American dominance is a lot harder to envisage after the Bush administration than it was before President Bush took officeâ??a time when Franceâ??s foreign minister was describing the United States as the worldâ??s â??hyperpower.â?
While I would quibble with the notion that our ballooning debt was "unexpected" (what else do you expect when you cut taxes, expand entitlements and wage war in two countries?) I think Rubin's point is spot-on. In their zeal to use and demonstrate American power, the Bush administration ultimately wound up exposing its limits and doing serious, objective damage to American power. By every measure - economic, military, geopolitical - America was a weaker country in January 2009 than it was in January 2000.
And this is what is ultimately distracting about the debate over "American decline." Those who seem to take the most umbrage at the concept are the ones who would likely champion the very policies that would continue to accelerate America's decline. And while there are no doubt critics who relish the thought of American decline, or who advocate simply accepting its inevitability, others are using the loss of American power as a sign that a course-correction is needed to put the U.S. on a more sustainable path to retaining great power status.
And here's where the U.S. might learn from the Byzantine Empire. Strategist Edward Luttwak, who wrote the Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire, argues that their template for preserving great power has a lot to recommend it. He expands on the concept at length here:
One striking point that Luttwak makes (at around the 44:30 minute mark) was that the rulers of the Byzantine Empire took the view that they were preserving the strength of their system for centuries against all rivals. They avoided burning themselves out fighting war after war to destroy enemies and instead sought to use containment and deft diplomacy to manage their many enemies. And they succeeded, in Luttwak's view, in creating the longest running empire in the history of the world.
Obviously, we live in a different world, but the basic guiding principles that Luttwak elucidates in a short piece in Foreign Policy, still strike me as reasonable.