This stuff is hard to gauge as it happens, but it certainly seems like the American empire is on the decline. People aren’t talking about “Pax Americana” so much anymore. As Anthony Shadid wrote of the political crisis in Lebanon in yesterday’s New York Times:
“It is yet another episode in which the United States has watched—seemingly helplessly—as events in places like Tunisia, Lebanon and even Iraq unfold unexpectedly and beyond its ability to control. The jockeying might be a glimpse of a post-American Middle East, where the United States’ allies and foes, brought together in the interests of stability, plot foreign policies that intersect in initiatives the United States must grudgingly accept.”
This makes some people sad. And it goes along with the notion that America is on the decline in general. This century will belong to China, so the thinking goes, and America will suffer. Or maybe collapse entirely, to hear the more hysterical voices tell it.
But I think this can be a good thing. Dominant American power, especially in the Middle East, especially exerted surreptitiously, as it had been for so many years, had gotten to a point where it was doing more harm than good—to everyone, America included.
Beyond inciting fanatical religious organizations to fly airplanes into our buildings—it’s important to note that Osama bin Laden stated very explicit reasons for Al Queda’s attack—the oft-stated explanation that “they hate our freedom” is pure, head-in-the-sand stupidity. America’s disproportionate influence on the policies of foreign governments has become counter-productive in its own right. At this point, many of the more moderate leaders in the Middle East, those that we support, struggle with the widespread belief that they are pawns, acting under American orders. It’s an easy accusation made easier by our history of supporting despots for the sake of our own purposes. And it hurts politicians “on the street,” as they say. It’s not a good thing when your friends don’t want to have their picture taken with you.
I’m not saying that we should shut down diplomatic efforts, or retreat into isolationism. But a world where there’s a better balance of power, where America is not seen as a lone colossus, and thus less likely to be labeled the "Great Satan," might be a better one all around.