Relative Decline In The Face of Third World Economic Growth Is Not A Choice

In a move that I think you can only interpret as a testing of the waters for a presidential run, Paul Ryan delivered a big address on foreign policy last night. There’s a lot of stuff going on here, but one key meme is the idea that conservatives, allegedly in contrast to liberals, want to avoid the specter of American decline:

Look — our fiscal problems are real, and the need to address them is urgent. But I’m here to tell you that decline is not a certainty for America. Rather, as Charles Krauthammer put it, “decline is a choice.”

In absolute terms, yes, of course. Decline in American living standards is not a certainty. Indeed, it’s unlikely. But in global power politics terms, while nothing’s a certainty it’s just not the case that relative decline is a choice. Many large countries used to follow very bad public policy. With improved policy, countries such as China, India, and Brazil are now catching up to America. This process may continue for a long time, it may slow, or it may halt. But it’s likely to continue. And the choices that are relevant to the outcome will be made in China and India and Brazil, not in Washington. It’s both dangerous and foolish to base foreign policy on pretending not to see this trend.

The good news for America in the face of relative decline is that both our geographical position and our democratic values make us a preferred partner for almost every country on earth. We’re well-positioned to play a leading role in an extremely broad coalition of liberal states that will have the ability to shape world affairs. But it’ll have to be a coalition, and it’ll take savviness about the reality of other states and people’s around the world catching up.