Analysts around the world may be predicting the decline of American power, but the State Department's Eliot Cohen is having none of it. "It is periodically fashionable to talk about how the United States is all washed up," says Cohen, the department's counselor and a senior adviser to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. "We've been here before. I am very wary of these kinds of assertions."
Power—its uses and how it is wielded—is a long-running academic specialty of Cohen's. He was a late addition to the Bush administration's somewhat beleaguered foreign policy team, joining the State Department in the usually key role of counselor just in March 2007. A professor of strategic studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and author of several books, including Supreme Command, Cohen had been an important analytical voice among American neoconservatives championing the assertive use of U.S. military power, including the war in Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein.
After the destruction of Saddam's regime, Cohen emerged as a sharp critic of the administration's occupation policies, complaining in a Washington Post article of "cockamamie schemes" and marveling at "just how incompetent" post-invasion operations would be. There has been a personal dimension to Cohen's experience with Iraq as well: A son served as an Army officer there.
The U.S. inability to bring adequate security to Iraq—prompting a long and costly military engagement in the Persian Gulf—is often cited as one of the key factors weakening U.S. standing in the world and fostering anti-Americanism in Europe and the Middle East. Add to it the financial crisis, the deteriorating U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, U.S. deficits, and the long-term rise of other powers such as China, and the argument that America is losing power in the world has taken off in recent weeks.
Cohen agrees that the U.S. military is "somewhat stretched," but he says that dealing with two insurgent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has also given it unique experience for the 21st century.
He does not see the fundamentals of the U.S. power position eroding. The United States still enjoys an advantageous geographical position as a continental power, abundant resources, a fundamentally strong economy that leads in research and development, many of the world's top universities, and a strong demographic profile. China and Russia, Cohen argues, face a raft of obstacles to expanding their power positions in the world, particularly with aging populations—even, in the case of Russia, a population that is shrinking.
Cohen describes himself as "a short-term pessimist [but] a long-term optimist on the United States." He says that commentators frequently overrate the degree of U.S. primacy in postwar history, making America's current troubles look more severe than they are. "I don't think there was this mythic period when the United States dominated the planet," he says.
America is particularly well positioned in the Asian power balance, he said. In Europe, Washington's relations with traditional allies are improving and overcoming the "stresses and strains" experienced earlier in the decade amid disagreements over Iraq and other issues, he adds.
Cohen seems to revive his role as an academic—which he says he will return to in January—when he complains that much of the chatter about U.S. decline reflects a "naïve realism" that depicts all international affairs as "a zero-sum game."
Cohen says power is not "a stock index," adding, "I don't buy the arithmetic approach. International politics is not linear. It's not a set of quadratic equations."
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