The current widespread perception of U.S. decline is to some extent an illusion built upon an illusion: That is to say, for a brief decade between approximately 1992 and 2003, American fantasies—Republican-led, but more bipartisan than many progressives would care to admit—of unipolar dominance and unlimited possibilities were so overblown that everything since must appear a “decline,” even if it is in fact only a return to the historical norm.
The apparent stalemate in Afghanistan is in many respects only a lower-intensity, slow-motion replay of the U.S. defeat by guerrillas in Vietnam, the French in Vietnam and Algeria, and so on. As for the fact that the Russians and their local allies have been able to block the idea of NATO expansion to Georgia and Ukraine, this too is a return to the historical norm, and something for which previous generations of U.S. statesmen would actually have been grateful—since an Eisenhower, Dean Acheson, or even Theodore Roosevelt would have regarded the idea of the United States making security guarantees to these countries as nothing short of barking madness.
Lieven also explains why Kupchan sees democracy promotion as misguided:
Drawing on the work of American scholars Edward Mansfield and Jack Snyder on the relationship between nascent democracy and nationalism, Kupchan shows that far from being an essential underpinning of peace, democracy—or at least new democracies—can just as easily be a force for nationalist hysteria and aggression. Thus in the 1850s, the rise of democratic politics and the mass media in Britain, by bringing chauvinist pressure to bear on foreign policy, helped destroy what had been for the previous four decades a somewhat competitive but peacefully managed relationship between Britain and Russia. In today’s world, any American who thinks that a Chinese political system with a strong element of democratic nationalism would be a more accommodating U.S. partner than the existing China may be in for a very nasty shock, given the degree of militant nationalism that exists within the Chinese population at large. The implication for U.S. policy is clear, argues Kupchan: “[T]he United States should assess whether countries are enemies or friends by evaluating their statecraft, not the nature of their domestic institutions.”
This is all very sensible. Fixating on the nature of other regimes is a waste of energy. Assuming that changing the nature of the regime can reduce or eliminate conflicts of interest is simply wrongheaded. Kupchan’s description of the deterioration of British-Russian relations in the 19th century is very good, and I couldn’t agree more.