The World

Is American Decline Inevitable?

A former Obama adviser is worried about a world without the U.S.

Rhodes gestures as he speaks at a podium with an American flag behind him
Ben Rhodes, then White House deputy national security adviser, in Edgartown, Massachusetts, in 2014. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Darren McCollester/Getty Images.

In his new book, Ben Rhodes—former speechwriter and deputy national security adviser for Barack Obama—writes about his decision to move to Los Angeles in 2018 as a “message of sorts to the world of high politics I’d marinated in for more than a decade: ‘I’m out.’ ” And to his credit, After the Fall: Being American in the World We’ve Made does not read like the work of someone overly concerned about a future confirmation hearing. His second book since leaving government is a dark, often angry, and surprisingly personal tour of a world where authoritarianism is on the rise and American influence on the wane. When he was in government, Rhodes famously coined the term “the blob” to refer to Washington’s hawkish bipartisan foreign policy establishment—the caucus of politicians, think tankers, and media figures who have never met a problem that can’t be solved by a more assertive American role. After the Fall sees an America whose influence and example had been hollowed out years before Donald Trump rose to the presidency, by the war on terror and the 2008 financial crisis. To Rhodes, the U.S. has a become nation that increasingly plays little role at all, ceding the field to authoritarian powers like China and Russia.

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I spoke recently by phone with Rhodes, who co-hosts the podcast Pod Save the World and still advises Obama, about the state of the foreign policy debate in Washington, U.S.-China tensions, and some of his disappointments with the new administration. The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Joshua Keating: As the person who coined this concept of “the blob,” do you feel that the scope of the conversation around foreign policy in Washington has expanded since the time you were in government?

Ben Rhodes: I think it has. Look at the movement that built up around Yemen, and the extent to which that assured that whoever won the election, they were going to have to change that policy and other issues related to the forever wars. And you’ve definitely seen a change on issues related to climate. So in a lot of ways, I think you have seen the beginnings of a counterweight to what I think is the more negative attributes of the blob, but it’s still early days.

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The second thing—and that’s what this book is really about—is connecting some of the issues around the degradation of American democracy to these types of policy debates. People who care about small-d democracy in the United States should care about both our foreign policies and the state of democracy in other places, and that hasn’t happened to the extent that it should.

In terms of connecting those two, how do you think about the credibility issue? After Jan. 6, to take one example, how should the U.S. change how it talks about democracy with other countries?

I think it absolutely has to change, and I think about this in three ways in the book. First, nothing we say about democracy matters if we’re unable to restore and advance the example of a multiracial, multiethnic democracy [in the U.S.].

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If we can experience the same things that other countries experience, if we could also have the corrupt autocrat with the son-in-law working down the hall and the mob that storms the parliament, if we can fight through that and come out on the other end, I think that that will have a much more powerful ripple effect around the world than just America issuing edicts and making statements about democracy from a mountaintop. We’re down in the muck with everybody else, and I think we have to embrace the fact that our working through that is a part of the world doing so.

The other two things are more complicated. We have to get much bolder in excising the old hypocrisy that is hard-wired into American foreign policy. So, support to an Egyptian regime or a Saudi regime that is clearly moving in the wrong direction, I would argue that you need to fundamentally rethink those relationships. If you do believe that democracy is at the center of what’s happening in the world today, and that we’re in this kind of existential struggle between democracy and autocracy, that has to infuse the choices you make about things like whether we provide billions of dollars in assistance to a totally autocratic regime in Egypt.

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The same thing spills into something like China. Over the last 30 years, democracy was not the priority at any point in the relationship with China. We’ve gone to the mat with China over their purchases of American soybeans more aggressively than we have over issues related to democracy, and there were always reasons for that! During the Obama years, it was a global financial crisis and then climate change—worthy policy goals. But I think we have to truly think about how would our behavior in the world change if democracy became the actual top priority in all these relationships.

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On China, when I listen to President Biden or to a lot of your former colleagues who now work in his administration, you hear this idea of the global struggle for democracy used as a framing device, even for domestic policies: We have to show democracy can solve big problems and prove that China is wrong. Do you think that’s the right message, or is there a risk of going too far in selling everything in terms of “beating” China?

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I think it’s only partially right, in the sense that, yes, there is an argument that democracies have to prove they can deliver, that they can do big things, that they can build infrastructure, that they can transition to clean energy. China’s argument is that autocracy is more efficient, and we have to counter that argument with results.

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But that’s only part of it. I think the more important part—and the more difficult part to control from the White House—are these more fundamental questions of national identity. Are we able to improve upon our own multiracial, multiethnic democracy? Are we protecting the right to vote? Are we dealing with corruption in our politics and society? Are we narrowing inequality? Are we dealing with the seismic effect of disinformation and conspiracy theory online?

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These more structural issues that are fueling the anti-democratic trend are ultimately the battleground where the success of our own democracy is going to be determined, and also the success of democracy around the world. Those are harder to control for than an infrastructure bill.

But if the organizing principle shifts from terrorism to China, and everything we’re doing has the benefit of this bipartisan antipathy for China, I worry that that could be corrosive and get distorted to the same nationalist and authoritarian ends that I think the war on terror did. The most important thing we can do is have a democratic model that works better, not just in doing some big policy things, but in demonstrating that it is a better way to live, and it’s the future that works better for most of the world.

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Lately there seem to be increasingly prominent voices in Washington on foreign policy from the left, from what you might call the progressive realist or restraint-oriented camps. As someone who does advocate for the U.S. to play a strong role in countering authoritarianism around the world, do you find yourself now pushing back against those tendencies?

I find myself in an interesting position because I do believe that America has to play a really engaged and at times assertive role in the world, because if we’re not, then Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping have the field to themselves. That’s always my argument to the harder-edged left.

However, in order to deal with democracy and climate change, I think, above all other priorities, we absolutely need to end the post-9/11 project, and we have to avoid getting into the kind of wars that overwhelm our resource capacity and our bandwidth and have been corrosive inside of our politics.

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So in a way, the “restraint caucus” and this focus on ending the forever wars is actually in service of America playing a more healthy and constructive leadership role in the world. By the way, that leadership role should mean internalizing the lesson that centering American foreign policy and military interventionism, as we have for the last 20 years, is a losing proposition. It’s frankly not what the Chinese do. It’s not even really what the Russians do, since they find these asymmetric ways to throw their influence around.

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So there may be some tension between worldviews that are anchored in restraint and critiques of American power, versus those that are focused ways to support democratic movements around the world, but I think those are solvable. The common thread is that the military solutions are not the ones that we should be reaching for, except in extremity.

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During the Obama years, there was a line of criticism you would hear, usually from the right, that what your administration was doing was basically “managing” decline, sort of overseeing the end of American hegemony and taking the sting out of it. And I remember hearing a lot of pushback on that argument from the administration. But reading the book, it made me wonder if you basically view it that way too.

There’s no question. The degree to which we had this kind of hegemony over the world was always going to be temporary. I make the argument—and people can say it’s partisan, but I think it’s true—the dual body blows of the Iraq war and the financial crisis really accelerated this diminution of American supremacy in the world. The Iraq war rocked to the foundation of confidence that America knew what it was doing, and also made other countries scared, literally, of the degree to which America felt the freedom of action to invade and occupy a country that had nothing to do with 9/11.

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Then you have the financial crisis, which I really think collapsed global confidence in American-led globalization. I quote a Hong Kong official who said that was the start of this nationalist and authoritarian trend in the West. That’s when the narrative of liberalism and democracy collapsed and you saw the emergence of people like Viktor Orban. The Chinese looked at this and said, “Wait a second, why are we deferring to the Americans on these things? They can’t even manage the international financial system, the one thing we thought they could do.”

We kind of stepped into that circumstance. China was already rising. Putin had already invaded and occupied Georgia. This sorting out was already happening in terms of what the world order was going to look like. I think what we were trying to do was to use the period in which America did have an extraordinary amount of influence to shape what came next, to try to disentangle ourselves from the post-9/11 era, to try to resolve issues like Iran. Then Trump comes along, and the bottom falls out of that whole project.

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So it’s endlessly frustrating to be criticized by Republicans for managing decline when they are the ones who have precipitated the decline. We’re literally cleaning up the mess in the wake of the ocean liner of America, like these guys had just broken things from Iraq to the financial crisis, to our credibility, while lecturing us on decline. American exceptionalism isn’t something you just assert. It’s something that you have to work for.

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After Donald Rumsfeld died, people were circulating that famous “snowflake” he wrote, something along the lines of “Pakistan’s not going so well, and also what are we doing about North Korea?” It’s absurd when you read it, but I was wondering if it also rings true from your time in government.

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It does. The challenge with foreign policy is that you don’t get a lot of wins. Our politics and media environment is so short-term that it almost can make you think that what you’re doing isn’t working, even if what you’re doing is the kind of thing that has to be sustained over 10 years to work. Or that if something looks so somewhat futile, like the situation in Belarus, it’s not worth diving into a problem that may end up not being solved anytime soon, and then you get a lot of shit for not solving it.

I think that’s like a pretty corrosive mindset. What we really need to be doing is creating approaches that can be sustained over long periods of time. … Joe Biden could do everything right over four or eight years, and he will not solve those problems. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing.

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Do you think they think that way in Beijing, too?

Yeah. One of their competitive advantages is that they can plan in 10-, 20-, 30-year increments. The Belt and Road is a multidecade play. Their Taiwan policy is a long-term play. However, I think we often can make the mistake in America of overstating the strength of our adversaries and understating our comparative advantage. One of the points I make in this book is that around the handover of Hong Kong in 1997, the assumption globally was that things were moving toward democracy of markets. Now, the assumption is very much the opposite, moving toward China, but it wasn’t inevitable, as we learned in 1990, and it’s not inevitable now.

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If you look at China, they have a bunch of vulnerabilities. I witnessed in Southeast Asia, late in the Obama years, the beginnings of almost a postcolonial backlash to China, because they have such a heavy hand where they go into these countries and put them into debt traps, or finance corruption, or import Chinese workers, that they’re not winning any hearts and minds. The more they are throwing their weight in other places, some of the same kind of blowback that we face is going to start coming to them.

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Domestically, it’s a bit opaque. They’ve got a lot of problems. They have to manage an aging population, environmental degradation, localized pockets of instability, and the challenge of maintaining the degree of control that they want to maintain with an increasingly middle-class country. Now, they’ve solved that for now with technology, but it doesn’t mean that they don’t have their own vulnerabilities.

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You talk in the book about your skepticism about Obama’s troop surge in Afghanistan, so I’m curious what you make of the ongoing troop pullout and the worsening security situation there.

It’s very painful to watch, and the Afghan people have every reason to be angry about the situation they find themselves in. But I think the reality is that keeping American troops in Afghanistan wasn’t preventing the deterioration of Afghanistan, and that was a fact that we have had to contend with for a decade now. Also, we were staying past what was the stated rationale that we took the country to war for, which was to go get al-Qaida and bin Laden. We were asking the public to do things it didn’t want to do anymore, which is hard to sustain in a democracy.

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I think that the hard truth is that these post-9/11 wars were never going to have the ends that were promised. That’s a hard reality to accept, but it’s a reality that, at some point, had to be accepted.  That to me is more a cautionary note about the kind of questions you have to ask before you go to war.

The issue, though, is that it’s not just Afghanistan. It can be too easy to shorthand the whole post-9/11 enterprise as the war in Afghanistan. But it’s more the resourcing, staffing, and prioritization of the U.S. government for 20 years being dramatically overweighted to the concern of terrorism relative to other issues. We spent $7 trillion on this exercise. Imagine what could have been done with that money.

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One of the democracy activists you quote in the book had this line about how she feared that the tensions that are growing worldwide at this moment would inevitably lead either to full-fledged fascism or to another world war, but that the one thing she hadn’t anticipated was COVID. To what extent do you think COVID has been any sort of reset in the big structural shifts you’re talking about in the book?

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First of all, I share that woman’s concerns. I remember looking up and seeing what she was seeing, which is, OK, now we’ve got Xi, Putin, Modi, Trump, Bolsonaro, Duterte, Erdogan, Netanyahu. How does this somehow not end in conflict? History tells us that nationalist authoritarianism ends up leading to, as she said, either fascism or a really big war, and it just felt like there was a really dangerous drift of history in that direction and an unlearning of the lessons that led the world to move away from this kind of politics after World War II.

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I do think COVID has been a circuit breaker in a number of ways. First, it’s not clear to me that Biden is elected president without Trump’s COVID response. I would like to think he would have been, but it’s quite possible, and you could make an argument that the mismanagement of COVID derailed for a moment the momentum toward autocracy in the United States. It didn’t permanently derail it, but it did contribute to a shift in administration and power.

You see similar dynamics around the world. The kind of nationalist authoritarian flavor of democracy has managed COVID the worst. I do think that COVID is swinging the pendulum back in the direction of fact-based governance and expertise in ways that could lead to a broader shift away from this brand of nationalist authoritarianism and move toward more competent democratic governance.

It’s also laid even more bare the danger of the online ecosystem, because it’s become clear the extent to which disinformation can literally get people killed, whether it’s about masks or vaccines. So hopefully that’s accelerating an awareness of the need to rethink, and I’d say regulate, the internet.

I think we’ll look back on this and probably see COVID as an inflection point when democracies tried to regroup, the competition with China became much more stark, the consequences of conspiracy theory–based online media became very apparent, but then what? We really don’t know the answer to that question.

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