U.S. "decline" extremely "overstated": Scholar

Robert Kagan was recently described by The Washington Post as President Obama's favorite Romney adviser. That's because the president gave a thumbs-up to "The Myth of American Decline," an essay Kagan wrote for The New Republic magazine. It didn't seem to bother Mr. Obama that this senior fellow at the Brookings Institution is a foreign policy adviser to Republican candidate Mitt Romney.

Below, a transcript of Charlie Rose's conversation with Kagan:

Charlie Rose: I'm pleased to have Robert Kagan join us now. Welcome.

Robert Kagan: Thank you, Charlie.

Rose: So, did you have any communication with the president or with any of his staff about what you wrote for The New Republic?

Kagan: No. I mean, I talked to Tom Donilon and others on the White House staff now and then about various foreign policy issues, but I didn't particularly talk to them about this.

Rose: As you know, Tom Donilon came on my late-night program and talked about the fact that the president had been influenced by your views.

Kagan: So I hear. I'm very pleased that the president found what I was writing interesting and useful.

Rose So, what are you saying about America's decline?

Kagan: I'm saying we have tremendously overstated, and it's very premature to declare that decline. We are -- the truth is, the United States, both economically and militarily, and also in terms of its overall influence, really is as strong as it's ever been, and I think part of our problem is we have a mythical view of the past. People think that we were able to do everything we wanted, tell everybody what to do, order the whole world around in the past, and now we can no longer do it. The truth is, we've always had difficulties, it's always been a struggle, but I think the United States is still in a very strong position.

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Rose: But there is this central fact. There has been a transfer of economic power to the East from the West.

Kagan: Although most of that transfer has not actually come at the expense of the United States. If you look at the global share of Gross Domestic Product that the United States has, it's remained remarkably steady for the last 40 years -- about a quarter of overall world GDP. China's been rising mostly at the expense of Europe and Japan. Now of course, the Chinese rise is significant, it's going to mean a different kind of future, but I'm not sure it's a challenge that the United States can't meet and really will necessarily change the standing of the United States in the world.

Rose: As you know, it's called 'The Rise of the Rest'by some people, and the point is that, there has got to be, in this kind of circumstance, a different sharing of power. Do you reject that idea?

Kagan: I don't reject it; it's going to be different players involved. But if you think about, again,  the Cold War, there was a significant 'rise of the rest' during the Cold War. Germany and Japan came out from nothing -- became economic powerhouses. You may remember, not so many years ago, we were worried about Japan taking over the world economically. The rise of those powers aided the United States and made the United States stronger in its competition with the Soviet Union. If you look at the current situation, if our leading competitor is going to be China in the decades to come, the rise of India is going to be an advantage to the United States.

Rose: So, what role will we play today as China rises, and we see this movement of economic power, that's different from the role we have played when there were only two superpowers?

Kagan: Well, we do face a more diverse, diffuse kind of power in the world. We have some strategic advantages in dealing with China. I think China's going to be economically powerful, but strategically, it faces powerful allies of the United States around its periphery, from Japan all the way around to India. We have to manage those alliances well. We have to engage both, including our European allies. I think those alliance structures remain the core of American influence in the world.

Rose: But you look at Egypt and you're going to have a different kind of government there that's not as interested in having the relationship with the United States as the previous (toppled President Hosni) Mubarak government was.

Kagan: No, there's no question. Again -- you're not going to be able to pick up the phone and get a Mubarak on the line and, ideally, get him (to do) what you want him to do. We're going to have to deal with the Egyptian democracy. We're going to have to deal with the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood is going to be very powerful in Egypt. And there's going to be areas in which this is going to be a setback for America's interest on some issues. My view is that, overall, it's going to benefit the United States. I think back on the fall of (Ferdinand) Marcos in the Philippines in the 1980s and, several years after that, the United States was thrown out of key bases in the Philippines at Subic Bay and Clark Air Force Base, but we've recovered, and I think we are benefiting today from Philippine democracy despite those strategic setbacks.

Rose: And nor do we have the domino effect coming out of Vietnam?

Kagan: No, we don't, so I actually am fairly optimistic. I think what happens in Syria is going to be very important. I think the United States, despite the phrase 'leading from behind,' has actually showed a lot of leadership in Libya and has been working diplomatically with the Arab League, with Turkey, and with others in the region to try to move things in a positive direction. I don't see any weakness in the United States in these dealings.

Rose: But that's not what your candidate, the one that you advise, is saying about President Obama's leadership. You seem to be praising President Obama's foreign policy leadership, notwithstanding the fact that you're advising Mitt Romney.

Kagan: Well, I think that there are things that the United States is still capable of doing. I have plenty of criticisms of the Obama administration. I believe that what they're doing on the defense budget is very dangerous and could in fact lead to American decline over time. There are certainly areas in terms of the relationship with Israel where I think that they have not managed that well, and I'm obviously in full agreement with (former Massachusetts) Governor Romney on those issues. My point is a larger point -- I have to say, it's an apolitical point. I'm trying to argue against this notion that the United States is no longer as powerful as it once was and therefore we ought to sort of manage our decline. My argument is the United States is capable of carrying out significant activities both in and having influence in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Rose: Robert Kagan, thank you.

Kagan: Thank you.

To see the Kagan interview, click on the video in the player above.

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