James Holmes

Eeyore Meets American Declinism

America’s national-security establishment in particular is in a funk that makes even Eeyore look upbeat.

James R. Holmes

Eeyore is an unworthy metaphor for superpower diplomacy. Of  late, nonetheless, the lovable yet perpetually downcast donkey from E. E. Milne’s classic Winnie the Pooh books and films seems to encapsulate the American national mood. The national-security establishment in particular is in a funk that makes Eeyore look upbeat. If I had a dollar for every time I've heard someone weeping and gnashing teeth over the budgetary "sequester," I could retire a rich man. The topic came up repeatedly at our Fletcher School roundtable last week, and that gathering was far from atypical on this count. Is some pain in the offing? Sure. But as Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter pointed out recently, sequestration amounts to "temporary budget turbulence imposed by the Congress." Bravo! The cuts imperil neither the strategic pivot to Asia nor other pressing priorities.

Atttitudes have consequences. It’s been said decline is a choice. So is declinism, the deep-seated pessimism that holds that one's day in the sun is slipping irresistibly into nightfall. Indeed, I would say the latter is the deadlier sin by far. Decline implies misallocating resources. It's correctable. Great powers can bounce back. Classical Athens rebuilt its maritime empire scant decades after a crushing defeat at Spartan hands. Great Britain and its Royal Navy reached a nadir in 1781, losing to the French Navy at the Battle of the Virginia Capes, only to smash the same fleet the next year in the West Indies. Britain went on to a triumph over Napoleonic France that ushered in a century of nautical mastery. The U.S. Navy rebounded from the "dead apathy" (Mahan's term) of the post-Civil War years, from the ravages of Depression-era economics, and from the "hollow force" of the post-Vietnam years. Material decline can be put right with grit and determination.

Declinism connotes despair, the sort of spiritual rot that invites real-world repercussions. Thinkers from Clausewitz to Schelling depict national strength as a product of power and resolve. And others have to believe in U.S. power and resolve. Few foreign governments, whether allies, opponents, or bystanders, will take seriously a superpower that's constantly kicking the dirt. Declinism could embolden competitors while prompting allies and friends to look elsewhere for support.

Fortunately, Asians seem cheerier about American staying power than Americans are. Over at Foreign Policy, University of Southern California professor David Kang touts low defense spending figures in Asia as proof that no one fears China. But many Asians do fear China. Try walking down the streets of Manila and asking about Beijing's conduct at Scarborough Shoal, or quiz the man on the streets of Tokyo about the Senkaku Islands. We could just as easily interpret Kang's numbers as a token of confidence in U.S. fortitude and maritime might. Asian governments, that is, see little need to spend more on defense so long as a trustworthy protector remains nearby. If there's a problem, it's that Asians repose excessive confidence in the U.S. military. Discouraging free-riding is a diplomatic chore to which Washington must apply itself. But that, as they say, is a story for another day.

So buck up, all you Eeyores out there.

James R. Holmes
Contributing Author

James R. Holmes

James R. Holmes is a defense analyst for The Diplomat and a professor of strategy at the U.S. Naval War College where he specializes in U.S., Chinese and Indian maritime strategy and U.S. diplomatic and military history.

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