Mitt Romney likes to say Barack Obama has resigned himself to a world in which the U.S. is no longer a mighty power. "Our President thinks America is in decline," Romney said in December. A Romney-campaign policy paper elaborates, saying Obama's team is not only reconciled to a weakened America but sees that decline "as both inexorable and a condition that can and should be managed for the global good rather than reversed."
As Romney runs against a President who has killed Osama bin Laden, neutralized al-Qaeda and toppled Muammar Gaddafi, this larger critique of Obama's vision might be Romney's best--and maybe only--avenue for scoring points on national security. But the White House insists that Obama firmly believes the U.S. remains a global power with an essential leadership role to play. To drive home this point, the President and his top advisers have been citing an unlikely source--a new book by one of Romney's key foreign policy advisers.
In The World America Made, Robert Kagan challenges the idea that the U.S. is in decline. He says that's an overreaction to short-term events--including the financial crisis--that overlooks the U.S.'s continued economic, military and political dominance. What's been exaggerated, he says, is American power in the good old days. The U.S. has never dictated world affairs, argues Kagan, who cites periods like the 1970s--Vietnam, oil shocks, Iran hostage crisis--when our demise seemed nigh. But only American leadership, Kagan writes, can guarantee the survival of a liberal democratic order internationally.
These ideas struck a chord with a President accused of leading a great American retreat. Before his State of the Union address, Obama spent 10 minutes in a meeting with television news anchors discussing excerpts from Kagan's book recently published in the New Republic. That night he declared that anyone who says the U.S. is losing influence "doesn't know what they're talking about." National Security Adviser Tom Donilon later touted the Kagan theory in a PBS interview as "very sophisticated."
Kagan, 53, hardly seems like a natural Obama ally. A Ph.D. historian and former Reagan State Department official now based at the Brookings Institution, Kagan is a passionate democracy promoter who is often called a neoconservative. He was a gung-ho Iraq-war backer, as was his brother Frederick Kagan, a military strategist who helped design George W. Bush's 2007 troop-surge policy. (Their father is Yale University classical historian Donald Kagan.)
Robert Kagan even advised Obama's rival John McCain in 2008. But since then he's been welcome at the White House, enjoying good relations with Donilon and his deputy, Denis McDonough, and offering his views on Egypt and Russia. He has met with Obama more than once in small groups of thinkers to discuss policy. And last summer his diplomat wife Victoria Nuland became a lead spokeswoman at Hillary Clinton's State Department.
Even so, Kagan hopes to vote this fall for Romney, whose campaign has named him one of 23 special advisers. Romney hailed Kagan as someone from whom he had "learned a great deal" in the acknowledgments of his 2010 book, No Apology--which hammered Obama's foreign policy.