Courtesy Reuters

The United States is declining as a nation and a world power, with mostly sighs and shrugs to mark this seismic event. Astonishingly, some people do not appear to realize that the situation is all that serious. A few say it is serious and hopeless. I count myself among those who think it is most serious yet reversible, if Americans are clear-eyed about the causes and courageous about implementing the cures.

The United States is in danger of becoming merely first among major powers and heading to a level somewhere between its current still-exalted position and that of China today. This would be bad news for both the United States and the world. Were this to happen over time, it would leave nations without a leader to sustain world order and help solve international problems. No single country or group of countries, and no international institution, could conceivably replace the United States in this role -- and leaders the world over know this well.

The decline starts with weakening fundamentals in the United States. First among them is that the country's economy, infrastructure, public schools, and political system have been allowed to deteriorate. The result has been diminished economic strength, a less vital democracy, and a mediocrity of spirit. These conditions are not easy to reverse. A second reason for the decline is how ineffectively the United States has used its international power, thus allowing its own and others' problems to grow and fester. The nation must attend to both issues, the former even more than the latter. Here I address principally foreign policy.

Foreign policy is common sense, not rocket science. But it keeps getting overwhelmed by extravagant principles, nasty politics, and the arrogance of power. These three demons rob officials of choice, which is the core of commonsense policy. In fact, the decision-making drill, although complex in substance, is a relatively straightforward process. Most foreign policy professionals understand it well: find out what is really going on in other countries; figure out the problems and the opportunities, the likely interplay of power, and what can and cannot be accomplished. Of course, professionals will argue among themselves and make mistakes. But both the arguments and the mistakes will be within reasonable bounds, and policy will be adjusted as events evolve. The problem is that Americans have often transformed this sensible procedure into farce, and farce into tragedy.

Time and again, the demons of ideology, politics, and arrogance have come to dominate, or at least exercise disproportionate influence on, governmental and public debate about foreign policy. They are persistent and tormenting forces, not subject to the normal give-and-take. The true believers and the cynics who employ the demons to their advantage are hard to counter with arguments based on reason or fact.

The demons ensnare leaders into thinking about what they supposedly must do, rather than about what they can do. Once the demons grab hold of a policy, American leaders leap skyward, with wild descriptions of threats and assertions of bold and unattainable goals. At these moments, when chasms yawn between rhetoric and reality, U.S. leaders commit their most tragic and costly mistakes -- mistakes the country is no longer strong enough to afford.

Common sense tells policymakers not what to think about problems but how to think about them systematically. It is what rescued the nation at critical periods in its history. It is what saved American values from floating off and becoming empty dreams and focused them instead on concrete plans to reconstruct Western Europe and Japan after World War II. It is how the United States won the war in Asia after it lost the battle in Vietnam. It is how the Cold War was won without direct combat. It is hard to imagine any other approach that can possibly fit this new and bewildering world.

A return to pragmatic problem solving will not be easy. Those possessed by the demons are much tougher fighters than the moderates who are constrained by the reasonableness of common sense. But common sense is worth the fight because it offers the best hope for using the United States' substantial power effectively and because power is still the necessary means to solve problems in the international affairs of the twenty-first century.

DECLINE AND CHAOS

The bases of the United States' international power are the country's economic competitiveness and its political cohesion, and there should be little doubt at this point that both are in decline. Many acknowledge and lament faltering parts here and there, but they avoid a frontal stare at the deteriorating whole. It is too depressing to do so, too much for most people to bear. The federal deficit is now projected at $1.75 trillion for fiscal year 2009 and, with the costs of Medicare and Social Security skyrocketing, is likely to get even larger. The federal debt is already staggering: it tops $10 trillion. The United States is now the biggest debtor nation in history, and no nation with a massive debt has ever remained a great power. Its heavy industry has largely disappeared, having moved to foreign competitors, which has cut deeply into its ability to be independent in times of peril. Its public-school students trail their peers in other industrialized countries in math and science. They cannot compete in the global economy. Generations of adult Americans, shockingly, read at a grade-school level and know almost no history, not to mention no geography. They are simply not being educated to become the guardians of a democracy.

These signals of decline have not inspired politicians to put the national good above partisan interests or problem solving above scoring points. Republicans act like rabid attack dogs in and out of power and treat facts like trash. Democrats seem to lack the decisiveness, clarity of vision, and toughness necessary to govern. This tableau of domestic political stalemate begs for new leadership. The nation that not so long ago outproduced the rest of the world in arms and consumer goods, the nation lionized and envied for its innovation, can-do spirit, and capacity to accomplish economic miracles, has become overwhelmed by the tasks it once performed competently and with relative ease.

Conditions in many countries around the world have improved considerably, but conditions in many other countries remain woeful and are getting worse. There is now a steady stream of internal conflicts and genocidal bloodlettings, a cascade of failed and failing states, whiffs of renewed nasty competition among great powers, a wildfire of international crime, and worries about worldwide health pandemics, food shortages, environmental disasters, rampant religious extremism, threatening economic depression, and a ceaseless, deadly international terrorist threat.

The world today is an almost unfathomable montage of primitivism amid unprecedented global plenty -- of new riches in countries that have been poor for centuries and of great gulfs between rich and poor nations and between the rich and the poor within them. It is as if almost half the world has reverted to a Hobbesian state of nature, in which life is "nasty, brutish, and short," a prestate condition in which tribes devour one another in ritual rivalries. Meanwhile, most countries in the other half, including both mature and budding nations, now have to spend more time and resources restoring their own shaky economies and can do little to help the drowning nations deal with their poverty or insecurity.

The real danger in this universe of primitivism and plenty is not new wars or explosions among major states, or a world war, or even a nuclear war. It is the specter of nations drowning in a flood of terrorism, tribal and religious hatred, lawlessness, poverty, disease, environmental calamities, and governmental incompetence. Many nations are going under because they are simply unable to cope, and they will drag others down with them.

Managing these problems lies beyond the power of the weak and poor states themselves. And these states do not receive much succor from their neighbors or regional organizations. Major powers such as China, India, and Russia are not ready to lend others a hand, both because they are still evolving themselves and because they lack the tradition of helping those less fortunate. Europe and Japan do help in various ways, consistent with their goal of sustaining their own high standards of living. The United Nations helps with refugees, health care, and the like, but its members do not seem eager to take on additional responsibilities. Nongovernmental organizations heroically make life more bearable for ordinary people in unbearable situations with irredeemable governments.

What is unexpected and tragic is that the drownings are multiplying at the very moment that the United States is declining -- when the one nation most likely and most able to help them cannot do as much as it has done in the past. The tragedies are taking place when the United States cannot prevent them with new Marshall Plans and new NATOs.

CONFRONTING THE DEMONS

After confronting the reality of the United States' declining power, the next step toward redeeming the nation is to acknowledge and confront the destructiveness of its domestic demons: principles, politics, and arrogance.

Everyone wants to be on the side of advancing freedom and democracy and combating communism and terrorism. But that desire opens the floodgates to setting unachievable objectives. No presidential appointee wants to be accused of offering proposals that are perceived as weak or that will risk losing the next election for the president or his party. And no civilian feels comfortable telling the U.S. military that it cannot do the job (especially when the military itself is loath to admit any shortcomings). Even when the demons do not win arguments outright, they triumph in fixing the direction of policy or in eliminating viable alternatives. Everyone is aware that how people behave in these demon-driven situations determines how they will be portrayed -- as liberals, wimps, not team players, loose cannons -- and that these characterizations usually last forever. Few have been punished in the government job market for being a conservative or a hawk. People do not like to talk about this, but it is the constant, private lament of Washington's professionals.

The demons are both a blessing and a curse. Ideology serves both to ennoble American causes and to produce excesses. There is a fine line between promoting democracy in Egypt, for example, and pushing leaders of that nation toward offering unrealistic and unwise political concessions to extremists. Politics is at once integral to the democratic process in the United States and the cause of politicians' acting against the national interest in order to win or stay in public office. Although acting with confidence is good, it must fall short of the arrogant belief that one can do anything regardless of realities.

It takes courage to question whether another country is ready for democracy and whether Washington is pushing it too hard. Doing so exposes the questioner to charges of callous indifference to American ideals and disrespect for foreign cultures. The same problem applies to any set of principles that is elevated to dogma, including anticommunism, antiterrorism, realism, and globalization. These all lead to exaggerated goals and truncated means. They all divide the world into black and white, inhibiting the drawing of subtle and serious distinctions.

Whereas principles are waved around flagrantly, politics in foreign policy is more like the proverbial elephant in the room -- the overwhelming presence that everyone pretends not to notice. It is there, and everyone is calibrating its effects. But mentioning it is taboo. No one wants to bring profane domestic politics onto the sacred turf of national security. Retired senior officials rarely even touch on the subject in their memoirs. Politics comes out into the open only in regard to nonsecurity matters, such as trade or immigration, which are generally recognized to be political.

A terrible price paid for this silence is that the crucial political calculations made about the political viability of a policy are never seriously examined. Participants in the debate generally make their own private assessments of the politics and build these into their policy recommendations. None of these judgments gets examined, and the consensus almost invariably points toward toughening the policy in question, but often without persuasive reasons for doing so. Few are willing to appear to be not tough enough and risk not being invited to the next meeting. This silence also opens the door to exaggerating threats to justify the bolder counterthreats.

Along with principles and politics, the arrogance of power -- the runaway confidence Americans have that they can do anything they put their minds to -- also attends these meetings. Self-confidence in the face of challenges is a boon. But embracing unfavorable odds without the wherewithal to overcome them is hubris. No official wants to say that the United States cannot do something. A military officer risks his career if he points out that the forces approved by the secretary of defense are inadequate to the mission. He opens himself to the charge of lacking a can-do spirit. Ambassadors hesitate to argue against a demand by Washington for them to do some table-thumping abroad; doing so would cast doubt on whether they have the stomach for the job. Being weak is punished. Being tough and failing is not.

In a sense, Americans are driven to excess by the very qualities that make them so special: their self-confidence and their impulse to help others achieve a better and freer life. But these potent instincts also allow the extremists in their midst to carry them away, to exaggerate the threats they face, to override sensible limits, and to narrow debate. The United States' demons permit the extremists to ignore complexities and reduce arguments to powerful simplicities. These simplicities -- good versus evil and toughness versus weakness -- then play into the larger political arena, into the media's penchant for black-and-white drama, and into the U.S. Congress' impulse to score points. For most of the last half century, these demons have prevailed in the internal battles over U.S. foreign policy.

HISTORY'S LESSONS

An examination of the Cold War shows just how much damage the demons have caused. To be sure, there were impressive successes, such as President Harry Truman's phalanx of productive international institutions, President Richard Nixon's diplomatic triumphs around the world, and President George H. W. Bush's deft handling of the conclusion to the Cold War. But these were overshadowed by many costly mistakes.

In the 1950s, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles persisted with his public theme of "rolling back" the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe and stirred its captive peoples toward hopeless revolutions, even though he understood that President Dwight Eisenhower would never risk a world war for any of their causes. He was driven by his righteous anticommunism, which to him justified any cost.

President John F. Kennedy sent a few thousand Cuban expatriates to hell in the Bay of Pigs in 1961, even though no one could explain to him beforehand how the mission could possibly succeed without the U.S. air cover he refused to provide. But he feared that if he called off the operations, Republicans would accuse him of wimping out. He was prepared to sacrifice the lives of the Cuban invaders for his own political reputation.

Presidents Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson warred in Vietnam based on the rationale that they were preventing the Sino-Soviet communist monolith from conquering first Asia and then the world. But from the late 1950s on, U.S. intelligence had firm evidence that no such monolith existed. In fact, the CIA knew that there had been a highly exploitable Sino-Soviet split. The two Democratic presidents and Nixon were all driven by anticommunism, fear of the political consequences of losing a war, and hubris about the United States' strengths.

After the Arab oil boycott in 1973 and its clear demonstration of the United States' dependence on a critical commodity from the world's most volatile region, Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger were sufficiently alarmed to create the position of "energy czar" and hold a conference on energy supplies. But subsequently, neither they nor their successors did anything about that dependence, fearing the political costs of the extra taxes that would have been required. The price of that inaction has been two wars, costly defense budgets, and enormous outflows of U.S. wealth.

President Jimmy Carter committed the blunder of thinking and stressing at the outset of his administration that the war on "isms" was over, despite increasing evidence that the Soviet Union was becoming more, rather than less, assertive. Carter was so convinced that the United States' anticommunist ideology had been the major cause of crucial U.S. policy errors that he concocted a naive counterideology that weakened U.S. power and policy everywhere, as did his incredible passivity when Iranian militants held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days. Carter was an unusual, if not unique, case of a president driven by a pacifist ideology.

President Ronald Reagan rightly helped the mujahideen oust Soviet forces from Afghanistan but was so fixated on anticommunism that he completely missed the new terrorist threat there. And he missed it again in 1983 after an attack killed 241 U.S. servicemen in Lebanon. The terrorists surely got the message that he did not want to tangle with them. Reagan was heading into difficult political winds and wanted to avoid a popular backlash over further loss of American lives. And what but crazed anticommunism could have led to the Iran-contra affair: trading arms to Iran for American hostages in order to produce illegal monies to fund anticommunist contras in Nicaragua? His own adviser told him this was an "impeachable offense."

President George H. W. Bush, for all his sophistication in orchestrating the demise of the Soviet empire and other ventures, committed serious errors of his own in the name of a realist foreign policy. First, he sided with Iraq's Saddam Hussein against Iran by providing him with arms and intelligence, just as Reagan had. Then, he looked the other way when Saddam began to threaten Kuwait. The U.S. ambassador to Iraq at that time, April Glaspie, even went so far as to tell Saddam, "We have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts." Saddam surely took this as a green light to invade Kuwait. A hard line from Bush almost certainly would have stopped Saddam in his tracks. Bush's mistakes all appear to have stemmed from an excessive devotion to an ideology of realism that undervalued values and overvalued Saddam's importance to the United States in containing Iran. Bush also essentially gave the green light to Serbian ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and Croatia when he went along with Secretary of State James Baker's line that Americans did not "have a dog in this fight." Stopping genocide did not square with Bush's realist conception of the national interest.

The list of President Bill Clinton's mistakes includes hesitation, backtracking, and inaction -- the quintessential sins of liberal politicians. At the start of his first term, Clinton seemed to operate on the erroneous assumption that he did not need a foreign policy in the post-Cold War world, that domestic and economic policies would suffice. He promised to end the genocide in Bosnia during his first presidential campaign but then dallied for three years before acting. He tarried again before taking military action in Kosovo. But the worst, as Clinton admits, was his inaction in the face of the Rwandan genocide. Not only did he reject the Pentagon's modest plan to set up a safety zone on Rwanda's border, but he and his team also opposed sending additional UN troops. And he was plainly in search of domestic political redemption in his grossly overeager attempts to conclude major agreements with Yasir Arafat and Kim Jong Il in the last days of his administration. Throughout his years in office, Clinton did not care much about what was going on overseas so long as he felt the American people did not care either. He was not going to get out front and expose himself politically.

As for President George W. Bush, he rushed blindly into the Iraq war without hard evidence and fought it for years without a clue -- no information, no plans, just prideful boasting. He ignored an abundance of advice about these problems, all the while rejecting serious diplomacy. He frequently threatened Iran and North Korea, calling on them to halt their nuclear programs or else -- only to retreat at every turn. He ignored expert advice that his threats would fall on deaf ears. Now, Pyongyang has nuclear weapons, and Iran may not be far behind. Bush was captive to his own version of a new antiterrorist ideology, his utter devotion to the ultraright's mania for military force, and national arrogance, which he came to embody.

UNHAPPY TRUTHS

The United States' demons seem primed to haunt the country for the second decade of the twenty-first century. One can almost sense their giddy anticipation as they hear what U.S. leaders, Democrats and Republicans alike, have said about Afghanistan, Russia's military moves on Georgia, and other matters.

Several unhappy truths can be predicted about Afghanistan: Both Democrats and Republicans will continue to favor increasing U.S. troop levels and other commitments there, because the country could become home again to a dangerous al Qaeda and because doing so would be another reason to remove troops from Iraq. But even with greater efforts in Afghanistan, the situation will probably continue to deteriorate. The British and Soviet armies could tell the United States a thing or two about fighting in that country -- and losing. In the end, the Afghans will determine their own fate.

Fighting the Taliban and al Qaeda, the villains of 9/11, remains a popular endeavor among Americans, and this popularity drives U.S. strategic thinking to such an extent that the fight has become dogma. The chorus now consistently sings this memorable line: there is no alternative but winning in Afghanistan and preventing these terrorists' return to power. Although meeting that objective would be good, the underlying realities are that the Western-backed government in Kabul is corrupt and cannot run a country, much less a war, and that the Taliban still have a substantial following and know how to fight.

Piling up U.S. commitments in Afghanistan promises only a slight chance of success there. That fact should send U.S. leaders into an active search for alternative policies. There is talk of a strategy called "surge and negotiate," which would involve increasing the United States' military punch and then offering compromises to the enemy. That approach needs to be fleshed out to give Washington a decent chance of forging a political settlement with its adversaries and of developing a strategy to deal with terrorists should the compromises fall through. The British used a divide-and-conquer technique to try to separate their opponents and turn them against one another. This technique has a good record: no group is monolithic, and all are able to be split to a certain degree, especially if strong economic incentives are offered to those who behave well.

But the overall approach needs something more, something on the military side in the event that international terrorists once again start using Afghan territory as a base. In this case, a strategy of deterrence should not be excluded. The United States has the military capability to do great damage to anyone in Afghanistan who intends harm to U.S. forces or U.S. allies. Afghan poppy fields can be destroyed, and operations can be conducted against terrorist leaders and headquarters without reoccupying the country. President Barack Obama would do well to demonstrate early on in his administration a great capability to punish.

After the Russians occupied the provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and other parts of Georgia in the summer of 2008, U.S. and European political leaders outdid themselves in issuing vague warnings that Moscow should back off -- but they never threatened military action or a boycott of Russian oil and gas. The threats were of no more than wrist slaps: keeping Russia out of the World Trade Organization, dumping it from the G-8, suspending its membership in various for-show NATO groups. Russian leaders eventually removed their troops from undisputed Georgian territory, but the rhetoric on both sides pointed toward overreach and trouble.

The demons create ideological and political necessities, and necessity admits of no serious discussion. Necessity transformed centuries of Vietnamese culture and history into a supposedly manageable square on the strategic chessboard and made victory in Iraq look as easy as the conquest of Panama. Necessity leads presidents and their advisers to establish dangerously unachievable goals that greatly exceed the country's power, that may or may not represent the wishes of the people they are intended to help, and that justify engulfing the United States in quagmires from which arrogance alone promises to extract it.

Defeating Hitler and Hirohito in World War II was a true necessity, but how best the United States could do this was up for debate. Containing Soviet communism was also a true necessity, but the places and the means should have been debated and often were not. Defeating terrorists is a new true necessity, but how to distinguish among them and combat them needs to be freely examined.

SCHOOLS OF THOUGHT

The core problem is not American democracy or American ideals or American power. It is Americans themselves. In part, leading Democrats and Republicans mishandle the politics of U.S. foreign policy. Most Democrats adhere to fundamental liberal beliefs about the value of negotiations and cooperation with other states. At the same time, however, they calculate that this will sound too soft to mainstream Americans. As a result, they seem to be torn between their beliefs and their politics, and they create the impression that they were for something before they were against it and against it before they were for it. Democrats convey uncertainty about what they will do; the public senses this and then loses confidence in how they will manage national security.

By contrast, the Republicans exude nothing but conviction about the virtues of being aggressive, standing up to any possible adversary, and painting the world in simple black and white. They are forever proclaiming that they will never allow the United States to be pushed around in the world. And although Republicans have little regard for careful formulations of problems and difficulties, and the public senses this as well, mainstream Americans appear to like the Republicans' conviction. Thus, the American public has more confidence in the GOP than in the Democratic Party when it comes to international affairs.

In part, the moderates are reluctant to fight for the reasonable portrayal of problems and what can be done about them. The moderates know that good policy requires an open and honest review of the facts. They know that the effective use of power requires being able to push a range of buttons until some are found to work. Yet they do not fight for choice.

Most foreign policy experts are pushing for a new grand strategy to replace the old strategy of containment. They are disposed toward big ideas and toward wedging all the pieces of a problem snugly together into one big, neat theory. They are not enamored of loose ends or unintended consequences, which call their expertise into question. To their credit, most contribute valuable perspective and insights, although not without drawbacks.

The neoconservatives rightly remind Americans that irredeemable and irreconcilable evil is out there. But then they paint almost all foreign opponents (and some domestic ones as well) with a similar brush. They see past enemies, such as China and Russia, as future enemies as well. And they portray the United States' allies, particularly the European ones, as mostly worthless: lacking any military power and averse to the use of force.

The reality is that the neoconservatives will never be happy unless they are promoting some form of ideological warfare. Some of them argue that instead of the old ideological clash between democracy and communism, there is a new one: between democracy and autocracy -- the United States versus China and Russia. But the leaders of China and Russia are not going around the world proselytizing for their forms of government today the way their communist predecessors did. Rather, Moscow is playing its old power games by trying to muscle its neighbors, but this time mostly with economic rather than military power. At this point, China's leaders are interested almost solely in protecting themselves from domestic threats. The only preaching being done by these two autocracies is against the United States' "unilateralism," and they do this to give themselves some elbowroom for pursuing their own limited global concerns. If there is anything approaching an ideological battle in the world today, it is between what other states perceive as U.S. unilateralism and their own new sense of entitlement.

The realists, comfortable with power, rightly remind Washington to focus on the United States' vital interests rather than take on all the world's problems. But they are often too impressed by power per se. Many of them were too eager to embrace Saddam, for all his sins and unpredictability, as a counterweight to Iran. Many now are eager to excuse the rough behavior of China and Russia as merely what big dictatorial nations do. And they have not paid much attention to how to use U.S. power with failed or failing states or to address new transnational issues, such as the environment. The realists continue to chafe at the value of values and the U.S. president's need to espouse them to sustain his foreign policy at home. Their realism is sometimes actually not realistic enough, and when it is not, the realists overlook both policy choices and policy areas that call for the application of power.

The liberal internationalists still exist today as an important element within the Democratic Party. Their most impressive contribution has been to keep reminding Washington of the need to cooperate with allies and negotiate with adversaries in almost all instances. But since the Vietnam War, they have been calling for new international institutions without being specific or practical about them, and they have been drifting toward softer and more unrealistic definitions of power. Formulating a strategy is difficult for them because it is mainly a call for more negotiations and more multilateral diplomacy and less reliance on military power and force. To complicate matters further, when they come under great political pressure, many of them appear to abandon these principles and become war hawks themselves, as happened when the decision to invade Iraq was being debated.

Interestingly, some of the liberal Democrats have joined with the neoconservatives to form a new group that advocates a concert of democracies, or some kind of institutional alliance to consolidate like-minded democracies. That sounds like a helpful project, and it might even be one, if its advocates would demonstrate how they propose to corral the world's hundred or more democracies. Besides, they make little room in their concert for China and Russia, which are not democracies but matter more than, say, Botswana, Costa Rica, Peru, or Mauritius when it comes to diplomatic coalitions and power.

Then, of course, there are the globalizers, who, to their credit, bear witness to the new centrality of economics, which the national-security-oriented foreign policy clan traditionally ignores -- out of ignorance. But the globalizers still tend to overplay their hand by suggesting that economics will bring peace and democracy. Notoriously, they scant diplomatic and military choices.

ENDS AND MEANS

Only a foreign policy grounded in common sense can rescue the United States. Such a policy would not turn on inflated great-power conflicts or the imagined absence of power conflicts, and it would appreciate the diversity of the twenty-first-century world. A commonsense policy, however, does not mean a seat-of-the-pants or ad hoc policy. It means an approach that allows leaders to examine each situation on its own merits and link it to others when linking is justified by evidence and reason. Nor would such a policy be rudderless; indeed, common sense insists that policy be grounded in strategy, priorities, and clear direction. Common sense also allows strategy, priorities, and direction to be treated as guidelines, not straitjackets.

In contrast to all general policies, a commonsense policy would indeed be untidy, but its positive attributes would be indisputable. It would comport with an untidy world and not weed out facts that do not fit the guiding theory. It would offer most policy choices a fair hearing. It would also accommodate American ideals, stressing achievability rather than posturing or threats. Common sense does not preclude flexing one's military muscle or using military force; deterrence, containment, and punishment remain crucial. But before the cannon fire begins, common sense demands a strict accounting of the alternatives and of the probable consequences. A commonsense policy would focus on diplomatic and economic power but keep military power ever in the background as the principal means of pressuring other nations and solving problems.

These days, devising a commonsense U.S. foreign policy boils down to following five guidelines. First, make the United States strong again by restoring its economic dynamism and pragmatic, can-do spirit. U.S. resources and the United States' will to help the world are the ultimate bases of the nation's international power. If these deteriorate, its power abroad will shrink. To prevent this shrinkage will require giving far higher priority to energy independence, physical and human infrastructure, and homeland security. Unless weaknesses in these areas are reversed, even the most clever U.S. policies will fail.

Second, understand clearly that mutual indispensability is the fundamental operating principle for power in the twenty-first century -- meaning that the United States is the indispensable leader but needs equally indispensable partners to succeed. The aim here is not foolish multilateralism but the creation of small and ad hoc power coalitions to solve particular problems.

Third, focus U.S. policy and the power coalitions that must be forged on addressing the greatest threats -- terrorism, economic crises, nuclear proliferation, climate change, and global pandemics -- and then just mind other threats as best one can. Policy and power cannot work without clearly set priorities, which are forever preached about but usually ignored.

Fourth, remember that international power works best against problems before, rather than after, they mature. This suggests the need to develop power coalitions early on to combat agreed-on and foreseeable threats. It is fashionable to argue that power fares best in crises. That may be true in domestic affairs, but when it comes to international affairs, nations become so entrenched in their positions during hard times that in such moments war has historically been more likely than peace.

Fifth, realize that although the essence of power remains pressure and coercion based on a state's resources and international position, in other respects power is not what it used to be. The strong cannot expect to command the weak as in the past; the weak now can resist, and do. Traditional power does not work very well against today's problems, because these exist mostly within nations rather than between them. They are harder for power to reach or isolate. Power today must focus more on riding economic and diplomatic tides than on initiating military storms. This, in turn, means that power will work more slowly now than before. A premium must be placed on patience.

These realist and commonsense principles are not self-executing. They have to be fought for in the policy and political arenas, where the demons and their handlers have long presided. But moderate political leaders and moderate policy experts can pick up the cudgel of common sense, and win. Although some Americans have become addicted to extremism, most can be weaned away from this by their leaders' emphasizing the practicality of common sense.

Yes, questions arising from basic common sense get squelched for fear of political retribution and because public debate in the United States has become overwhelmed by declarations of American principles and affirmations of U.S. military might. But they get crushed mainly because moderates simply do not fight. Will it require an unmitigated disaster to wake Americans up? And even then, will liberals and conservatives just continue to devour each other?

Every great nation or empire ultimately rots from within. One can already see the United States, that precious guarantor of liberty and security, beginning to decline in its leadership, institutions, and physical and human infrastructure, heading on the path to becoming just another great power, a nation barely worth fearing or following. It is time to send up flares signaling that the United States is losing its way and its power, that it is in trouble. But it is even more important to reaffirm the belief that the United States is worth fighting for both across the oceans and at home. There should be no doubt that the United States, alone among nations, can provide the leadership to solve the problems that will otherwise engulf the world. And for all the country's faults, there should be no doubt that it remains the last best chance to create equal opportunity, hope, and freedom. But to restore all that is good and special about the United States, to rescue its power to solve problems, will require something that has not happened in a long time: that pragmatists, realists, and moderates unite and fight for their country.

  • LESLIE H. GELB is President Emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations. This essay is adapted from Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy (HarperCollins, 2009). Copyright © by Leslie H. Gelb. Printed by arrangement with the author and the publisher.
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