availability cascades and the “decline of American power” 

Cass Sunstein recently wrote a great article on availability cascades, availability heuristics and how these behavior patterns may lead political leaders to act in the wake of Eric Cantor’s primary loss.

Basically, the availability heuristic is a person’s tendency to count something as more likely based on how easily that event comes to mind. Mr. Sunstein gives as an example the fact that many people believe that it is more likely for someone to be murdered than to commit suicide.

I am very glad that Mr. Sunstein explained this concept, because it led me to think of how this principle applies in so many other areas of politics. Particularly, I began to think about how it might apply to America’s foreign policy at the moment.

The U.S. is facing many regional challenges that seem to be redefining our place in the world — Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, Southeast Asia. Things are happening that make it seem as though the once-great hegemon can no longer handle the burden. World public opinion has come to the view that we somehow aren’t able to cope like we once were. It’s as if we have just tired ourselves out in Iraq and Afghanistan and no longer have the will or the money to continue as the world’s sole superpower.

What is really happening here is a tendency for people the world over to believe that since there are many foreign policy problems the U.S. is facing, the U.S. is not as effective in shaping world affairs as it once was. Democratic leaders are sensitive to this — indeed President Obama himself has admitted as much. Leaders seem to be saying that, in effect, the ability is there but the will is not. The American people long for a “return to normalcy” as Robert Kagan so adroitly pointed out.

So we now face a self-fulfilling prophecy of American decline based on the availability cascade of foreign policy failures. Part of the problem lies with an administration that is constantly reactive, never proactive. Part of it is also due to the gridlock that has become been put so painfully on display since the 2010 Tea Party revolution.

Another part of the problem is that pesky availability cascade, which is driving voting and polling numbers, and thus the actions of our leaders. I saw a headline proclaiming “Obama Says the U.S. Will No Longer Be the World’s Policeman.” Interesting how this is news, when in fact, Secretary of State James Baker had said the exact same thing during the Bosnian War 20 years earlier, during those dreamy 1990s when everything seemed to be going right for us. The challenges we face are nothing new, and our shortness of memory and resultant lack of confidence are troubling. In politics, perception is very often the reality, but in this case our perception does not match the reality.

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