Reflecting On U.S. Power and Leadership During Hard Times

Expressions of populist anger, resentment toward unresponsive government institutions, and deep-seated frustration with "politics as usual" have dominated the rhetoric surrounding the Republican Party's ongoing presidential primary campaign. The underlying theme is that the United States is declining (in both material and moral terms) and without a dramatic change in course. This decline may be irreversible with catastrophic implications for American security and prosperity in a much more dangerous and unstable world. However, as global events of the past month indicate, things may not be as bad as they seem, and despite facing real challenges, the United States remains well-positioned to maintain its status as global leader.

As to be expected in a highly contested primary race, some rhetoric may be overblown and hyperbolic. Yet considering the significant challenges confronting Washington in both foreign and domestic policy realms, there is no doubt that the next president will have a full plate. From the long-term rise of China, to the ongoing campaign against the Islamic State, to Russia's intervention in Ukraine, the world seems highly uncertain and threatening. At home, the economy remains sluggish, and popular frustrations with low growth, stagnant wages, and persistent unemployment have magnified already-controversial questions of illegal immigration and free trade as well as the enormous challenge managing health care delivery in an aging, post-industrial superpower.

While these problems are indeed daunting, the recent spike in economic volatility spurred primarily by a decline in the Chinese stock market provides an opportunity to reassess the position of the United States relative to the rest of the world. There is little doubt that America has not fully recovered from the financial crisis of 2008 and the subsequent great recession. Yet the current economic downturn and other global events only underscore a fairly straightforward reality: the United States remains well-positioned to address its domestic political problems and capable of implementing a foreign policy that protects its national interests and the interests of its friends and allies. If America could escape the intractable partisanship and dysfunction that has dominated its domestic politics for the past decade, there are few international macro-systemic impediments (whether material or social) to the successful resolution of important problems. Other countries and regions are far less fortunate.

Immigration, which has reemerged as a major campaign issue in the United States, has taken on a vital urgency in Europe. With ongoing conflicts in Syria, Iraq, and Libya among others, refugee flows have spiked in recent months. The leading members of the European Union, who had only recently struggled to resolve the Greek debt crisis and maintain the Eurozone amidst poor economic conditions, seem incapable or unwilling to address the crisis, and smaller European states, already stretched to capacity under years of fiscal austerity, threaten to be overwhelmed by this new humanitarian emergency.

The so-called BRICS, which many hailed as rising to challenge the position of the United States as global leader, have hit a wall. Brazil's economic growth has plummeted, and the well-known costs of its previous rapid economic expansion, notably pollution and environmental degradation have become far more prevalent in recent discussions of Rio's Olympics. India has managed to maintain solid economic growth, but its infrastructural limitations continue to be the defining characteristic of its situation. At the same time, its commitment to democracy and concerns about China pushes it toward the American orbit. Economic downturn in South Africa has been marked by horrific communal violence against immigrants and refugees from Africa's conflict zones. Russia - always a curious member of this ostensibly emerging and energetic club, is a an economic mess and confronting significant demographic hardships. Moreover, despite Vladimir Putin's claims to contrary, very few states see Moscow as an alternative to Washington. Instead, Putin's nationalist rhetoric and belligerent foreign policy and his reliance on Russia's remaining hard power has won few friends and little admiration. Finally, while this week's crash in China's stock market and subsequent currency devaluation may be a limited event, it is a stark reminder of the long, difficult road Beijing faces in attempting to maintain requisite levels of growth necessary to foster social and political development.

As the recent volatility of Wall Street reflects, the interdependence of the world economy means that problems in other parts of the world can cause pain in the United States. This is even more evident in the security realm. The problems of allies and friends can become problems for the United States, and thus the world remains a difficult and dangerous place. But in these hard times, the formidable capabilities of the United States are only made more apparent. The real challenges to maintaining American leadership in the world are not external, but come from within.

None of this discussion should be misunderstood as hollow American triumphalism or a callous dismissal of real problems confronting the United States. Quite to the contrary, over the past decade the American political system has proven incapable of effectively responding to problems and developing sound policies that would necessarily be predicated on some measure of underlying compromise and consensus. The inability to govern, coupled with the growing perception both at home and abroad that the U.S. system is broken, presents the greatest threat to long-term American security and prosperity. The underlying challenge is whether a democracy that is so bitterly divided along partisan lines can develop and implement coherent policies that effectively address real problems. The recent historical record does not inspire optimism, but the United States has emerged from dark political periods in the past.

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