Strong voices speak out with persuasive arguments that the United States is in decline. It is obvious that the United States no longer has the unchallenged position it did immediately after the Cold War and its economy no longer dominates the world as it once did. Nevertheless other strong voices persuasively argue that the situation is not so much a decline of the United States as the rise of the rest, the appearance of more influential players on the world scene.
The United States is described as still the only nation capable of global leadership. China is a regional power and operates on a global scale but has no pretense of global hegemony as the Soviet Union once did. It looks to exploit the global system but not to run it. With the Soviet Union gone, Russia's ambitions are clearly diminished. As with China, it focuses on regional domination. Both China and Russia face significant internal challenges, particularly since leadership legitimacy for both is heavily based on economic development and this is becoming increasingly difficult. The European Union is hobbled. Other large nations, such as India, Indonesia and Brazil, have enough challenges in their own regions and no pretense of global leadership. Nevertheless many nations are disinclined to follow the U.S. lead, and strong currents in U.S. politics stress domestic needs and question the wisdom and feasibility of a major global presence.
Yet, the newly shrunken world makes global leadership critical for the United States, in particular for the U.S. economy. The nation simply cannot prosper in a world of turmoil. This will be all the more so if economic pressures push the Chinese and/or the Russian leadership to increase repression and turn to strident nationalism and confrontational policies to bolster government legitimacy. Russia is already moving in this direction.
What sort of global leadership can the United States create?
Traditional U.S. leadership was ultimately based on fundamental ideals of freedom and equality. But the sense of U.S. exceptionalism was often seen as arrogance. Democracy promotion was rejected as an effort to promote parochial and self-serving U.S. values. Many nations have a strong sense of their own uniqueness. China's lengthy history gives it a sense of superiority, while Russians have long spoken of a unique role for Mother Russia. Major Western countries, including Great Britain, France and Germany, have also promoted unique cultural values. What set the United States apart was that its values and ideals were not based on its own socio-economic or cultural history but on universal human aspirations. This led it to become the destination of choice for millions fleeing hunger and repression, welcomed by the words chiseled into the Statue of Liberty: Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free... Not only did the United States welcome these huddled masses, but it integrated them, it made them Americans. Those who denigrated freedom and equality as parochial U.S. values were often repressive leaders concerned that U.S. ideals would resonate with their own populations.
Indeed, these values have had a broad appeal to people everywhere. U.S. leadership in World War II and after led to the historical integration of Europe, a sharp break from the World War I aftermath which simply set the stage for another conflict. The European nations transcended centuries of hostility and bitter rivalries, creating a model that can give a vision of a much larger global amity. And it was the United States that led this effort. Though seen by some as arrogant or imperious -- a Colossus of the North, an overbearing commander entrenched in the senior position in NATO -- the United States was still widely respected as the Leader of the Free World, speaking up for oppressed people everywhere, a Land of Opportunity that spread wealth widely among its own people.
But this sense of U.S. exceptionalism gradually faded. During the decades of Cold War, a real potential for subjugation, even annihilation, compelled a policy of realism that saw the United States supporting a range of unsavory regimes and increasing its own internal controls. The end of the Cold War failed to reverse these disturbing trends and resulted in a widening gap between U.S. ideals and reality, continuing support to repressive regimes, a failure to develop a society mirroring its high ideals. The shock of an unexpected Global War on Terror increased the gap between ideals and reality. Results in Iraq and Afghanistan showed the folly of believing U.S. approaches to supporting fundamental human values would be universally applicable, that superficial elections would transform countries into democracies, that centralized governments would protect the well being of all their citizens, and that military action could spur development of a civil economy. The focus on short term results combined with cultural insensitivity promoted sweeping skepticism in the Muslim world. The United States became widely viewed as supporting torture, defending the use of waterboarding even though it had executed Japanese prisoners after World War II for doing exactly the same thing. After 13 years of support to Afghanistan, people are still freezing to death and starving to death even as the United States prepares to once again abandon its efforts there.
Domestically, surveillance became much more intensive and secretive, as exposed by Edward Snowden's leaks. Simultaneously, the drawdown in Afghanistan has militarized U.S. civil police with excess combat equipment. Most importantly, U.S. society has become increasingly disoriented and fractious. Of course some degree of wealth inequality is not only inevitable but desirable - a central motivator of the Land of Opportunity is the opportunity to be rich, to work hard and productively and so rise above the rest. But wealth inequality has become so extreme that it has undermined the American Dream, the idea that anyone can become a homeowner and lead a comfortable life. Instead, more and more families simply cannot afford a comfortable life: restaurants are luxuries; staycations have replaced vacations; music lessons, gym clubs and even movies are simply out of reach. Government services, including education and infrastructure, steadily deteriorate. Higher education results in huge debt loads. More and more people are frustrated, angry and ultimately violent; mental illness, racism and high prison populations compound the problems. Immigration has become a threat to the well being of millions of people who are themselves descended from immigrants.
Thanks to the internet, all of these international and domestic shortcomings are visible globally and spur rejections of the United States and its values.
In the middle of this, the Arab Spring exploded based on the core U.S. values of freedom and equality. Directing their anger at oppressive regimes, including ones supported by the United States, the protesters knew what they didn't want -- the existing regimes -- but they didn't know what they did want. They accepted U.S. ideals but not the U.S. model -- noticeably absent was any demand to build a U.S.-style government. The movements had no sense of direction and foundered for lack of leadership. Libya, Yemen, Iraq and Syria are all rent by savage fighting.
And now there is the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). How can it be that a brutally medieval movement can attract hundreds of young people from Western countries? This is a dramatic demonstration that these young people do not see their own countries as building attractive societies. The U.S. model is failing. Europe has no cohesion, no sense of the importance of human values. Recently Pope Francis spoke of how, The great ideas that once inspired Europe seem to have lost their attraction, only to be replaced by the bureaucratic technicalities of its institutions. His words could apply just as well to the United States which has lost its reputation as a Beacon of Freedom, a Land of Opportunity. A simplistic application of U.S. values coupled with overconfidence in U.S. institutions and approaches has badly undermined U.S. credibility. Americans, proud of their country and its ideals, are slow to recognize how seriously these ideals have been tarnished, how the world sees American actions as speaking much louder than its professed values.
Of course it is inevitable that there will be a gap between ideals and reality. At the very founding of the nation, Thomas Jefferson, the author of the stirring words that all men are created equal, was himself a slave holder. It took almost a century to resolve the slavery issue, but residual racism still plagues the nation as vividly demonstrated by the recent events in Ferguson and their continuing aftermath. The decline in U.S. influence is rooted in the failure of its ideals to deliver the good life they promised. The situation has been exacerbated by the disappearance of the open frontier which gave the United States an ability to assimilate those who came. It is no surprise that a deterioration of the domestic situation should lead to a diminution of international influence.
The bottom line is that for its own well being, the United States needs to lead the world to a more stable and sustainable situation that does indeed embody the universal ideals it has long promoted. And the United States remains the only nation in a position to provide such global leadership. But such U.S. leadership is out of reach unless the nation reasserts its values of freedom and equality, reviving the American Dream and giving the world a real example of what its universal ideals can lead to.
The isolationists are right on one key point - the major challenges are domestic. But the United States cannot ignore the world, let it descend into turmoil, while it fixes the situation at home. Indeed, renewal at home and development globally are interactive. The United States needs to build a better America in order to build a better world. This is not something that can be fixed overnight. It has taken fifty years for the United States to work its way into a dead end of domestic decline and decreasing global relevance, and may well take another 50 years to reverse the situation.
This is our challenge for the 21s Century.