Rotten to the Core?
How America’s Political Decay Accelerated During the Trump Era
Seven years ago, we argued in this magazine that U.S. foreign policy thinking was dominated by pervasive threat inflation—a tendency among U.S. leaders to exaggerate the dangers the country faces and in so doing distort foreign policy decision-making. This chronic embellishment and exaggeration occurred despite the fact that
the world that the United States inhabits today is a remarkably safe and secure place. It is a world with fewer violent conflicts and greater political freedom than at virtually any other point in human history. All over the world, people enjoy longer life expectancy and greater economic opportunity than ever before. The United States faces no plausible existential threats, no great-power rival, and no near-term competition for the role of global hegemon. . . . Although the United States faces a host of international challenges, they pose little risk to the overwhelming majority of American citizens.
Our arguments have certainly been tested in the interim. Events such as Brexit, the Syrian civil war, and the election of U.S. President Donald Trump, alongside such negative trends as the global retreat of democracy and the growing threat of climate change, have created an impression that the world is indeed getting more dangerous. Does our thesis hold up? Is the world really getting safer, freer, wealthier, healthier, and better educated, and are the dangers to the United States still vastly overstated? As we argue in our new book, Clear and Present Safety: The World Has Never Been Better and Why That Matters to Americans, the case for optimism remains strong.
Global poverty rates are still falling, and global life expectancy continues to increase. Despite conflicts in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, the level of violence in the world today is historically low. Diseases and parasites that once ravaged poor countries, such as polio and guinea worm, are nearing eradication. Substantial progress has been made in fighting HIV/AIDS and malaria. Maternal and infant mortality rates are falling. Today, a greater percentage of girls go to school than ever before. Global literacy continues to rise.
Trends in the opposite direction, however, are undeniable. Three in particular give us pause: the retreat of democracy; the fraying of the international system; and increasing social and political dysfunction within the country that has long played the most important and influential global leadership role—the United States.
Still, as was the case in 2012, the best way to deal with such concerns is to put them in perspective, first by recognizing that the United States is a safe country within an ever-safer world.
At first glance, recent events would seem to strengthen the case for pessimism. One particularly worrying contemporary trend is the global retreat of democracy. In our previous essay, we celebrated the fact that the number of electoral democracies had grown from 69 at the end of the Cold War to 117 in 2012. But today, according to Freedom House’s latest annual survey, global freedom has been declining for 13 consecutive years. The organization notes that these “losses are still shallow compared with the gains of the late 20th century” but warns that the pattern of democracy in retreat “is consistent and ominous.”
Improvements in places such as Armenia, Angola, Ecuador, Ethiopia, and Malaysia have been offset by major democratic reversals in Hungary, Nicaragua, the Philippines, and Poland. China, Russia, and Turkey have become more authoritarian. Perhaps most surprising, large populations within the United States and the United Kingdom, two of the world’s oldest democracies, have thrown their support to nationalist, populist, and xenophobic politicians and political movements.
This is particularly troubling because countries that are less democratic are inevitably less stable, more likely to go to war with their neighbors, and less inclined to abide by international norms. If the trend away from political freedom continues, the world is likely to become more dangerous. As we warn in our book, “If there is one area where the path of human progress could potentially be slowed or even reversed, it is . . . the expansion of political freedom. The growing disinterest among U.S. policy makers [in] the issue—and the cultivation of authoritarian leaders by President Donald Trump—will undoubtedly make this situation worse.”
A further problem is that the international system that might once have provided ballast against such turbulence is now beginning to fray. In 2012, we wrote that one of the best ways to solidify the extraordinary gains of the previous three decades was by “strengthening the global architecture of international institutions and norms that can promote U.S. interests and ensure that other countries share the burden of maintaining global peace and security.”
Trump has moved the United States in a very different direction. Over the past two years, the U.S. president has begun needless trade wars with important allies and trading partners, leading to increased global tariffs, higher prices for U.S. manufacturers and consumers, and a stalling of foreign direct investment around the world. He has marginalized the U.S. State Department and diminished the centrality of diplomacy to U.S. foreign policy. Trump has also abandoned crucial international agreements, including the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and the Paris agreement on climate change, while reducing U.S. engagement with international political, humanitarian, and scientific organizations.
The Trump administration’s weakening of the international system is perhaps the greatest macro threat the world faces. The next U.S. president may reverse this harmful strategy, but it is impossible to say how permanent the damage will be and whether an internationalist president will be able to quickly and effectively right the ship.
The United States’ retreat from its position of global leadership comes at the same time the country faces even more troubling indications of national decline at home. In 2012, we pointed out that American policymakers were obsessed with overseas threats and were ignoring emerging signs of dysfunction at home. In nearly every imaginable way, these signs are now blinking red.
In 2012, 32 percent of Americans were obese; approximately 40 percent are today. In 2012, drug overdoses were not a major public policy issue—we did not even reference them in our original Foreign Affairs essay. In 2017, drugs killed 74,000 people, nearly the same number of people killed by guns and cars combined—and as with guns, policymakers have done little to stem the tide. It’s no wonder that life expectancy in the United States has declined for three straight years for the first time in a century (by contrast, between 2000 and 2015, global life expectancy jumped by a remarkable 5.5 years). Worse still, it’s hard to envision Trump or the Republican-controlled Senate granting these issues the attention and resources they so desperately need.
This year, the White House has requested a budget that would increase military spending, diminish the social safety net, and cut funding for foreign operations by 23 percent. The Trump administration has also made continued efforts to do away with Obamacare, remove poor Americans from Medicaid, and slash environmental regulations. The United States seems to be engaged in a national act of slow-motion suicide: not only are domestic problems getting worse, policymakers are actively pouring gasoline on the fire. This has created one of the great ironies of the present day—that while life is steadily improving in most of the developing world, the United States is moving backward.
As we write at the end of our book, “It would be the height of hubris to suggest that the world can only move in one direction—forever better and brighter. Things can fall apart, and while we do not believe that we will return to the conflict-ridden, undemocratic, and economically stagnant world of thirty or forty years ago, progress can be halted and, in some cases, reversed.” We warn that “bad decisions and poor policy choices can do untold—and sometimes permanent—damage.”
The United States’ misguided focus on foreign threats—be they terrorists and weapons of mass destruction a decade and a half ago or immigrants and international trade today—and inattention to serious domestic challenges have clouded Americans’ optimism about the future. And the recent 16th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq serves as a reminder of the costs of, and enduring damage done by, Washington’s inclination to search for foreign monsters to destroy.
Yet despite the new challenges documented above, underlying global dynamics remain largely unchanged. The United States is still a remarkably safe great power, and the international environment is still defined by less violence, greater freedom and wealth, and more extraordinary advances in human development than at any previous point in history. The problems that the United States faces at home have gotten worse, but they too can be solved if Americans can devote the appropriate resources and attention to them.
As we noted seven years ago, the United States needs a national security strategy and an approach to foreign policy that reflect the reality of a world that is “freer . . . more secure . . . and less dangerous than ever before.” And as we argue in our new book, “The choice is in our hands.”