The Endless Fantasy of American Power
Neither Trump Nor Biden Aims to Demilitarize Foreign Policy
Analysts of international affairs rarely focus on how the domestic condition of the United States shapes the country’s influence and role in the world, but today the connection could hardly be more relevant. The United States is currently experiencing three upheavals simultaneously: the COVID-19 pandemic, the economic aftershocks of that emergency, and the political protests and in some cases violence sparked by the videotape of the killing of George Floyd, a 46-year-old African American man, by police officers in Minneapolis.
The three crises of this moment will undoubtedly affect the foreign policy of the United States, which for three-quarters of a century has been the preeminent power in the world. Indeed, recent developments could have a profound and enduring impact on American influence. Unless the United States is able to come together to address its persistent societal and political divides, global prospects for democracy may weaken, friends and allies of the United States may rethink their decision to place their security in American hands, and competitors may dispense with some or all of their traditional caution.
The example the United States sets at home and the image it projects abroad can either magnify American power or detract from it. For all that foreign policy is commonly understood to be the province of officials and diplomats—consultations, negotiations, communiques, démarches, summits, and more—foreign policy by example is no less real. Through example, a country communicates its values and furnishes a context for all that its representatives say and do. At times, the United States has stood as a paradigm to countries that demanded accountability from their leaders; at other times, the United States has failed to live up to its highest ideals and thereby undermined its calls for other countries to treat their people better.
Today’s American travails have been widely seen and heard outside the United States. Globalization is a conveyor belt—one that in this instance carried stark images of police brutality across the globe. If one lesson of COVID-19 is that what starts in Wuhan does not stay in Wuhan, one lesson of the killing of George Floyd is that what happens in Minneapolis does not stay there. Comparisons between the current situation and the United States of 1968 are overdrawn, in no small part because what is going on now is arguably more serious, but one mantra from that time remains apt: “The Whole World is Watching.”
As if to prove that point, spontaneous demonstrations against racism and police brutality have sprung up around American embassies in Europe and elsewhere. But the context in which they did so is worth elucidating. Confidence in the American example has been waning for years, the result of prolonged political division and dysfunction within the United States—the pervasive gun-related violence that no other society allows or can identify with, the prevalence of opioid addiction and related deaths, the financial mismanagement that led to enormous global hardship in the crisis of 2008, the rise of inequality, the poor infrastructure that greets most visitors to the country, and much else. U.S. President Donald Trump, moreover, has proven to be as controversial, and in many cases as unpopular, abroad as he is at home.
Confidence in the American example has been waning for years.
The American response to the COVID-19 pandemic reinforced doubts about American competence. That the novel coronavirus would reach American shores was inevitable, given the nature of the pathogen and the initial failure of both China and the World Health Organization (WHO) to contain it and warn the world of it. What was not inevitable was that the disease would take the toll it did. The lack of protective equipment for first responders and hospital staff; the inability to produce at scale accurate, quick tests for either the virus or the antibodies; the delayed and then inconsistent messaging about wearing masks and social distancing—these failures are the country’s own. The result is more than 100,000 fatalities, millions of infections, and a deadly American course no one wishes to follow.
The United States has long retained many positive features when seen from abroad: excellent universities, innovative companies, and a tradition (currently compromised) of openness to immigration. The election of Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 seemed to show that racism had abated to a significant degree; the gains of the civil, women’s, and gay rights movements were a source of inspiration elsewhere; and even the country’s multiple experiences with impeachment seemed to showcase a system in which no person was above the law. Now, however, the image of a United States consistent with former President Ronald Reagan’s “shining city on a hill” grows ever more distant in the eyes of the world.
As that image recedes, the capacity diminishes for the United States to present itself as a model for others to emulate. So, too, does the ability of the United States to criticize or pressure other countries for their failings. A good deal of evidence suggests that Chinese leader Xi Jinping was on the defensive at home for China’s initial inadequate response to the COVID-19 outbreak. But the United States’ poor showing essentially took Xi off the hook, as invidious comparisons could not be drawn. For all of Washington’s talk, it squandered the opportunity to take a tough stance vis-à-vis China on the pandemic.
Democracy is in recession around the world, and the ability of the United States to arrest that retreat is likewise in decline.
The current political crisis, moreover, has likewise hindered U.S. prospects for promoting and protecting democracies abroad. Human rights and democracy promotion have long been a staple of American foreign policy—partly for normative reasons, because Americans believe that such principles enhance the meaning and value of life, and partly for practical reasons, because many U.S. policymakers believe that democracies act with restraint not just toward their own citizens but toward others and in so doing, make the world less violent. Now, democracy is in recession around the world, and the ability of the United States to arrest that retreat is likewise in decline. A case in point is China, which has countered Washington’s criticism of its actions in Hong Kong by pointing to U.S. behavior at home.
What happened in Washington, D.C. on Monday night, June 1, was particularly consequential in this regard. A peaceful protest in the public space across from the White House was broken up, not because it was a threat to order but to serve a political purpose. The White House made a bad situation worse by deploying military units to Washington. But the rights of free speech and assembly, including public protest, are constitutionally guaranteed and stand at the core of American democracy. Public trust requires that federal law enforcement agencies and the military not be politicized. Terrible images from that night traveled across the world. Not lost on either international viewers or American citizens was the dangerous precedent the incident set in a country just five months away from what is sure to be a hard-fought election.
The turmoil in the United States, set before the eyes of the world, raises questions about American power. To distinguish between absolute power and available power is useful here. The country’s absolute power, above all military and economic power, is still considerable. The bigger question concerns its available power. Is a country with 42 million people unemployed, a declining GDP, shuttered factories, widespread protest that at times turns violent, and deep internal divisions in a position to act internationally?
The answer to this question is anything but clear. Available power consists not just of military and economic instruments but also the ability and the will to use them—and this measure is the one most sensitive to the condition in which the United States now finds itself. The impulse to turn inward and do less in the world was already rising after the United States overreached in Afghanistan and Iraq. Now, the country faces formidable domestic strife, which will likely quell much of the remaining appetite to intervene abroad, however justified on occasion it might be. Some of those who bemoan American missteps over the past two decades may welcome such an inward turn. But no less dangerous than overreach is underreach—a United States that fails to act to protect its interests. Such a United States will not be able to isolate itself from a world in which viruses, greenhouse gases, terrorists, and cyberattacks cross borders at will.
The perception that the United States has been shorn of much of its available power will likely affect the decision-making of other countries. The danger is that foes will see a United States weakened and distracted and move to take advantage. Some, arguably, already have. China has moved or spoken aggressively on Hong Kong, its contested border with India, and Taiwan. Russia has brazenly interfered with the operation of U.S. planes and ships. North Korea is continuing to expand its arsenal of nuclear weapons and missiles, and Iran is slowly but steadily breaking through the limits established by the 2015 nuclear agreement. Such opportunism has been growing for some time, given the U.S. withdrawal from international undertakings, the current administration’s failure to vocally support U.S. alliances, and reports that Washington is seeking to negotiate the departure of American forces from Afghanistan absent conditions of anything approximating peace. Where would-be foes are tempted to advance, allies will feel anxious, with some choosing to defer to a powerful neighbor and others choosing to take matters into their own hands by accumulating or using military force. U.S. interests and stability will suffer either way.
The danger is that foes will see a United States weakened and distracted and move to take advantage.
The moment is therefore dangerous. Three decades after the end of the Cold War on terms more favorable than any optimist could have hoped, the state of the world is deteriorating. A traditional security agenda has reemerged, including a revisionist Russia, a rising and more assertive China, and ever more capable hostile middle powers, such as Iran and North Korea; what is more, these concerns share the field with a new security agenda that includes terrorists with global reach, climate change, and pandemics.
The United States that faces this daunting agenda is weakened, divided, and distracted. But the threats will not manage themselves or disappear; nor can the United States shield itself from the adverse consequences of inaction. History has no pause button: the world cannot be expected to wait until the United States sorts itself out. To the contrary, the need is urgent for the United States to come together—to root out racism, restore its economy, and bridge its political divisions—sooner rather than later, for both its own sake and the world’s.
China Is Maneuvering for International Leadership as the United States Falters