How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
American global leadership faces a crisis—not of economic vitality, diplomatic prowess, or military strength but of legitimacy. Around the world, polls and interviews show that publics and elites in countries that consider themselves U.S. allies harbor doubts about the state and direction of American democracy. They no longer see it as a model, and they worry whether the American political system can still produce trustworthy outcomes.
Such sentiments are cause for alarm. In the past, the U.S. image abroad rose and fell depending on who was in the White House or what actions the United States was taking overseas, but views about American democracy remained steady, albeit less positive than many Americans might have supposed. Now, that is starting to change. Behind the constantly fluctuating popularity of U.S. presidents, there is a steady decline in the international assessment of the strength of the U.S. political system. The United States ranks 26th, between Chile and Estonia, in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s most recent Democracy Index, which first labeled the United States a “flawed democracy” in 2016. Freedom House ranks the United States one notch below Argentina and Mongolia in access to political rights and civil liberties. If people around the world can no longer rely on American democracy to lead by example and to deliver decisive U.S. action on shared challenges, Washington will lose its moral authority to lead.
Americans intuitively sense their loss of standing: for the last two decades roughly two-thirds have believed that the United States is less respected internationally than it was in the past, according to a Pew Research Center survey. And such respect is likely to deteriorate further. While a median of 61 percent of publics in 13 transatlantic countries polled in 2022 by the German Marshall Fund thought the United States was the most influential actor in global affairs today, just 35 percent expect it to be the most influential in five years.
To regain that lost stature, American democracy must overcome the challenges of partisan politics, institutional gridlock, and instability. The U.S. government will need to prove that it is able to produce sustainable international policies that the United States’ friends and foes alike can count on. This job is too important to be left solely to those preoccupied with domestic issues. The foreign policy establishment needs to see the revival of American democracy as the cornerstone of future U.S. global leadership. This will require direct engagement with the American public, not unlike the concerted effort to promote the Marshall Plan to reluctant Americans in 1947 and 1948. It is not simply a sales job; policymakers must first listen to Americans to try to understand and alleviate their frustrations with their democracy in the interest of maintaining and strengthening U.S. influence in the world.
Foreigners’ assessments of the United States are driven largely by their perceptions of the U.S. president. The most comprehensive public opinion data on foreign views of the United States began in 2002 with the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project. And the United States’ image has been on a rollercoaster ride ever since.
In 2000, 83 percent of people in the United Kingdom, 78 percent in Germany, 77 percent in Japan, 76 percent in Italy, 62 percent in France, and 50 percent in Spain held a positive view of the United States, according to a U.S. State Department survey. This assessment slid dramatically during the administration of President George W. Bush; at its low point in 2008, the global image of the United States was down 47 percentage points in Germany, 30 points in the United Kingdom, and 27 points in Japan. Public sentiment then rebounded markedly when President Barack Obama took office in 2009, with approval of the United States up 33 percentage points in France and Germany, and 25 points in Spain. Favorable views of the United States spiraled downward again during the presidency of Donald Trump, reaching record lows, down 32 points in France, 31 points in Germany and Japan, and 30 points in Canada. In the first years of the Biden administration, U.S. favorability rebounded to levels comparable to that in the Obama years in most countries, up 34 points in France (to 65 percent), 33 points in Germany (to 59 percent), and up 30 points in Japan (to 71 percent).
For the most part, foreign publics, especially those in Europe, where the data are most comprehensive, liked Bill Clinton, grew to dislike George W. Bush, loved Obama, and hated Trump. What has been striking is the increasing volatility in such sentiments, meaning that the pendulum is swinging much farther and more quickly from presidency to presidency. For example, between 2008, before the U.S. election, and 2009, after the election, confidence in the U.S. president in France went from 13 percent to 91 percent, in Germany from 14 percent to 93 percent, in Japan from 25 percent to 85 percent. The reverse happened between 2016, before the election, and 2017, after the election: confidence fell in France from 84 percent to 14 percent, in Germany from 86 percent to 11 percent, and in Japan from 78 percent to 24 percent. One German official commented to me in early 2017, “Isn’t it interesting? It took Bush eight years to get to this low level. It took Trump three months!”
Who happens to be sitting in the Oval Office clearly colors international views of American democracy. A 2020 Eurasia Group Foundation survey found that 26 percent of German respondents believe that American-style democracy would be more attractive if a different person were U.S. president. But the international challenge facing U.S. stature in the world transcends personalities. Foreigners have growing worries about the health and direction of American democracy—its deepening partisanship, its dysfunctionality—that predate the Trump presidency. Such worries bedeviled the Bush administration, lingered in the background of the Obama administration, and now raise doubts about the Biden administration.
In 2012, Pew Research found that a median of 45 percent of those surveyed in 20 countries across the globe said they liked American ideas about democracy, including 64 percent of Japanese, 60 percent of Tunisians, 58 percent of Italians, and 52 percent of Chinese. Such appeal was up in every country that had been surveyed in 2002.
Today, however, few people around the world express much faith in American democracy. According to a Pew survey of 16 countries conducted in 2021, just 11 percent of respondents in Australia, 14 percent in Germany and Japan, and 20 percent in the United Kingdom said democracy in the United States is a good model. A median of 57 percent said American democracy used to be a good example but has not been in recent years. As one Green Party German Bundestag member told me in an interview in 2021, “I trust America. But I don’t trust the political system.”
The Eurasia Group Foundation has similarly analyzed foreign perceptions of U.S. democracy. In a 2022 survey of nine countries, 55 percent of respondents held a favorable view of American democracy, largely unchanged since 2019. But as shown in the Pew surveys, publics in the countries most closely allied with the United States feel the least optimistic about American democracy. Only 20 percent of Japanese and 29 percent of Germans have a positive view of U.S. democracy in the Eurasia Group Foundation survey. In comparison, 84 percent of Nigerians and 81 percent of Indians admire American ideas about democracy. And by similar margins, Japanese and German publics do not want their system of government to become more like that of the United States, while Nigerians and Indians do.
The number of countries surveyed by both Pew and the Eurasia Group Foundation is admittedly small. But both are geographically diverse and include major economies and U.S. allies.
Foreigners have growing worries about the health and direction of American democracy.
There is also evidence that foreign publics have lost faith in what many once perceived to be a strength of American democracy: that it protects the rights of its own people. In 2008, a median of 71 percent of people surveyed by Pew, in seven countries in Europe and Asia, believed that the United States protects Americans’ freedoms. But revelations by National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden in 2013 that the U.S. government was listening in on the phone calls of foreign leaders, notably German Chancellor Angela Merkel, led to a sharp decline in such positive sentiment. By 2018, the median in those same countries that saw the United States as a protector of individual freedom had fallen to 43 percent. International public sentiment has rebounded since then, to 60 percent in 2021. But the damage done to this important aspect of American soft power, thanks to NSA spying and subsequent actions by the Trump administration, persists.
And there is evidence that many foreign publics do not believe that U.S. democracy delivers on its promise of a better life for Americans. For example, foreigners harshly judge how the United States handled the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2021, Pew found that only 37 percent of the publics in 16 countries thought Washington had done a good job of dealing with the COVID-19 outbreak, trailing the assessments of Germany (61 percent), China (49 percent), and the EU (48 percent). And foreign publics have adversely judged more systemic issues in U.S. society. When asked what would improve their assessment of American democracy, respondents in the Eurasia Group Foundation survey suggested a decrease in the gap between the rich and the poor and better treatment of minorities, immigrants, and refugees.
Many Americans agree with such criticism. More than half (53 percent) believe that U.S. democracy is in danger or somewhat bad, up from 38 percent in 2021, according to the 2022 German Marshall Fund Transatlantic Trends survey. By comparison, a median of just 41 percent in 13 other nations surveyed judged their own democracy negatively.
Such public unease about the state and future of American democracy crops up again and again in discussions with European officials. Over the past three years, as the executive director of the German Marshall Fund’s Transatlantic Task Force, I interviewed roughly 100 European foreign policy experts and politicians. In nearly every discussion, they voiced concern about the trajectory of the U.S. political system, how it functions, and what it produces.
Critical views of American democracy are grounded in foreigners’ perceptions of what they see happening in the United States: institutional instability and partisanship. Early in the post–World War II era, the policy positions of the two major political parties were, in retrospect, quite similar. Today, power frequently changes hands between quite disparate political parties, and the United States is increasingly unreliable in delivering on its foreign policy pledges.
In the 12 federal elections held in the United States from 1952 through 1974, the U.S. Senate, the U.S. House of Representatives, or the White House changed hands from one party to another only four times. In the 11 elections between 2000 and 2020, control has changed nine times, and there is a good chance it will change a tenth time after the 2022 election, if current polling showing the Republicans winning the House of Representatives is accurate. Such biennial swings in power lead to abrupt policy and budgetary changes and to the disruption of personal relationships that are so crucial in the informal conduct of an effective U.S. foreign policy.
Trump’s scuttling of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and his withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate accord are all examples of how one U.S. president can cancel the international pledges made by the preceding one. In the wake of such dramatic shifts in U.S. policy, why, in the future, should allies rely on U.S. commitments or count on Washington as a dependable partner? Foreigners have every reason to question whether international commitments President Joe Biden has made—pledging more money to slow climate change, returning to the Paris climate accord, rejoining the World Health Organization, reaffirming U.S. commitment to NATO, and standing up to Russian aggression—might all be reversed by a future president.
Moreover, other countries are well aware that the U.S. Congress is increasingly paralyzed by partisan gridlock. By mid-2022, a year and a half into the Biden administration, 27 percent of ambassadorial positions, including major posts in India and Saudi Arabia, were without a Senate-confirmed official. The Trump administration fared far worse, with 28 percent of ambassadorial positions going unfilled for his entire presidency. More broadly, from 1987 to 1988, Congress enacted 225 substantive laws, but from 2021 to 2022, it passed 129. Little wonder that the Economist Intelligence Unit ranked the United States no better than Italy in its functioning of government.
The United States is increasingly unreliable in delivering on its foreign policy pledges.
As a result of these stalemates, recent presidents have come to rely on executive orders to push through their agendas. While George W. Bush averaged 36 such orders per year during his two terms and Obama averaged 35, Trump averaged 55 and Biden is now averaging 59 executive orders a year. This signals a return to an earlier era: Jimmy Carter averaged 80 per year, Richard Nixon 62, Lyndon Johnson 63. Nevertheless, the growing use of executive orders is a troubling development, reflecting increasing dysfunctionality in the legislative process. To their dismay, foreign governments have learned that American policies promulgated by executive order—such as Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which set the first-ever limits on carbon pollution from U.S. power plants—can be easily undone by a successor. So much for stability and predictability in U.S. policy.
Small wonder, then, that Americans hold their government in such low esteem. According to the most recent Gallup poll, just 43 percent trust and have confidence in the executive branch and 38 percent in Congress. Why should U.S. allies be any more confident in the U.S. government to live up to its responsibilities than are the American people?
Much of the gridlock in Washington reflects the growing partisan nature of U.S. public opinion. Partisanship both drives and has become a rationale for dramatic shifts in U.S. foreign policy. The neo-isolationism of the Trump era is, in part, a product of the fact that only a third (33 percent) of Republicans (compared with 71 percent of Democrats) believe that many of the nation’s problems can be solved by working with other countries. Trump’s insistence that U.S. allies pay for more of their own security and his threats to pull out of NATO reflected his voters’ beliefs, with 57 percent of Republicans versus 30 percent of Democrats in a Pew survey believing that getting others to share the costs of maintaining world order should be a U.S. foreign policy priority. According to a Gallup poll in early February 2022, on the eve of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, 50 percent of Republicans thought the United States should decrease its commitment to NATO or withdraw from the alliance entirely. Only 13 percent of Democrats agreed.
While the gap between such partisan views may have narrowed with the advent of the Ukraine war and the major role NATO has played in blunting Russian aggression, the underlying differences over multilateral defense commitments may likely reemerge once the conflict is over. The German Marshall Fund’s survey, conducted four months into the Ukraine war, found that while 86 percent of Democrats thought NATO plays an important role in U.S. security, fewer Republicans (70 percent) and Independents (65 percent) agreed. Moreover, such partisanship extends to differences over other issues of major concern to non-Americans, such as dealing with climate change: 70 percent of Democrats but only 14 percent of Republicans think curbing global warming should be a top foreign policy priority, according to a 2021 Pew survey. This comes at a time when the Marshall Fund has found that climate change ranked equal to war and Russia as security threats in the eyes of transatlantic publics.
Foreigners see this partisanship and its impact on American international policies, and it influences their view of the U.S. political system. “The big issue is: even if the Democrats are trustworthy, it is a problem that the other party is not,” a Swedish politician told me in a 2020 interview.
Declining faith in American democracy hurts the United States’ authority and legitimacy, which it needs to convince other countries to do difficult things that support U.S. interests. And this is not new. In 2003, the Turkish parliament refused to allow U.S. troops to invade Iraq from the north, through Turkish territory. Turkish legislators could read the polls: at the time, 12 percent of Turks held a favorable view of the United States according to a Pew survey. Similarly, Berlin refused to join Washington in the U.S. invasion of Iraq, in part because it was a tough sell to German voters. Just 25 percent of Germans had a positive view of the United States at the time.
At the tail end of the Trump administration, Europe’s signing of a comprehensive agreement on investment with China, against Washington’s wishes, was testimony to the importance of the Chinese market but also evidence of weakening American influence. In the future, Washington may need allies’ support in restraining China if it invades Taiwan. But the recent German Marshall Fund survey found that a median of only 37 percent of transatlantic allies would be willing to work diplomatically to end the conflict and only 36 percent would support imposing economic sanctions on China.
Americans have long prided themselves that their government was, in Ronald Reagan’s words: a “shining city on a hill,” blessed with a political system that all nations aspired to emulate. That was an exaggeration in 1988, and it is even less accurate today. The soft power exerted by the American democratic model is waning. The cost to the United States’ influence in the world could be substantial.
As President Biden said in 2021: “Democracy doesn’t happen by accident. We have to defend it, fight for it, strengthen it, renew it.” Biden was addressing the global struggle between democracy and authoritarianism. But his plea will ring hollow if the United States does not renew its own democracy to make it more responsive to the will of the people, to make it easier to vote, to reduce the influence of money in politics, to adapt an eighteenth-century constitution to governing in the twenty-first century, and to be more effective in legislating and governing. These were once purely domestic challenges. But now the country’s success in overcoming these challenges has implications for the U.S. role in the world. Those who care about U.S. stature and influence in the world must engage in strengthening American democracy at home. To paraphrase former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill: “All foreign policy is now local.”