The United States has pulled back from global leadership since 2017, when President Donald Trump took office with a slogan of “America First”.
We remain the world’s foremost military and economic power and a significant cultural and ideological force. But the international order has moved away from domination by great powers like the United States and the former Soviet Union and toward a system with multiple centers of influence.
New actors are stepping forward to fill the vacuum: India, China, Russia, Iran, Brazil and Germany as well as multinational alliances, the European Union, the Southern Common Market in South America and the Commonwealth of Independent States in Eurasia.
We have responded militarily and diplomatically. We have bolstered our military capacity, maintaining our ability to intervene in hot spots such as the South China Sea, the Persian Gulf and Africa. We have used diplomacy to bring rising countries into a U.S.-led international order, with mixed success.
Not surprisingly, Russia is working to undermine our efforts. As China plays a growing role on the world stage, U.S.-China relations have deteriorated amid tit-for-tat sanctions and consulate closings. Some in the Trump administration appear to want to permanently downgrade the relationship.
All these challenges confront the United States at a time when we are dealing with serious domestic problems, many of them heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Income inequality is vast and growing. Police killings of Black men and women have spotlighted racial injustice. Even with businesses reopening, unemployment remains stubbornly high. We are entering the third major recession since 2001, economic downturns that decrease the wealth and erode the purchasing power of nearly all Americans. Confidence in social mobility has declined.
We need a huge investment in infrastructure: in transportation, water, sanitation and communications technology and resources that are key to a productive and healthy life in the 21st century. Congress and the president talk a lot about infrastructure but don’t follow through.
There is very little consensus within our government about how to revive the economy and create opportunity. Our political system is hamstrung by polarization and hyper-partisanship. Congress is gridlocked and has failed to provide robust oversight. The president, thus, has more latitude to act.
Trump’s bombastic style shows a penchant for conflict. He creates divisions, and seems unable or unwilling to heal them.
He professes admiration for our adversaries, including the leaders of Russia, China and North Korea. He criticizes the leadership of friendly nations such as Australia, Canada, Mexico and Germany, leading allies to step back from cooperating with us.
He supports far-right politicians in Europe and endorses the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the EU. He relentlessly criticizes the U.N. and NATO and withdrew the U.S. from the World Health Organization, taking America out of the international mainstream.
Finally, he has failed to lead effectively with the COVID-19 pandemic. While European countries restricted activities and tamped down the spread of the virus, Trump initially downplayed its seriousness and urged states to reopen quickly. Now rising cases are forcing governors to put restrictions back in place.
So, the international situation is fraught with challenges, and America needs to reassert our role in the world. As the world’s most powerful country, now is the time for the U.S. to step up to the challenges.
By Lee H. Hamilton