Today, the United States, once the world’s preeminent superpower, is in decline. As this year comes to a close, it is important to look back on where we began. On Jan. 6, the U.S. Capitol, the epicenter of American democracy, was breached by an angry mob. Images of protestors breaking through barricades and looting congressional offices shocked the United States and the world. Such chaos reaffirmed the international community’s growing view of the United States as a nation that is unable to regulate itself, let alone the world. As Josep Borrell Fontelles, the high representative of the union for foreign affairs and security policy for the European Union, put it, “In the eyes of the world, American democracy tonight appears under siege.”
As an American, it pained me to see the images of the Capitol in such disarray. As a child, I remember always admiring the tale of America. It was the story of a nation bound by the values of equality and democracy, called to liberate the world through two world wars. As a result of those wars, a new world order was formed — one bound by those same values. However, growing socioeconomic inequality and rising partisanship at home have now put us to the test. So far, we are failing.
American decline is due to a loss of purpose, both domestically and internationally. For nearly half a century, the United States and the former Soviet Union were locked in a struggle for global influence. The Cold War pushed the United States to be a better version of itself. In our struggle to be number one, we defined America’s role in the geopolitical world. We had a clear vision: to fight the Soviets wherever they posed a threat to the free world. Then we won. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the United States faced an existential crisis. According to CNN anchor and New York Times contributor Fareed Zakaria, “Three times this century the United States waged and won a world war against an evil empire. Each time … it hoped that, with this struggle over, with this evil vanquished, with this empire defeated, international affairs would be quite different from the past.” He goes on to say, “What is different this time is that, when finally the entire world seemed to admit that the American dream was their dream too, America lost interest.” Without the Soviet Union as a threat, the United States felt less compelled to devote the resources it once did to maintain global stability.
Today, however, the global order is reeling from a lack of leadership from Washington, D.C. This vacuum has led to the emergence of dueling regional powers where there was once an American presence to keep the peace. In Europe, America’s recent cold relationship with our North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies has opened a space for an emboldened Russia.
Russia’s invasion of Crimea seven years ago has been followed by cyber warfare in Western democracies and, most recently, a series of explosions in an antiaircraft and anti-tank facility in Bulgaria that was likely attributed to Russian agents. In the Middle East, years of inaction and policy failures have diminished America’s role as a peacekeeper in the region, creating an open war between the rival powers of Iran and Saudi Arabia. Coupled with the growing involvement of Russia in preserving autocracies around the region, inaction has led to an endless torrent of violence and destruction. Finally, in Asia, China has militarized the South China Sea and brutally cracked down on democracy in Hong Kong.
Domestically, rising partisanship and a plethora of internal crises have put the American democratic experiment in doubt. To the global community, the events of Jan. 6 reaffirmed that the United States was a superpower lost in its ways and unable to execute its goals. Therefore, mitigating our decline starts with ourselves.
Trust in America abroad starts with the trust that American power can be relied upon. Recent American failures such as the COVID-19 debacle and the U.S. Capitol attack have called that notion into question. Since America cannot maintain order domestically, allies have come to the conclusion that America will be unable to maintain order abroad.
As the preeminent superpower, America is always in public view. Every action is dissected and critiqued. Therefore, it’s imperative that America live up to its reputation. This means ending hyper-partisanship and racial strife as well as getting the COVID-19 pandemic under control. I know it’s a tall order, but I believe that America’s influence was the result of its ideology, not just its military prowess. Just as I was sold on the tale of America, the world was, too. During its prime, America stood as the beacon of democracy and equality. Now, our allies see a country at war with these very notions. By restoring ourselves from the inside, we can redeem the role we once had as a moral superpower. Unlike the authoritarianism of China and Russia, our power is built not by strength alone, but by our ideals.
Recently in Washington, D.C., there has been talk of a return to an isolationist foreign policy. The believers in the “America first” doctrine have reverted to the old notion that the United States’ best option is to abandon the world altogether. They argue that maintaining world peace has led to an America which is forced to cope with problems beyond its control. Charles Kupchan, professor of international affairs at Georgetown University, sums up the isolationist argument well, writing, “In the absence of constraints on the nation’s ambition abroad, American grand strategy has fallen prey to overstretch and grown politically insolvent.”
However, this speaks to a fundamental flaw in how we understand using our power. For too long, we have used purely militaristic means to achieve our foreign policy objectives. This is costly in terms of both lives and money. An easy solution to this dilemma is to strengthen our use of soft power. Soft power, as opposed to hard power, is the use of nonmilitary means to influence other nations. The strength of soft power is that it’s a cheap and effective weapon. Following the Cold War, we buffered our alliances around the world through philanthropy. Improving other countries is a time-tested method to improve support for our own.
It’s been 76 years since the last world war and more than three decades since the end of the Cold War, so it’s easy to forget why we fought in the first place. A century ago, there was no peaceful order. In its place, there was a constant violent struggle for power. If we give up now, we will give our undemocratic, warmongering foes the chance to shape the world in their image. We cannot allow the world to be governed by the chaos we fought so hard against.
Peter Levy is an undeclared freshman.