TWO DAUNTING challenges confront America in the immediate future: reining in both President Donald Trump and the resurgence of COVID-19. Trump probably will exhaust every possible claim and avenue in a hopeless attempt to overturn Joe Biden’s victory, and his efforts may yet fuel civil unrest. He probably will also issue multiple pardons and executive orders while he still retains the power to do so. His orderly departure from the White House is not yet guaranteed.
Meanwhile, Trump will continue to deny the severity of the coronavirus pandemic and resist actions that might help to contain it, such as mask mandates and more systematic nationally-directed testing. Until and unless such steps are taken, COVID-19 will continue to deepen its toll on public health, the economy, and the national mood.
Beyond those immediate challenges, the process of restoring American unity and optimism must be our highest national priority. This will require acknowledging and confronting historical trends that were unfolding even before the Trump presidency, and of which it was a symptom. In retrospect, the financial crisis of 2008–9 and its aftermath exposed many systemic vulnerabilities in the U.S. economy and, by extension, in American political and social life. The worst economic hardship since the Great Depression deflated the national ethos of prosperity and comfort, fueled racial and anti-immigrant tensions, and polarized politics as both Democrats and Republicans evaded hard policy choices and obstructed each other’s agendas. Trump exacerbated all this to an extraordinary degree.
The country must find a way to redeem itself and get its act together. We must invoke the “better angels of our nature” and demonstrate America’s resilience and capacity for self-improvement. We must overcome partisan, racial, and ethnic divisions to embrace a common identity and common cause, and to confront national imperatives. Both Democrats and Republicans must avoid falling back into a winner-take-all contest. Democrats especially must not make the same mistake Trump did of dismissing and/or denigrating half of the electorate. That would only fuel a perpetual cycle of political retribution and gridlock.
Restoring the country’s unity of purpose will be a vital prerequisite to restoring any semblance of the United States’ place in the world, which has eroded badly over the past decade, and especially during Trump’s presidency. America’s international stature and credibility have been greatly diminished by the impact of the financial crisis on its global economic clout; the corresponding impact of the dysfunctionality of U.S. politics on its global reputation; Trump’s withdrawal from Washington’s longstanding central role in multilateralism; and his cumulative alienation of U.S. allies and partners abroad.
Domestic U.S. trends have reinforced historical shifts in the global balance of power since the end of the Cold War that have left the United States in relative decline. It is not 1945 anymore, when Washington emerged from World War II as the sole superpower, or even 1991, when it enjoyed its unipolar moment after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Since then, the rise of China, the resurgence of Russia’s great power ambitions, shifting power dynamics across the developing world, and the overall shift in economic power between the Western and Eastern hemispheres has ushered in a new historical era which the United States needs to recognize and adjust to.
This does not mean America has irretrievably lost its international appeal and leadership role. The United States is still the most powerful country on earth by most measures. It retains tremendous capacity and potential, and many other countries are thirsting for the revival of that U.S. leadership role. But Americans may need to set their sights lower than what they have been used to for the past few generations. The shifts in the global balance of economic power and of the political influence that flows from it—especially with regard to China—have probably reduced the chances that the United States will be able to fully restore the global preeminence it enjoyed during the latter half of the twentieth century. Moreover, the domestic economic and political challenges facing the United States will probably reduce the resources and attention it can devote to pursuing foreign policy objectives.
Americans will need to give more consideration than they have for several decades to matching their international goals to their ways and means. They may need to reassess which strategic interests and foreign policy objectives are truly vital, and which are only preferences that can be recalibrated or on which we can compromise. An important element of this equation will be formulating accurate assessments of the nature and scope of the external challenges the United States faces—and especially not exaggerating them, as has been the case with China.
But again, our top priorities must be at home. Before the United States can reliably rebuild its international power and influence, it must heal itself by getting COVID under control, reviving economic prosperity, and moving beyond the bitterly divided politics of the Trump presidency. America will not be able to compete globally—especially against China’s pursuit of international legitimacy for its model of governance and development—unless we are able to make our version of democracy and capitalism successful and appealing again.
Paul Heer is a Distinguished Fellow at the Center for the National Interest and a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.