All human works are inherently flawed because human beings are themselves flawed—the United States is no different from other nations in this respect, though its relatively high degree of transparency ensures that its flaws are rapidly visible, writes Valdai Club expert Paul Saunders. What is important to remember, however, is that escalating competition among the world’s leading powers will ruthlessly expose the flaws in each and every country as well as the flaws in their systems for interacting with one another.
In 1897, a journalist contacted the American satirist Mark Twain to verify reports that Twain was seriously ill if not deceased. While over sixty years old and aging, Twain would live for another thirteen years. Quoted in the New York Journal, Twain said, “I can understand perfectly how the report of my illness got about, I have even heard on good authority that I was dead. A cousin of mine … was seriously ill two or three weeks ago in London, but is well now. The report of my illness grew out of his illness. The report of my death was an exaggeration.” [While the United States, its allies, and Washington’s global ambitions are confronting growing challenges—as are many other governments and their plans and hopes—commentary suggesting America’s decline, the death of democracy, the end of the West, and the collapse of the international order seems similarly premature.
One problem with such thinking is that it conflates several different processes. Some of these are broad trends, like populist anger in America and other Western democracies, enduring social tension surrounding race and religion globally and in the United States, the shrinking share of the G7 economies in the international economy and the expanding share of large developed economies, and the inevitable evolution of the international system away from post-Cold War unipolarity and toward an ill-defined competitive multipolarity. Others are current events, such as the Trump administration’s often ineffective and needlessly antagonistic foreign policy, ongoing conflicts in Syria, Libya, and elsewhere, and the global spread of COVID-19. While these processes interact in various ways, and can negatively reinforce one another, they are distinct; each has its own causes, impacts, and timeline—and these vary from country to country.
Another problem with the doom-and-gloom approach is its assumption that current circumstances will continue (and worsen) indefinitely to a point of collapse. This ignores several realities of history and politics. First, while broad trends can be quite influential, people make a difference too. America and the world would probably look different if Donald Trump had not been elected president, for example, and both will likely look different when he eventually leaves office. Second, neither history nor politics is strictly linear; on the contrary, both are often cyclical or take roundabout paths because people react to what has happened in deciding what to do next. Populism has been demonstrably cyclical in the past.
Finally, in a related point, citizens in Western democracies can have a significant voice in how these processes evolve. Since almost all prefer political stability and economic prosperity to political collapse and economic decline, we should expect that many in Western societies will work to find new consensus-based approaches that help to address the challenges they face. Because no individual official or group of officials can impose solutions on others, this takes time. While this is happening, events can appear chaotic and the future bleak.
The third problem with such analysis is the tendency to generalize from limited data to justify sweeping conclusions. One of the most common recent examples of this has been to try to draw conclusions about America’s future as a superpower based on New York City’s extreme difficulty in managing the COVID-19 pandemic or on a comparison of New York’s experience with China’s handling of the pandemic. This is especially suspect in the latter case, since China and New York City did not have to contend with the same COVID-19 strain; as has been widely reported, New York’s infections originated primarily in Europe and reflected a more dangerous mutated strain. Even Chinese researchers have stated this.
Finally, whatever problems the United States and the West face, they are not the only governments to face serious domestic challenges. America’s two principal rivals, China and Russia, have their own troubles. In China’s case, leaders in Beijing are running on a treadmill, constantly trying to create jobs, and to provide housing, healthcare and education, for the country’s billion-plus citizens. In 2017, China’s labor ministry said that the country has to generate 15 million new jobs every year. Historically, China’s leaders have done this through massive government spending and lending that may or may not be sustainable; indeed, the Chinese government’s netlending/borrowing has declined sharply since the 2008-09 financial crisis, with net borrowing at over 6% of GDP in 2019, meaning that Beijing is now increasingly borrowing from other sectors rather than lending to them. At the same time, China’s people are developing rising expectations—economically, politically, socially, environmentally, and in other ways—and, on average, are getting older, which observers will put even greater stresses on government budgets and the economy.
Russia has problems too. In 2018, President Vladimir Putin said that “technological lag and dependence translate into reduced security and economic opportunities of the country and, ultimately, the loss of its sovereignty. This is the way things stand now.” While Mr. Putin went on to share his plans to overcome this problem—stating that “in order to move forward and to develop dynamically, we must expand freedom in all spheres, strengthen democratic institutions, local governments, civil society institutions and courts, and also open the country to the world” and that “we need to get rid of everything that enables corrupt officials and law enforcement officers to pressure businesses”—Russia will have a hard time keeping up with the United States, China, and the European Union even if the country succeeds in meeting its full potential.The underlying problem is that Russia’s economy is roughly one-fifth the size of these three economies in purchasing power parity terms and approximately one-tenth their size on an exchange-rate basis. With a population one-tenth China’s, one-third of the EU’s, and half of America’s, Russia will have to produce remarkably high and enduring increases in economic growth and labor productivityto be able to compete with the world’s three leading economies.
None of this is to minimize America’s past and present failures; all human works are inherently flawed because human beings are themselves flawed—the United States is no different from other nations in this respect, though its relatively high degree of transparency ensures that its flaws are rapidly visible. Nor is it to minimize how difficult the future might be for the United States and for the global system as a whole as competition intensifies and cooperative efforts on issues like COVID-19, climate change, and other global dangers stall. What is important to remember, however, is that escalating competition among the world’s leading powers will ruthlessly expose the flaws in each and every country as well as the flaws in their systems for interacting with one another. How quickly each government and society recognizes, accepts, and acts to correct these flaws will be one of the most powerful forces shaping their competition and the future world order. From this perspective, the coming decades will be a race between worsening problems and emerging solutions, both within and among nations. It’s a dangerous situation, but the past has been pretty dangerous too.