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Can America Regain Its Self-Confidence?

Can America Regain Its Self-Confidence?

Some liberals and conservatives are losing confidence in democracy as a force for good. This trend needs to be reversed, for the world's sake.

Daniel Chirot

America’s self-confidence in its institutions is collapsing. The consequences are already grave and they will get worse. The United States is not unique, and as recent articles in the Journal of Democracy and many other publications show, attitudes about the legitimacy of democracy are falling throughout the world. 

That European democracies are afflicted by a crisis of confidence as much as the United States suggests a kind of growing malaise about the value of democratic capitalism and the very essence of what used to be called the Enlightenment project. As recently as the 1990s the very opposite appeared to be taking place, fulfilling the dreams and hopes of more than two centuries of struggle. In three decades, all that is quickly fading.

On the American political left, much of that decline is reflected in the increasing sense of guilt about the country’s history. Few publications express this more vividly than Nikole Hannah-Jones’ book The 1619 Project, published and relentlessly promoted by the New York Times. The central ideas are that America was founded as a slave society, has never fundamentally changed its exploitative racism, and has never had any major redeeming qualities. A brief quote shows that it is not just racism but the nature of its economic system that is at fault. That was the main theme of the New York Times essay of August 14, 2019, about 1619

“Those searching for reasons the American economy is uniquely severe and unbridled have found answers in many places (religion, politics, culture). But recently, historians have pointed persuasively to the gnatty fields of Georgia and Alabama, to the cotton houses and slave auction blocks, as the birthplace of America’s low-road approach to capitalism.”

In 1619 itself the historian Joshua Rothman’s explanation is referenced: 

“[America] has a culture of speculation unique in its abandon. . . . It is the culture of acquiring wealth without work, growing at all costs, and abusing the powerless. It is the culture that brought us catastrophic downturns, like the Panic of 1837, the stock market crash of 1929, and the recession of 2008.”

It is not my aim to adjudicate the merits or demerits of 1619. Enough has been written about the ensuing controversy. No one should doubt the fact that indeed brutal slavery, racism, and inequality have been a major part of America’s past, and their legacy has not entirely gone. Is this the unchanging, fundamental character of the United States, and therefore impossible to remedy without abolishing its basic economic and social system?

The fact that the most important newspaper in America has taken sides in the controversy indicates that it has very little confidence in American society as it now exists. That brings into question whether American democracy and capitalism are even reformable without revolution.

It is not just the liberal Left that has doubts. The Right has no confidence in America either. Before the primary elections for President in 2024, an official pamphlet was sent to every voter in the state of Washington. Each candidate had space to make a promotional statement. Here is the one Donald Trump provided:

“As President, I took on every powerful special interest, fixing globalist trade deals, ending foreign wars, securing the border, and standing up to Big Pharma….The corrupt government cartel is once again destroying our country. …We are a nation that surrendered in Afghanistan, and allowed Russia to devastate Ukraine, China to threaten Taiwan, and Iran to build a nuclear weapon. . . . free speech is no longer allowed, crime is rampant like never before, terrorists are invading our southern border, and the economy is in a recession. We are a nation that is hostile to liberty, freedom, and faith. . . . I take the slings and arrows for you so that we can have our country back.”

Trump’s vision, and that of his followers, is certainly bleak; however, there is hope. Increasingly he presents himself as a messiah who will so change the country that it will be redeemed. Again, it is unnecessary to comment on how accurate this vision of America may be. What the Left’s and Right’s evaluations of America’s condition have in common is the belief that ordinary democracy has not worked, and our capitalist economy is dominated by corrupt large corporations (like “Big Pharma”) that exploit and cheat people. The consequences of this loss of legitimacy have a direct bearing on so much, including the loss of trust and faith in the very essence of the country. 

One obvious example is the pathetic incapacitation of what were recently deemed to be the best institutions of higher learning in the world, America’s leading universities. Despite their cutting-edge research, training, generations of successful students, prestige, and wealth, they appear pitifully incapable of defending their core mission. The university presidents’ attempts to mollify their bullying conservative congressional critics by resorting to legalisms to explain what free speech means is hardly a vigorous defense of liberal values. 

Nor do these major centers of learning seem able to defend themselves against leftist claims that they are so racist they need to hire a whole new level of bureaucracy to enforce diversity. The diversity, equity, and inclusion movement in universities is based on the claim that progress over the past decades in promoting fairness and upholding liberal values has been a failure. It is therefore necessary to enforce an acceptable political ideology on faculty and students, to exclude those who do not agree, and to recognize that the world is neatly divided into the good (the formerly colonized others, whether in actual former colonies or not) and the bad (the colonizing West’s hypocritical elites and their dominant values). This trend needs to be reversed for the world's sake.

No wonder so many university students in the top schools now interpret politics in simplified dichotomous ways. Criticizing Israel’s cruel and self-defeating policies is one thing, but denying that the Palestinians’ leaders also bear some responsibility for their people’s tragedy is dishonest. Teaching students, whether in the humanities or natural sciences, about the complexities of real life is supposed to be part of the essential mission of higher learning.

It is reasonable to say that criticisms of universities from the right and the left make some valid points, but many others are so simplistic as to be worthless. The fact is, however, that institutions that contributed mightily to making America so powerful and successful have lost faith in themselves so that they are unable to ward off the threats from all sides.

An even more serious consequence of America’s loss of faith in itself is that the world has also lost much of its respect for the United States. Increasing global instability is the result, and it is only the first stage of a gradual descent into more conflict and chaos.

The United States is at war and is not prepared. Most Americans are unaware, partly because much of the war is unfolding in novel ways. Cyberwarfare and the use of electronically-produced fake news on a massive scale may be new, but, as directed by Russia and China against the United States and the entire democratic West, it is still war. The intention is to so weaken the United States that the world system it sustained for seven decades after World War II gets replaced by a Chinese-Russian-led anti-democratic world. 

There is also the actual, traditional violent war conducted by Russia with the explicit aim of weakening NATO. In the long run, even winning the war in Ukraine will fix neither Russia’s demographic decline nor its inherently weak economy, but that only increases the danger for the world because a frustrated major military power no longer restrained by realistic rational aims is extremely dangerous. It also means that Russia is slowly becoming a Chinese dependency.

China is not just arming itself for war and the eventual invasion of Taiwan, but gradually intruding its military might into other nations’ territories with repeated confrontations in the South China Sea and along its Himalayan border with India. It is ever more threatening toward Taiwan, a sophisticated little democracy that greatly helped China itself by investing in its development and providing much needed technical expertise. 

It may be that no country benefited more than China since the 1980s by being let into the pre-existing world trading and economic system; but that has not dissuaded its leaders from believing that they might benefit by weakening that system. China does not want to completely destroy the trading environment it needs to export ever more manufactured goods. It wants to force through as many of its products as possible to destroy Western manufacturing and make the world dependent on China. For this to happen it must make the United States helpless. Aiding Russia in its war against Ukraine is a cheap way of furthering that goal.

History does not repeat itself, but looking at similar reactions to analogous threats in the past can help us interpret the present.

New York Times op-ed last month by Ohio Senator J.D. Vance was eerily reminiscent of the playbook pursued by British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and his Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax from 1938 to 1940. They claimed Hitler could be satisfied with limited gains. In May 1940, as Germany was defeating France, Halifax still thought he could work with Mussolini (who would remain officially neutral until June of 1940) to work out a compromise peace. Let Hitler keep control of continental Europe in return for leaving the United Kingdom its independence and its large empire. Neither Chamberlain nor Halifax were fans of fascism or traitors. They were just defeatists who had little confidence in Britain’s ability to survive. This was similar to America’s ambassador to the United Kingdom Joseph Kennedy (President John Kennedy’s father) when he served in that post from 1938 until the end of 1940. Kennedy did not believe the United Kingdom could survive, and so urged the United States to remain neutral and fall back into isolationism. President Franklin Roosevelt fired him.

The situation is not as extreme today, but I have no doubt that the same general attitude holds for Vance. It is not meant to be treachery, but stems from a sense that the United States is not up to defending its foreign interests and had better find weak compromises because that is the only possible alternative. The effect, as Roosevelt well knew back then, would be to strip the United States of essential allies and leave it vulnerable to its deadly enemies. To abandon Ukraine entirely today is to tell crucial West European allies, and eventually America’s East Asian allies, that the United States is an untrustworthy supporter.

Vance’s article justifies his opposition to President Joe Biden’s proposal to provide more aid for Ukraine. He wrote:

“Ukraine’s challenge is not the GOP; it’s math. Ukraine needs more soldiers than it can field. . . . Fundamentally, we lack the capacity to manufacture the amount of weapons Ukraine needs us to supply to win the war. . . . The Biden administration has no viable plan for the Ukrainians to win this war. The sooner Americans confront this truth, the sooner we can fix this mess and broker for peace.”

It is not that all of Vance’s arguments—or in the past Joseph Kennedy’s—are entirely without merit. Britain had gotten into its precarious situation in the late 1930s by years of wrongheaded policies. The currently dire developments in Russia’s war on Ukraine follow many years of mistakes by many international actors, including Germany, the United States, and Ukraine itself. Vance is right that the United States is not ready for war, and it should work to remedy that. In 1938 the United States was not ready for war either. What it needed then and had, but may not now, is inspirational leadership. In the end the United States also had a rude awakening in December 1941. That was a heavy price to pay.

Recognition of the danger posed by China is bipartisan in the United States, but doing something about it is hard. Chinese exports allow American consumers to have access to cheaper manufactured goods, and some giant companies like Apple are only slowly diversifying their supply lines to avoid entirely becoming Chinese dupes. Recently the heads of Mercedes-Benz and BMW went to China to affirm and praise their dependence on the Chinese market and manufacturing. Tesla does the same. Yet, we know that over time China appropriates technology and then slowly squeezes out foreign competition.

We do not need to go back to 1940 for examples of what happens if a Western country agrees to give in to a dangerous enemy of democracy and world order for the sake of short-term economic benefits. That is exactly what Angela Merkel’s Germany did in order to secure what turned out to be an unreliable supply of gas. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014 did not change the policy. It took the all-out invasion in February 2022 to start to wake up Germany, much of the rest of Europe, and at least some American leaders.

Both the American and West European reactions, however, have been timid. Ukraine received enough aid to temporarily hold off Russia; but to avoid antagonizing Russia too much, not enough was provided to assure Ukraine’s long-term success. If total Ukrainian victory was deemed impossible, strengthening it enough to force Russia to give up most if not absolutely all of its goals was certainly feasible. Russia’s Crimea claims could have been negotiable, but Ukraine had to enter talks from a position of strength. Senator Vance had some valid points, but went much too far. There are no easy solutions; however,to give up entirely not only condemns Ukraine but threatens all of Europe, and ultimately the United States. Russia sees this war as only a first step toward weakening the entire West. To deny Ukraine the aid it needs is to signal American weakness and court disaster.

Those are the major challenges, but a Middle East slipping toward uncontrolled and unending multifaceted wars is close to being just as dangerous. There too, American hesitancy has resulted in policies that are at best halfway measures that promote neither effective compromise with enemies nor reasonable behavior by its chief ally Israel. No American presidential administration in the 21st century has had an effective Middle East policy, so the extremists on all sides get to set the parameters of conflict.

Many have discussed all these challenges. The collapse of American self-confidence has been charted in countless public opinion polls. The majority of Americans have lost trust in their government, their colleges and universities, and increasingly in formerly highly trusted institutions like local police forces, the FBI, and the Supreme Court. When I was in school in New York I learned that the United States had never lost a war. Who would claim that today after Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan?

Other reasons have been given for this loss of confidence. One is that the leader of the Republican Party, Donald Trump, behaves like a traitor. Praising Russia’s dictator, demeaning democratic allies abroad, threatening to withdraw from NATO and the world trading system, and claiming that America should close off its borders and withdraw into itself is not a mark of self-confidence but a profound surrender to difficult, threatening problems. That so many conservatives go along despite their awareness that this is the path to eventual national suicide is yet one more testament to a colossal loss of self-confidence.

Are there solutions? Vigorously confident leadership is necessary; however, asking a complex nation like the United States to just sit around until a new Abraham Lincoln or Franklin Roosevelt shows up is not exactly a solution. The United States is neither economically weak nor militarily or diplomatically helpless. It remains the world’s strongest nation in almost all respects. Regaining its sense of self-worth would work wonders toward putting the world on notice that America is not going to collapse or withdraw into hapless passivity.

In May–June of 1940, France, still a great world power, was thought to have the world’s strongest army; yet, it collapsed in a mere six weeks against a German offensive. Underlying all the strategic and tactical errors it made was a catastrophic lack of self-confidence. That was understandable given the disastrous consequences of World War I, but it made France too cautious, too hesitant to change its military doctrine, and unprepared for the innovative, ultra-aggressive German way of conducting war. 

Then, when it was being defeated, France turned to two aged men, General Maxime Weygand and Marshal Philippe Pétain, to save it. Neither one considered French democracy legitimate. Neither understood what Hitler was about. Neither had a clear understanding of modern technology and its uses in warfare. After the war Pétain would be declared a traitor because his solution was to collaborate with the German occupiers from 1940 to 1944. He was not a traitor, only an incompetent, deluded old man who thought he could be France’s messiah by, as he put it, “giving himself to France.” 

In the end the man who redeemed France’s self-confidence twice—from 1940 to 1946 and again in 1958—was Charles de Gaulle, an infuriatingly arrogant general who bluffed his way into power by pretending he and France were grander than they deserved to be. He made grave mistakes, betrayed many allies, and was a racist conservative. The great British historian Julian Jackson has written a definitive biography of de Gaulle that shows all sides of this complex figure. The only constant about de Gaulle was that, whatever internal doubts he may have had, he never showed the slightest hint that he had lost faith in France or in himself.

The United States does not yet need as dramatic a leader as de Gaulle. Let us hope it recovers its sense of confidence and finds better leadership long before it does.

Daniel Chirot, an editorial board member of American Purpose, is the Emeritus Herbert J. Ellison Professor of Russian and Eurasian Studies at the Henry Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington.

Image: Pro-democracy protestors wave the American flag in Hong Kong on September 8, 2019. (Unsplash: Joseph Chan)

AuthoritarianismDemocracyChinaEastern EuropeEconomicsElectionsMiddle EastPolitical PhilosophyRussiaU.S. Foreign PolicyUnited StatesUkraine