The World Holds Its Breath
Allies are transfixed. Enemies see America’s decline. Voices from around the world remind us that the worst in America has always brought out the best in America.
Exactly eighty years ago, Henry Luce argued in an editorial for Life magazine that the 20th century was the American Century. The United States was on the verge of establishing itself as a world power. Is the American Century over?
A report recently released by the Eurasia Group, “Top Risks 2021,” says the number one risk this year is the new U.S. President, Joe Biden. Indeed, most of President Donald Trump’s supporters, nearly half of the country, consider Biden illegitimate because of Trump’s insistence that the presidential election was stolen. A nation under such a president is at risk of a severe lack of stability. Despite its military and economic strength, the United States, the report says, is the “most politically divided, and most economically unequal, of the world’s industrial democracies.” The American model of liberal democracy itself is now in crisis.
Throughout the 20th century, many had the illusion that the U.S. political model embodied the universality of the Enlightenment. But every modern nation-state is unique in its historical background. Amidst unprecedented challenges rooted in globalization and technological change, the 21st century will reveal that the United States is just another naturally unique country.
The United States, Japan, and other liberal democracies must continue their efforts to make freedom and democracy function properly in their own countries, and at the same time, even in these challenging domestic situations, find a way to meet the expectations of future generations through their combined efforts, for liberal democracy is also under threat from a vast authoritarian power in Asia.
Hiro Aida, an American Purpose editorial board member, is a journalist and visiting professor at Kansai University in Osaka, Japan. His most recent book is Hatansuru America (America in Disarray, 2017).
Upon Barack Obama’s presidential win in 2008, Madeline Albright hushed the jubilant crowd at an election-watch party: “I want to give thanks that we are witnessing the democratic transfer of power without bloodshed in America tonight.” Her words struck me as a bit preposterous at the time; in recent weeks they came back to me as premonition.
Hold on, I thought. It was America, and it was the 21st century. America was modernity itself, the place where the world looked to see the future. How could American democracy possibly descend into bloodshed?
Of course, I couldn’t fail to notice the depth of lingering social divisions in the few years I lived in the United States, divisions deeper than any in my homeland of Australia. We’d never fought a civil war, for instance.
But America’s past strife made its modern striving all the more impressive. It was unthinkable that the land the world looked to for inspiration could descend into insurrection.
As the Anglo-Austrian philosopher Karl Popper put it in 1958, “There are only two types of government: those in which the governed can get rid of their rulers without bloodshed, and those in which the governed can, if at all, get rid of their rulers only by bloodshed. The first of these types of government we call democracy, the second tyranny or dictatorship.”
Which is America to be? It is profoundly disturbing to me and to America’s allies and admirers everywhere that this question could be posed in any seriousness, and deeply thrilling to its rivals and detractors.
Albright understood that democracy, like any socio-political arrangement, is fragile. Even American democracy. In my lifetime Australia always looked to America for a view of the future. But where we once turned to America to see what we might emulate, we now look to see what we must avoid. Never did we imagine that looking ahead could involve so much backwardness.
Peter Hartcher is political editor and international editor of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. He is author of the forthcoming book, Red Zone: China’s Challenge and Australia’s Future (April 2021).
On January 6, glued to my TV set in France, I saw the ugly and vociferous face of American rage. It expressed a hatred of institutions, elites, and media that had long been in the making, a de facto secession of a part of the population from normal politics and rational behavior. It felt very personal to see this new phase of a crisis I had long been studying. America has been a second home to me, where I have studied and recently lived happily for eight full years, in awe of many American treasures: its patriotism, its stunning potential for self-criticism and reinvention, its bravery and capacity to put its troops in harm’s way for causes greater than itself, its degree of pragmatism, its so-often wonderful people among which I have found kindred souls. It felt personal because I had seen this revolution arising while traveling through the American heartland while covering the 2016 Trump and Sanders campaigns. And it also felt personal because the same kind of revolution is blowing here, in the midst of France and throughout Europe. We, too, have seen the frightening face of rage.
It would be sheer blindness to ignore that there has been another revolution blowing on the other side of the American spectrum. Who could seriously argue that the explosion of violence by those who took advantage of the peaceful protests following George Floyd’s tragic killing had no effect on the mood of the other side? Extremes are nourishing each other.
Clearly Trump has been the American face of a gilets jaunes (“yellow vests”) movement that has engulfed the whole West and that we, the elites, have failed to answer, preferring to see it as a spontaneous generation of “fascists,” instead of recognizing the existence of the major problems that created Trump and other populists, and which will need to be solved. In that sense, January 6 is our common challenge.
Laure Mandeville, a contributing editor of American Purpose, is a senior reporter at Le Figaro and a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council's Future Europe Initiative.
In 2016, a chaotic energy that seemed to have been simmering for years just underneath American politics surged, short-circuiting American democracy. An unhinged populist managed to enter the White House. What followed were four years of a government that unabashedly undermined democratic institutions, creating a dangerous mutation in the evolution of the American political system and society. This mutation will hopefully be arrested with Trump’s defeat. I see the election of a veteran Democratic politician as the U.S. political system now attempting to self-correct itself. This is something vital not only for the United States, but also for countries that have a long history of engagement with the United States, and found themselves in an awkward limbo during the Trump years.
Nadeem Paracha is an author, columnist, and historian based in Pakistan.
My first experience living in the United States was as an exchange student during the first months of 2016. At that point, Donald Trump was nothing more than an extravagant outsider whose tweets and TV appearances enraged many of my professors. Yet it seemed clear that the tectonic plates of American society were shifting.
Coming from South America, I have always considered unity, strength, and the sacredness of democratic institutions as the salient characteristics of the United States. Nevertheless, during those months, I was struck by rising polarization, a new kind of hyper-individualism, and, most importantly, the anger that many young people had toward their own country.
I have read many intellectuals celebrating that the “dark cloud” of the Trump era is fading away and that America will slowly go back to normal under President Biden. I would like to share their optimism, but I grew up in a highly polarized society, and I know how hard it can be to end those cycles of political decadence.
Although I was born ten years after the restoration of democracy in Argentina in 1983, most of my life was marked by the legacy of the ruling military junta’s state-sponsored terrorism of the 1970s. Former President Cristina Kirchner portrayed herself as the heir to those revolutionary ideas, and many of her newer followers continue to idealize the left-wing guerrillas. Social scars tend to be more permanent than they may seem.
I do not think there is a recipe for overcoming such polarization, and I suspect that the rise of China and other regional powers, plus the catastrophic economic consequences of the pandemic, will make the effort that much harder.
As someone who firmly believes in liberal democracy and the ideals on which America was founded, I sincerely hope my grim forecast is wrong.
Santiago Previde, who has previously worked in Argentina’s public sector, is a political scientist from Buenos Aires studying at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
God Bless America! This should be the mantra of the Russian political class. The Kremlin uses ties for both dialogue and confrontation with its U.S. rival. The latter continues to mobilize the Russian population. The Biden presidency will be a relief for many of us: the Trump circus is over and U.S. policy will be guided now by people known for professionalism and responsibility.
But for Vladimir Putin? Joe Biden promises, for example, to advance an arms control dialog with Russia. This is a blessing for Kremlin ambitions. There’s a bigger picture: The Kremlin has been shifting toward a Fortress Russia model with repressive domestic policies at home. It is a survival pattern dictating foreign policy aimed now at containment.
Meanwhile, Russian liberals have become distraught. The West’s crisis of liberal democracy and the convulsions of the Trumpian America have hit them hard. These small-d democrats, driven into a political ghetto the last four years, are waiting eagerly for the Biden presidency with sober realism. They understand that the West cannot consolidate itself without U.S. leadership; and this leadership cannot be restored without America getting its own house in order. Russian liberals are recognizing that the West will have limited resources in the near term to influence Russia’s domestic scene.
Lilia Shevtsova is a board member of the Liberal Mission Foundation and an American Purpose editorial board member. She has authored many books, including Russia—Lost in Transition: The Yeltsin and Putin Legacies (2007).
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