When America Simply Shrugs

Observations of a vacillating, hesitating superpower does not yet amount to the international community buying into the theory of America’s “decline.”

This article* originally appeared on The Globalist. Follow The Globalist on Twitter

The New Year begins with the United States at the threshold of a war. It is not a war outside of its borders, but inside — and it is not a war fought using the military.

Given the new Republican majority in both Houses, the trench warfare pitting Congress versus President Obama will in all likelihood, from January onward, become an all-out open fight.

Obama Cunctator, Congress Terminator?

Two years from now, the president might not be able to leave much of a legacy behind – other than that of having been the first Black president in the country’s history. That is no small accomplishment, but Americans – and the world – had hoped for more.

As a result, for the next two years Europe will have to put much more effort into keeping the transatlantic relationship with an increasingly self-absorbed United States productive.

Having just spent a year teaching at colleges in the United States – not “inside the Beltway” (i.e. Washington D.C.), but on the far-away West Coast – I have the distinct feeling that this country wastes a considerable amount of time grappling with itself.

Meanwhile, the country does not give much more than a shrug of acknowledgment toward the globally spreading impression that America is a country in decline.

America’s decline? Greatly exaggerated

The immense creativity and boldness to be found in research institutions in the United States, in its universities, its enterprises and the power of its industry keep this country ahead of all others.

The country is still much more than its military hardware, contrary to the critics’ claims.

Yet, many conversations about where the country is headed, even in the U.S. itself, end with an implicit acceptance that if China and the other BRICS countries are rising, then that is how it is going to be, and there is not much that can be done about it. That acceptance then extends to the general condition the United States finds itself in.

Where one detects a clear decline is in America’s internal inability to get along with itself. It is a country characterized by internal strife – fiercer now perhaps than at any time since the Vietnam War – and by the lack of improvement in an important range of social conditions.

These shortcomings appear in healthcare, racial relations as well as electronic data surveillance encroaching upon individual freedoms. It is also characterized by the recognition that when America calls, the world does not necessarily follow.

Every challenge insurmountable?

These are challenges that a vibrant, confident United States would have gladly tackled, and treated not as obstacles to but as opportunities for improvement.

Today, the challenges are seen as obstacles or impasses, and they lead to resignation, and, worse, to withdrawal from public engagement – formerly one of the strongholds of American civil society.

The problems are certainly there, and they are not small.

Perhaps the singular legacy that President Obama had wanted to leave behind was Obamacare. With eight million people signing up right after its inception, and the trend continuing, it is not a failure – except in popular perception.

But perception is what carries weight in politics. Overall success is underreported, while incidences of failure are widely narrated, and not by the conservative media alone. There is astonishing doubt as to whether something as complex as Obamacare can be achieved in the United States at all.

Instead of pulling together and overcoming whatever hurdles present themselves by aligning all domestic forces to get the job done, here again the response is just a shrug.

On another front, Ferguson and other racially tainted incidents reveal the depth of wounds left behind by slavery – and show how easily they will reopen. Yet, these incidents motivate American society to little more than a (temporary) exercise in crisis management or to make rhetorically charged, but ultimately empty complaints about how grave the problem is.

Much talk, little action

A foreign observer like me wonders what it would take to provoke an effort to tackle a problem that is visible in so many small phenomena.

All of them seem to be remediable, be it housing and employment of African-Americans, underlying racism in White society, or violent protests that require new measures. The president has given a remarkable speech on the issue of race, to no more effect than fleeting marvel and faint praise.

On this issue, the president’s heritage might even be a drawback. He was raised by his white family, but does not look white, and yet cannot overcome the fact that he is also not a descendant of slaves. As the son of a Kenyan immigrant, he does not carry the same burden of the African-American community’s collective memory on his shoulders.

Conversations on privacy and technology

The NSA scandal, in the aftermath of the Snowden revelations, has led to profound, worldwide discussions about electronic monitoring of all human activity.

These discussions pertain to issues that used to be seen as the core of the American project, such as individual freedom and its limits, the social compatibility with what is technologically possible, and the responsibilities of enterprises compared to those of the realm of politics.

What is remarkable at this juncture is that these conversations in the United States about data control have largely remained confined to the sphere of intellectuals. There has been little effort to hold Congress accountable to implement at least the recommendations given by “The President’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies” of December 2013.

The explanation given for why that is so usually elicits the rather resigned response that things never change anyway. It is seen as pointless to go up against Big Business or the security establishment. Once again, America simply shrugs.


Part II: The Global American Dream

This article originally appeared on The Globalist. Follow The Globalist on Twitter

The values that the “American dream” stands for are shared globally (with a few obvious exceptions, such as the adherents of the so-called Islamic State).

Even so, that cultural and ideological prevalence never meant that America always got its way, except maybe in some infamous cases in Latin America. It meant rather that the United States was able to form and manage its coalitions in ways acceptable to its partners.

This approach has been discredited mainly by the Iraq War in 2003, and being a credible leader of the “free world” has become more difficult in the process. The rise of China and other new major powers also contributes to a dissolving – or at least more complex order – of international society. There is at the very least a diffusion of power among more actors (not yet necessarily “poles” of their own right).

Hesitation is not decline

This reality makes coalition management more complicated, but it does not mean it is impossible.

The world is watching a United States that is not sure whether it wants to “rebalance” its engagement to Asia, and to what degree – or if a “G2” arrangement with China isn’t the better option – or whether a major armed engagement in the Middle East against the Islamic State is unavoidable, and with whom.

However, observations of a vacillating, hesitating superpower does not yet amount to the international community buying into the theory of America’s “decline.”

The global disillusionment stems rather from the way the United States seems to implicitly accept the “decline” theory. It bristles at criticism or not getting its way and then turns away to focus on activities like fracking – to use hyperbole – as if to leave the world on its own.

In a globalized world, any country, and more than any other a superpower, can only do this at its own peril: the costs of regaining influence on solving global, regional and national problems will be high.

A helpless giant?

With the Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA torture, both America’s foreign and domestic problems come together in a nutshell. The United States’ using the same methods as its enemies projects the image of a desperate, helpless giant.

While it is in the best and courageous tradition of American democracy to lay open its mistakes for the world to see, the world also now sees the effort to silence critics of such policies, rather than an effort to treat the root causes of the torture scandal.

So far it is not clear whether the New Year will bring acceptance and decisive steps by Congress to remedy an attitude that allowed outrageous things to occur. Instead, the scandal may simply be shrugged away again as something that belongs to the sad legacy of George W. Bush, and better to be left to rest.

Thus the identification of new problems does not excite a feeling that challenge provides America’s citizens an opportunity to prove that ”Yes, We Can” realize daring hopes.

Endless scapegoating

Instead, those in the public realm seek out a battlefield where they can still effect change, namely Congress. It is easier to turn the president into the scapegoat for all that does not work, for all the misery in the United States and the world, and try to terminate achieving any legislation at all.

To face up to the actual problems America is confronted with, and to try to solve them, would always be much more trouble and effort than can be achieved at a tea party.

It is, on the other hand, also easier to sign executive orders and blame Congress than to build national coalitions for far-reaching changes. To overcome the hesitation borne out of uncertainty that goes with rational analysis would require long-term strategies, implemented with long breath.

Granted, there is also a serious domestic conflict, spanning generations, behind this, over the role of government as such. This is a real question – but one twisted around to serve frivolous purposes at a time that such misuse cannot be afforded and does damage to the United States and others.

For Europe, no choice but to help lead

These are American debates, not European ones, but Europe is affected. Common problems – IS, Russia’s new robustness, China’s new assertiveness, or the need to make trade and industry more competitive – are grave, and they need attention.

Europe is still battling its economic woes. It is also in the midst of a struggle to create more efficient institutions in Brussels, to make the best use of a strengthened European Parliament and to deal with foreign affairs after the adoption of the Lisbon Treaty.

Transatlantic approaches to solving common problems are therefore difficult to envisage. Not even TTIP negotiations may make much progress. But given the expected and feared stalemate in Washington over the next two years, the view across the Atlantic should be enough motivation for Europe to try to pick up the slack where necessary.

Societal and political vision is a resource left to us by Enlightenment. It is a European as much as an American one. In concrete terms: As the United States enters what is likely to be an even more halting and hesitating year, Europe should not shy away when coalition management is now more in its hands than ever before.


I left the United States with a feeling of uncertainty: Despite the internal strife and debates, this country has opportunities and strengths at its fingertips that are incomparable to those of any other, and it is still the paragon of what people in many places in the world aspire to.

Things could change – for the better, too. America could still be the one country of reference for the world. And maybe it will, even in the upcoming year. Maybe.

*The opening sections of this article have been added since it was originally posted.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Council Member & Former Senior Advisor to the Asia & China programme

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