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For more than three-quarters of a century, the United States has played outsized roles in the world.
Its entry into World War II was decisive.
Partly at American urging, the colonial era entered a phase of a quick, if not always peaceful, end. The establishment of the postwar system of alliances helped ensure that the Cold War remained truly cold and ended on terms consistent with Western interests and values.
A combination of institutions and policies provided the basis for unprecedented global economic growth and extended life expectancy.
But the US’s ability to maintain a significant and influential global role is increasingly being questioned. Some of the reasons may not have anything to do with the United States, but they affect its position nonetheless.
It also involves external challenges, as the US economy, which after World War II was responsible for half of the world’s output, now produces only a quarter. Now, military power is widely distributed among other nations and groups.
The energy and mineral resources, and manufacturing centers on which the United States and other countries depend, are now widely distributed. America’s place in this world is primarily primacy, but not dominance.
Indeed, America’s ability to impose its will is increasingly constrained by globalization.
Whether the issue is climate change or viruses, the US cannot insulate itself from the costly consequences of developments occurring outside its borders, nor can it find solutions on its own. Thus, neither isolationism nor unilateralism is an option.
However, what may constitute the most serious threat to global security and stability stems from ongoing developments within the United States, from the deep political and social divisions that threaten the country’s competitiveness, its ability to design and implement a coherent policy, and even its stability.
A weaker and less predictable US would tear at the fabric of alliances that, to be effective, would require mutual aid to be almost certain. Likewise, adversaries will be emboldened in the belief that they can act with impunity.
The result will be a world of more frequent conflicts, where advanced weapons are spread more widely, and where aggressive states wield greater influence.
Moreover, the United States, fragmented and divided at home, will lack the capacity and consensus to exercise leadership in addressing global challenges, such as climate change.--
In the absence of American resources and leadership, it is almost certain that the already large gap between these global challenges and global responses to them will grow even further.-
No other country, or group of nations, is willing or able to take America’s place on the world stage.
The question, then, is: Can the United States regain its footing soon, and return to a body more like the one it has been in for the past seventy-five years?
There are some reassuring signs. The economic and military support provided by America to Ukraine was strong.
The results of the midterm elections in November 2022 also came to reassure us after the defeat of many of the most extreme candidates, who pose the greatest threat to American democracy.
But there are also less reassuring developments. We have just celebrated the second anniversary of the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol, which came close to destroying American democracy.
No one can assume that such violent protests will not happen again.
Now that divided government is once again a reality, it remains to be seen whether a Democratic president and a Democratic Senate can find any common ground with the Republican-led House of Representatives.
Indeed, the early signs are not promising. The newly empowered Republicans seem more focused on investigation and setting up obstacles than on legislation and leadership.
On a famous occasion, Winston Churchill said, “You can always count on Americans doing the right thing – after they’ve tried everything else.”
This saying is about to be put to the test now. The problem is that the rest of the world will be greatly affected by what happens in the United States, but have little or no ability to influence developments there. It is an uncomfortable, but inescapable reality.
* President of the Council on Foreign Relations.