America Is Losing the High Ground

The world is getting flatter not just in economic terms, but perhaps in moral ones as well.


Within hours, the photo of Ieshia Evans in a flowing dress, confronting with stately dignity police in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, had been elevated by social media commentators to “iconic” status.

Within hours, the photo of Ieshia Evans in a flowing dress, confronting with stately dignity police in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, had been elevated by social media commentators to “iconic” status.

Of course, in all such matters, perspective is everything. Not just the perspective of the photographer, but that which is provided after the photograph is taken — interpretations, observations, and the opinions of commentators, professional or otherwise, on the web and in the media worldwide. And it’s not just what they see, but where they are sitting when they see it that gives meaning to the images or events of the day. In the case of the Baton Rouge photograph, immediately comparisons were made by observers of a certain age suggesting the images of Evans were akin to those of that lone Chinese protestor standing up to the tanks in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Comparisons like this can be a bit of a double-edged sword. They can be used to excuse or justify the inexcusable. For example, it should come as little surprise that China’s state-owned People’s Daily immediately picked up the story and the photo (from the U.K.’s Daily Mail online) and tweeted it out to the world to make a not-so-subtle point. The headline it used was: “Woman captured silently confronting heavily-armed police in LA, USA is a 28-year-old mom and nurse’s assistant who spent 24 hours in jail for her ‘crime.’”

You can almost imagine the glee on the editors’ faces as they posted it. Aha, they thought, this proves that America is deeply hypocritical and every bit as flawed as the rest of us.

Actually, I did not have to imagine this. I’m writing this column from China where I have been for the past week, and that is precisely the reaction of many of the people I have been speaking to here in the Shanghai area. The same is largely true of everywhere else I have been in the world the past few months — from the Middle East to Australia, North Africa, and Europe. It seems the world is having its schadenfreude moment with America as a consequence of everything from the unrest in U.S. streets to the rise of Donald Trump. Our national narrative in 2016 — not to mention the trials and tribulations of the past decade-and-a-half, from Iraq to the market crash to Ferguson — is reinforcing not only long-standing views of the country’s troubles, from race to the domination of politics by plutocrats. But it has also regularly enabled nations that America has criticized in the past — from the Persian Gulf to the South China Sea — to point to the headlines coming out of the United States and say, “Who are you to judge us?”

Frankly, it is a reasonable question to ask. There’s a lot wrong with America today. We are riven by racial tensions. We have allowed the creation of an underclass with little hope of advancement. They are trapped in inner cities (where half of all minority students don’t graduate high school — and thus are effectively disqualified from real participation in our economy). We have exacerbated this problem of social tension with our deep and perverse national pathology about guns. And we have effectively made institutional and lasting change regarding both these problems impossible with a corrupt system of financing political candidates who empower special interests, all but ensuring the needs of the economically disenfranchised will be ignored.

These are the drivers behind the upheaval across the country during these past few weeks — in places like Baton Rouge, Dallas, and Minneapolis. But, of course, the forces underlying the shootings, protests, and political debates have been festering in the United States for a long time. They are so deeply entrenched that those in leadership positions have been unable to do anything meaningful about them — and that includes President Barack Obama. He speaks eloquently and with real heartfelt passion about race relations, gun control, and his disgust with the power of special-interest groups. But by any measure, these problems have grown worse on his watch. Candidly, his inaction on the plight of the underclass, guns, and campaign financing is one of the greatest defects on his record, rivaling his mishandling of Syria and the Middle East or the rise of the Russian threat.

The ascent of a racist, misogynist, authoritarian buffoon like Trump, who has become the standard-bearer for one of America’s two major political parties, is also something to which Americans should devote some serious introspection. It suggests deep flaws not only with our process for picking candidates, but also with the quality of Republican leadership. It also hints at a deep anxiety-driving anger among a substantial portion of the American electorate and represents a nationalist, hate-driven component to U.S. politics that will outlive this election for years to come.

But these are not just domestic issues. They shape perceptions of America on the international stage. Here in China, two primary components to the local reaction are worthy of note. One is the schadenfreude. Experts on the United States I spoke with in Shanghai would shake their heads commenting on headlines like those about the shootings in Dallas, offering a message of commiseration that was infused with no small amount of condescension. Candidly, it was all a bit hard to swallow. Trump may be authoritarian … but China is an authoritarian state. We have racial tensions … but so do they. Our system is corrupt … but so is theirs. (Though it should be noted that China’s top authoritarians are a far cry more accomplished, gifted, and possess better economic track records than Trump. And they don’t exacerbate social tensions by allowing the populace to arm itself to the teeth. And they are at least making a show of cracking down on their corruption; most American leaders barely dare utter the words “campaign finance reform.”)

The other notable thing about America’s problems is that they seem so distant and peripheral here. Shanghai is the most populous city in the world (when measured separated from its surrounding suburbs) and has a top-ranking educational system, a vibrant, growing economy, a modern skyline and numerous neighborhoods boasting leading companies from everywhere on the planet, and, contrary to most American perceptions, a creative community (visit Shanghai’s M50 arts district or its world-class performing arts infrastructure) that is doing more fascinating new work than found in most places in the world. This place is about the future, a future with China at the center of it, and America’s domestic struggles not only do not seem to be a worthy distraction, but they actually support a narrative that seems to underlie many conversations one has here: We are the future; you are the past. Get used to it.

The sophisticated international experts I spoke with at places like the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies know that is not exactly true. They continue to see the U.S.-China relationship as one that is central to their future and that of their region and the world. Not only is the United States a global stabilizer that costs China very little (they are delighted we are taking the lead in fighting terrorism), but it is also a vital economic partner upon which China depends and will depend for decades to come. The United States and China are the world’s first utterly interdependent superpowers. Indeed, the punch line closing out one conversation I had with these experts was that the next president of the United States is really going to have to spend some quality time helping to develop a doctrine of interdependence between our countries, because the zero-sum Cold War models that are often applied are so inappropriate to the reality of two powers that draw much of their strength from one another.

That said, talking to these experts about Trump produced a reaction I did not expect — one that was echoed in conversations with a variety of Shanghai’s citizens. Unlike my recent visits to places in the Middle East, as well as in Australia and Europe, there is no shock or ridicule of Trump here. The “experts” I spoke with seem to think he might be better for the U.S.-China relationship than Hillary Clinton. This is in part because many do not much like Clinton. Since her tough comments on human rights here when she was first lady through her tenure as secretary of state, they have seen her as an unrelenting critic of the Chinese on issues like rights and respect for international law, and they are concerned she will be tough to deal with. On the other hand, Trump is seen — erroneously as it happens — as a Republican, and they believe traditional, pro-China GOP advisors will ensure he is easy to deal with. (I did my best to disabuse them of this last point given that literally no senior serious GOP foreign-policy advisor supports Trump.)

But there is one other thing about Trump that has captured people’s attention in China. As one longtime resident and businesswoman put it, “He is rich. And Chinese people think that means he is successful, that he is good at what he does.” Never mind how Trump became rich or his woeful track record and multiple bankruptcies. It is a glimpse into modern China that I heard this comment over and over. Being rich is a sign of hard work, intelligence, and competence.

It is tempting to be a bit condescending toward this simplistic and wrong-headed, but common, Chinese analysis. But it again raises the question: Which of us has grounds to feel superior? Our metrics are clearly not much better than theirs. After all, in a few days, Donald Trump will become the official candidate of the party of Abraham Lincoln. He has no political bona fides — quite the contrary. He has no moral or ethical bona fides — quite the contrary. All he has is wealth, and, as important in America as wealth is in China, he has fame. That has been enough for a plurality of GOP primary voters. It is enough to make him one of two people on planet earth with a real chance of being the next president of the United States.

Worse, when it comes to metrics, when we look at the deeper crises affecting the United States right now, we have to ask: Which seem to be driving our political debate and political action? Are they the metrics of compassion, morality, or common sense? Or are the money metrics of special-interests politics, metrics that put the needs of the National Rifle Association far ahead those of the poor or disenfranchised in America, that have us massively overspending on defense and massively underspending on education, job-training programs, infrastructure, and other aspects of support for those who need it most?

It is uncomfortable traveling overseas as an American these days. Sure, we can take some pride in the degree to which our popular culture is embraced and celebrated — from music to Starbucks to T-shirts that seek to mimic American slogans (albeit with typos and bad translations). But the message Americans are sending out about who we are and what is important to us, the message about our values that has often, if not always, made America a force for good in the world for much of the past century, is being quietly but profoundly altered. We may in our minds still be the America of our Constitution, our forefathers and mothers, and of our freedoms. But we are also the America of Ferguson, Baton Rouge, the NRA, assault weapons, and Donald Trump.

This has a cost. In geopolitics, one of our great advantages throughout World War II and the Cold War was our command of the moral high ground. We were imperfect to be sure. But we seemingly always aspired to do better — acknowledging our defects and seeking to improve them. This position enabled us to lead a global coalition promoting democracy, free markets, and improved human rights. But beginning with the decisions of the first George W. Bush administration to cast aside some of our most fundamental principles with regard to torture and the rule of law, to fight an unjust war, we began losing that moral high ground. And now with the decay from within and the embrace of a hate-mongering demagogue as one of our political leaders, we have lost even more.

This will cost us in a new international landscape where our rivals are countries like China. How do we promote the rule of law in the South China Sea when we have abused it in the Middle East? How do we pressure them to grant more rights to their people when we don’t seem to care about our own? How can we combat corruption globally when our own money-driven political system gives more clout to gun merchants than to those who would care for the needy and more political power to the rich than to the people at large?

When my friend Tom Friedman wrote The World Is Flat, he was talking about an economic leveling. But what I worry about is that we are also seeing a moral leveling, a world in which we may still have power but in which we don’t know what we stand for. It will also be a world in which our missteps will make it harder for us to lead like-minded countries and influence our rivals. Comparing the photo of Ieshia Evans to the picture of the Tank Man in Tiananmen Square might be problematic, but it should also be thought-provoking. The reality of the ascension of Donald Trump should be as well. This is not domestic business conducted behind, well, as Trump might have it, a wall. This is the erosion of the high ground that has not only been a source of our power — but that so many generations of Americans fought so hard to win and hold.

Image credit: Jonathan Bachman/Reuters/Jeff Widener/AP/Foreign Policy illustration

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf

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