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America Is Losing Its Value Proposition

The future will not be pretty for the United States if it cannot rediscover some of the idealism that marked its long rise.

Howard French
Howard French
Howard W. French
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy.
An upside down U.S. flag is shown with the U.S. Supreme Court building in the background.
An upside down U.S. flag is shown with the U.S. Supreme Court building in the background.
An abortion rights activist flies an upside down U.S. flag outside of the U.S. Supreme Court during a protest in Washington on June 26. SAMUEL CORUM/AFP via Getty Images

The United States’ sharp rise as a global power in the decades following World War II was built on a three-legged stool, and in the absence of any of its pillars, the country’s strength and influence would have been vastly reduced.

The first of these legs was, of course, the country’s economic strength, which gave it the ability to accomplish astonishing feats. During World War II, this meant producing a staggering 122 aircraft carriers, as well as airplanes in correspondingly great quantities. Broad-shouldered efforts like these armed not only U.S. forces but also those of its allies, including the Soviet Union, helping to ensure the defeat of Japan and Germany. Once peace was won, American wealth famously underwrote recovery in Europe and Asia, including among its just-defeated principal adversaries.

U.S. leadership in military power and technology in the war’s aftermath has never been surrendered, giving Washington the ability to dominate every ocean, establish bases on every continent, and continually set the pace in innovation. It is true that power so daunting often led the United States astray, unnecessarily inflicting awful tolls on other peoples, from Vietnam to Iraq, and in numerous smaller conflicts. But the United States remained strong despite all the misguided decisions and the terrible wastefulness of these wars because of its third pillar.

The United States’ sharp rise as a global power in the decades following World War II was built on a three-legged stool, and in the absence of any of its pillars, the country’s strength and influence would have been vastly reduced.

The first of these legs was, of course, the country’s economic strength, which gave it the ability to accomplish astonishing feats. During World War II, this meant producing a staggering 122 aircraft carriers, as well as airplanes in correspondingly great quantities. Broad-shouldered efforts like these armed not only U.S. forces but also those of its allies, including the Soviet Union, helping to ensure the defeat of Japan and Germany. Once peace was won, American wealth famously underwrote recovery in Europe and Asia, including among its just-defeated principal adversaries.

U.S. leadership in military power and technology in the war’s aftermath has never been surrendered, giving Washington the ability to dominate every ocean, establish bases on every continent, and continually set the pace in innovation. It is true that power so daunting often led the United States astray, unnecessarily inflicting awful tolls on other peoples, from Vietnam to Iraq, and in numerous smaller conflicts. But the United States remained strong despite all the misguided decisions and the terrible wastefulness of these wars because of its third pillar.

This leg consisted of the basic value proposition that the country so often seemed to incarnate in others’ eyes, which was bound up in ideas of openness, democracy, relentless progress, and, perhaps most of all, freedom. This last word involves a concept that is easier to invoke than it is to define to universal satisfaction, and throughout its history, the United States has had serious issues living up to this ideal. But as someone who has traveled in well over 100 countries and who lives in the beautiful ethnic mosaic that is New York City, I have always been impressed by the strength and resilience of America’s appeal to people from nearly every horizon on this somewhat abstract basis.

Now, however, more than any time in my more than four decades in journalism, I have grown doubtful about the durability of this pillar going forward. In fact, although Americans have largely seemed oblivious, their image in the rest of the world has already been taking damaging hits for some time. For three decades I have been concerned, for example, as the country has squandered its capacity for effecting positive change elsewhere. It committed few resources and little effort to helping the so-called developing world to recover from the prolonged disaster of the Cold War.

Fighting against something, in this instance endless campaigning against Islamist extremism, prevented the United States from fighting for something—say, helping lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty in the least developed parts of the world or working hard and with much greater consistency to promote democracy elsewhere. These failures allowed China to replace a United States asleep at the switch as the provider of public goods of first (and too often only) resort in Africa and Central Asia, and increasingly on other continents as well.

Domestically, meanwhile, the United States has been breaking with its deep roots as an immigrant nation, shutting out others even as economists say that the country’s own future prosperity will require a continued and steady influx of newcomers. This self-inflicted damage accelerated during the Trump administration, with racialized rhetoric that was openly hostile to nonwhite immigrants, along with ceaseless calls to build a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border to keep foreigners out.

The U.S. tailspin reached a new phase with the events surrounding the insurrection against the seat of the country’s democracy on Jan. 6, 2021, egged on by a defeated outgoing president. People around the world who are attracted to what they associate with American ideals watched this spectacle with shock and dismay. I know this from having heard from countless friends around the world who wrote to me or communicated their dismay via social media. Some asked me questions like, “If this can happen in the United States, a leader in democracy, what will it mean for my country?” This, it turns out, is a question of extreme significance to which I will return in a moment.

First, though, it is important to say that in some ways the events of Jan. 6, as disturbing at they were, pale in comparison to the clear signs of decadence that have followed, with most members of former U.S. President Donald Trump’s Republican Party unable to find a voice to speak frankly about the insurrection or even still openly defending him. This crisis of legitimacy goes beyond the political class, though. In large numbers, Republican voters also express continuing doubts about President Joe Biden’s factually indisputable victory in the 2020 election, with many still supporting Trump despite the insurrection.

It is just in the last month, though, that the full specter of peril hanging over America’s value proposition has completely dawned on me. This has come with the recent dramatic U.S. Supreme Court decisions that, regardless of whatever internal U.S. debates have to say about the matters in play, the rest of the world will largely regard as signs of a society that is speeding off the rails. Some of my earliest memories of overseas travel involve conversations as a college student with people in Africa and Europe about the outsized place of guns in American life. A friend in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, who was about to visit the United States for the first time asked me if it were true that one often begins hearing gunfire right from the moment of descent from landing aircraft.

People in other lands don’t understand the extreme attachment to guns that inhabits much of the U.S. population or what this has to do with the often-invoked but underexamined words of the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” What, many will ask, does a Supreme Court decision that appears to open the way for the almost unrestricted carrying of weapons even in crowded urban environments like New York City have to do with a “well regulated Militia” defending the security of the state?

Last week’s ruling that removed a constitutional right to abortion is likely to continue the United States’ debasement in the eyes of others. Leaders of many allied or friendly democracies were quick to denounce this decision, with even the Conservative British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, whose own behavior has increasingly delegitimized him, finding a perch of high ground from which to condemn as a “big step backwards.”

My personal views are firmly liberal in this matter, but I do not denounce this decision as someone who believes there is no room whatsoever for a debate on the rules around abortion. The signs of decay I detect in this ruling emanate from the rank cynicism of the politics that produced it.

Here, I speak of the unprecedented maneuvering of the Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell to deny a confirmation hearing to former President Barack Obama’s nominee to fill a vacancy on the court, Merrick Garland, on the basis that it was improper to appoint someone in an election year—only to turn around and expedite the confirmation of a new conservative justice, Amy Coney Barrett, less than a month before the 2020 presidential election.

As with so much in this column, there was worse to come in terms of damage to the country’s political system. Both Barrett and the immediately previous Republican appointee to the court, Brett Kavanaugh, solemnly told U.S. senators that the country’s laws surrounding abortion were settled matters and would be treated as such. Then, at the first opportunity, they overturned Roe v. Wade.

Politics is a rough game everywhere, but when all principles fall away, as appears to be happening in the United States, beware of a hard fall. The future will not be pretty for the United States if it cannot rediscover some of the idealism that marked its long rise.

None of this is written in a spirit of naive belief in an innocent American past. The country’s value appeal has always been a tightrope walk. In the postwar years, as it girded for competition with the Soviet Union, the United States invoked the advantages of freedom and democracy that it claimed for itself, even while denying such things to many of its own citizens, namely African Americans who were the victims of legalized segregation, restrictions on voting aimed at minimizing their representation, and widespread racial violence.

U.S. diplomacy faced media criticism and official pushback from countries in Europe, Asia, and Latin America in this era for Washington’s hypocrisy over democracy, which was still largely denied to the country’s Black minority. Steeped in denialism, former U.S. Secretary of State George Marshall commissioned a report that argued America’s racial problems had “largely ceased to be of major significance” to the country’s place in the world, a conclusion he supported.

A biting 1947 editorial in the Crisis, the NAACP’s journal, was far more realistic: “Mr. Truman and the American people can peer far beyond the seas, wring their hands, and choke with rage at an election in [communist] Poland, but they are strangely dumb at a similar election in South Carolina or Mississippi.”

Today, I fear for the United States not only because of the decay in its political culture and values, but also because this country has been so important as a font of energy, ideas, and symbols for others who seek to democratize and reform.

The influence of America’s model expanded dramatically in the decade or two after Marshall not because it mouthed ideals and denied reality, but because the society waged open struggle with its many imperfections involving the citizens’ rights of women and members of minority groups. For this country to avoid catastrophe it will have to renew the spirit of civic struggle in the critical decade ahead.

Howard W. French is a columnist at Foreign Policy, a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and a longtime foreign correspondent. His latest book is Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War. Twitter: @hofrench

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