The Foreign Service Journal, January-February 2020

32 JANUARY-FEBRUARY 2020 | THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL I n his magisterial biogra- phy of George Kennan, John Lewis Gaddis high- lights a central irony in the thinking of America’s most illustrious diplomat. As penetrating as Ken- nan’s insight into Soviet Russia was, he was stunningly myopic and misguided when it came to his own country. He tended to see the United States in the most pessimistic of lights, as unequal to the grave and gathering challenges of the times, a cesspool of corruption and destined for decline. Kennan was and is not alone. Mistaken self-assessment is a kind of occupational hazard for the human species. For Ameri- cans, the self-assessment seems to swing between extremes: Outside Observers See the United States inWaysWe Ourselves Cannot Alexis Ludwig is a 26-year Foreign Service veteran currently serving as deputy permanent representative at the U.S. Mission to the Organization of American States. He is chair of the FSJ Editorial Board. The views expressed are his own. The views of well-informed foreign observers can offer a welcome counterpoint to the extreme ups and downs of Americans’ own assessment of our nation and its role in the world. BY AL EX I S LUDWI G we are the nation embodying the special providence of the “City upon a Hill” on one hand, and the nation falling far short of those same high- flying ideals, and hurtling head- long for destruction, on the other. Perhaps these are two sides of the same coin. Whatever its wellsprings, the collapse and fall of the United States is a recurring theme in the annals of postwar American commentary. I was reminded again of this fact by the focus of this summer’s Foreign Affairs magazine, titled—you guessed it—“What Happened to the American Century?” In this latest chapter in the long-standing chronicle of America’s decline, for example, Fareed Zakaria claims the United States has squandered its unipolar moment; Larry Diamond describes the collapse of the U.S.-led FreedomAgenda; and Dani Rodrick analyzes how globalization undermined American interests. And so on. As a child of the Cold War, I myself recall the countless news stories in the 1970s and 1980s dedicated to the proposition that the Russians would handily win the running superpower competition. One memorable Time magazine cover from that FOCUS HOW THEY SEE US ISTOCKPHOTO.COM/HARMPETI