The Foreign Service Journal, January-February 2020
THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL | JANUARY-FEBRUARY 2020 33 era captured the mood perfectly. Following yet another bilateral summit agreement in which Soviet negotiators had allegedly bested ours, it featured an oversized drawing of a dramatic superpower handshake—with the grasping hand painted in the colors of the Soviet hammer and sickle while the hand being grasped was rendered in the American red, white and blue. As a pithy letter writer gasped the following week: “Your cover clearly showed that the Russians have got us!” Fast-forward to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet empire. It wasn’t long before academic analysts like Chalmers Johnson began cawing darkly, “The Cold War is over, and Japan won.” Japan had traded places with the United States, become the new “Number One” and was now set to spread so- called “Pax Nipponica” into the new Asian century. Once again, the United States was cast in the role of a fading power, tired and corrupt, our hollowed-out industry and eroded economic base faltering in the face of the fierce competition from our dynamic new rival and partner, with the erosion of our geopolitical influ- ence sure to follow. Somehow that scenario, too, failed to come to pass. Today, it is China’s turn. The rising billion-strong behemoth is often portrayed as being on the verge of pushing aside and displacing a politically distracted and inward-looking “America- first” United States that is once again, of course, sliding down the slippery slope of decline. True, the past may not be prelude, and the wolf might actu- ally be roaming hungrily on the hillside among the sheep this time around. But it still seems relevant to ask: What is wrong with this exceedingly gloomy picture? Why does the news of America’s demise always seem so premature, at least in retro- spect? Factors to Consider I’d like to propose several factors to explain the mistaken self-assessment of American analysts about the future of their own country. I will close with a modest counter-proposal, high- lighting the importance of hearing the perspectives of informed outside observers, to balance out our own navel-gazing. The first factor has to do with the perpetual crisis of democ- racy. As the Argentine political scientist Guillermo O’Donnell wrote in a brilliant 2007 essay on this topic: “Democracy is and always will be in some kind of crisis, for it is constantly redirect- ing its citizens’ gaze from a more or less unsatisfactory present toward a future of still unfulfilled possibilities.” Whatever else the United States may be, it is a big, complex, boisterous and imper- fect democracy. Its present is therefore always unsatisfactory, and its unfulfilled future always in doubt. So many things have gone awry, and so many others might possibly go wrong! If the point is not quite clear, this means that the United States has had, now has and always will have many grave shortcomings, faults and problems. It also means that these ever-present problems—this perpetual crisis—will tend to attract the attention of our most thoughtful observers and analysts. Indeed, their—and our—gaze will be constantly redirected there. If we’re lucky, it might also mean that as a result, eventually, our democratic system itself will respond with some kind of solution or solutions, even if not necessarily at the pace one would wish or in the manner one would hope and know would have been better, until the next new round of problems and challenges comes along. In this reading, the chronicle of perpetual American decline would have the paradoxical effect of helping prevent its own predictions from coming true. By contrast, autocracies prefer to project false portraits of flawless perfection, even if these portraits are generated by sweeping problems under the rug, by keeping troubling infor- mation under wraps and by silencing unsympathetic observers and critics. The result: unaddressed problems that fester, deepen and grow more problematic over time. This recalls Winston Churchill’s famous quip about democra- cies being the worst political alternative save all the others. But which of these imperfect options do we prefer? A Vast and Messy Complexity A related possibility is that the United States is too big and complex to wrap one’s head around in the first place. It is the elephant in the proverb about the blind man, impossible to summarize as any one thing without falling into some blatant contradiction with respect to one of its many other, equally compelling, characteristics. It contradicts itself, because it is large and contains multitudes: Texas and California; the inward- The United States is a big, complex, boisterous and imperfect democracy. Its present is therefore always unsatisfactory, and its unfulfilled future always in doubt.