Within days of Barack Obama’s victory, European leaders were on the phone with the new President-elect politely insisting that the United States join in adopting regulations that would effectively limit emissions of carbon dioxide. For the most part, these conversations went unnoticed by the public. Americans who did hear the news responded that the European Union should mind its own business. This all-too-depressing response exemplifies the problems we face. Not only is the United States disliked in most parts of the world, but the rest of the international community is realizing that we are getting left behind.
Pieces like The Post-American World by Fareed Zakaria and “Waving Goodbye to Hegemony” by Parag Khanna are steadily increasing in number and with good reason. The European Union and China have ascended as powers to be reckoned with, while countries like Brazil and India are gaining a foothold in the climb toward development and influence. The European Union used political and financial savvy to get one foot in the door while China’s precarious motto of growth or bust has worked so far. All the while, the Ponzi scheme that was our financial setup grew into a powder keg that left the United States reeling. While the reverberations are still being felt globally, the resistance to colossal financial damage in some geographic areas has emboldened other countries. While we attempted futile nation building elsewhere, nations that invested in themselves came out ahead.
No longer do countries view the United States as the pinnacle of success, and who can blame them? In recent years, the United States citizenry has been duped into believing that invading an irrelevant country was necessary and that somehow the war would go smoothly. We maintained an overseas institution where torture was commonplace and at the same time decried torture when our soldiers fell victim to it. In government settings, partisan wrangling has too often devolved into ad hominem attacks. These same government officials then wonder how much debt is appropriate to unload onto future generations. Similarly unbelievable, our culture has produced CEOs that find it appropriate to buy a couple of rugs for $131,000 despite a flagging economy — I hope they really tied the room together.
One way to remedy our sputtering influence is to reinvest in domestic concerns. Civil engineering reports have returned desperate findings. Our roads, bridges and buildings have grown old and decrepit. Collapsing bridges and cracked roads are unacceptable. Even our “newer” structures have become outdated. Ultramodern airports in Japan and the Koreas make La Guardia look like an archaic hovel. We have to shift focus from building pyramid schemes to building a respectable transportation system. Alternative energy must be developed with appropriate foresight. Even though many alternative energy sources require battery power, most research on developing the strength and duration of batteries occurs in Asia and if we aren’t careful, we could end up trading a dependence on foreign oil to a dependence on foreign batteries.
More generally, we have to renew our interest in science, math and technology. Our students are routinely outperformed in science and math by students in other developed and developing nations. Increasingly, teachers in public schools have resorted to spending their own income to make classes more interactive and informative. Spurious initiatives like those aimed at undermining the teaching of evolution in primary and secondary school negatively impact science as a whole. In the previous administration, scientific advice was routinely considered a nuisance on the periphery, and that must change.
To navigate the mess we are in, we cannot continue to browbeat adversaries and allies into getting our way. The United States has created enemies while alienating historical and potential friends. As the film Syriana said, “When a country has five percent of the world’s population but spends fifty percent of the world’s military spending, that country’s persuasive power is in decline.” In some ways, we resemble the bully in eighth grade that is still bigger than everyone else, but is watching the rest of the class rise in stature. Similar to that bully, we are growing more insecure, and we don’t like being told we are wrong. Fortunately, like the bully, we too have options. We can focus on innovation and education, vaulting ourselves into the frontrunner position once again. Or, we can continue to lash out at former friends over offered constructive criticism while further engendering distrust and aversion to everything American. Supposedly, we are an archetype for countries all over the world, but no one will want to emulate our model if we continue on with inane, destructive habits.