In many ways, and contrary to whatever Donald Trump may say, the next president will inherit an America in better shape — better positioned for world leadership — than the nation that George Bush bequeathed to Barack Obama.
So why doesn’t it feel that way? Why does it feel as if we’re losing?
In 2008, when the U.S. economy was on the verge of implosion, so was U.S. standing as a model for the world.
Remember the “BRICs”? Pundits proclaimed the rise of Brazil, Russia, India and China. The latter especially was ascendant. Democracy seemed to have led the West down the drain, while the authoritarian Communists in Beijing were building fast trains and creating good jobs. The United States was in no position to tell them or anyone else what to do.
Today that conventional wisdom doesn’t seem so wise. India has a reform government, but the magnitude of its task is clearer than ever.
Brazil is stagnating, Russia is going backward, China is slowing. Europe is focused inward, threatened by weak links such as Greece and terrified of an immigrant tide.
“Right now,” Obama said on CBS’ “60 Minutes” on Oct. 11, “our economy is much stronger relative to the rest of the world. China, Europe, emerging markets, they’re all having problems.”
Longer-term trends, especially demographic, favor the United States, too. Five of the 10 most populous nations in 1950 were from the “First World.”
Of those, only the United States will remain on the list a century later, thanks in large part to immigration, which in turn reflects still other American strengths — in education, entrepreneurship, rule of law — that keep this nation a magnet unlike any other.
And yet, if the United States is the leader of the free world, its domain after two Obama terms is shrinking. According to Freedom House, global freedom has declined every year that Obama has been in office. The number of countries ranked “Not Free” has risen from 42 in 2008 to 51.
China, tightening the screws at home, is pushing U.S. allies around in East Asia and the South China Sea with expansive territorial claims and new naval outposts. Russia, also more repressive internally, has dismembered the Western-leaning Ukraine, dismissing U.S. protests.
The Islamic State has accomplished something that al-Qaeda never managed: a state of its own. Impervious to a year of U.S. aerial bombardment, it continues to draw converts from the United States and the rest of the world.
When CBS’ Steve Kroft asked Obama in that same interview whether the world is safer than when he took office, the president didn’t try to make the case. “America is a safer place” was the most he would venture, and it’s not clear his own security team would agree.
What explains this apparent contradiction? If what Marxist-Leninists might have called the correlation of forces is increasingly in U.S. favor, why does actual U.S. influence seem to be waning in so much of the world?
One possible answer, I suppose, is lag time: Having drawn certain conclusions as the Great Recession set in, the world needs time to recalibrate to changed conditions.
More likely, the advantages are real but not self-actualizing.
The United States’ economic, demographic and other strengths, that is, provide an opportunity to exercise leadership.
But it is an opportunity that has to be seized, something Obama has shied away from.
The president helped right the U.S. economy, and he has tried to boost its other strengths with immigration and education reform. But he is better at analyzing U.S. advantages than at capitalizing on them.
Russia is a second-rate, “regional” power, so why bother to give Ukraine the arms it needs to defend itself? Vladimir Putin’s intervention into Syria is doomed, so why come to the aid of U.S.-allied rebels whom Putin’s planes are pummeling? Let him play out his losing hand.
There’s a more alarming possibility, too: that not just Obama’s predilections but something in the body politic will keep the nation from capitalizing on its strengths.
We will have a new president in a year and a few months, but that by no means guarantees an end to dysfunction in Washington.
A global leader needs to invest in its infrastructure, schools and laboratories; it needs to maintain a robust and technologically advanced military; it needs to show leadership in promoting trade, helping poorer countries, welcoming refugees.
Hyperpartisanship, a waning of empathy, a turning inward — I don’t think those are America’s most probable direction, but in this odd election year, it’s hard to rule them out.
If they took hold, the nation’s strategic advantages wouldn’t matter — and wouldn’t last.
Fred Hiatt is the editorial page editor of The Washington Post.