Recently, some of the “talking heads” on the news have been worrying about the demise of US global hegemony. We are told that the “American empire” is in decline and our influence and status around the world are falling. We are told that this bodes poorly for both the people of the United States and the rest of the world. That is not how I see it. While I tend to agree that the United States is losing its hegemony, I believe that all of us (in the USA and elsewhere) will be better off if the United States is no longer the “leader” of the world.
Our decline has been going on since the time of Richard Nixon, through Carter, the Bushes, Clinton, Obama, and has accelerated under Trump. The President’s favoritism for the white and the rich, his erratic destruction of the administrative and diplomatic state, his complete inability to address COVID-19, his rejection of reason, science and expertise, his cultural ignorance, his meanness and cruelty, his selfish disregard for others (nations and peoples) all have underscored and advanced our national decline.
We have been taught to think that our country’s position in the world stems in part from our status as the world’s one true democracy, but it is now very clear that is not the case. Especially since Citizens United, political power in this country has prioritized wealth and those who have it. The United States is now a county “of the rich, by the rich, and for the rich.” We have tax laws that favor capital over income; we have civil and criminal justice systems that protect property more than people; our public institutions routinely criminalize immigrants, the poor, and people of color.
If the new global “role models” are places like Denmark, Norway, or Costa Rica, surely the world would be headed towards fewer threats to peace, less military spending, fewer attacks on local democracies, more concern for human rights, less environmental destruction, more environmental protection, and more democracy. Our national elections are not decided by the popular vote, but instead by an archaic process based an unrepresentative group called the “electoral college.” Our laws and policies reflect the interest of the wealthy as communicated to wealthy legislators by the lobbyists of big business. We have voting laws that make it a burden to vote for many. As a result, too often public policy does not reflect the opinions or interests of the majority. If it did, we would be like other developed countries and adopt national health care, paid parental leave, stronger controls on guns and weapons, free higher education, reproductive rights, and a higher minimum wage. If we are honest with ourselves, we must admit that there are many more democratic nations in the world today. Their influence inevitably rises as ours falls and this is a good thing for everyone.
Much of the U. S. hegemony has stemmed from the fact that the United States is surely the most heavily armed and most militarily active country in the world. The national myth is that we use military force reluctantly and only when it is necessary to insure human rights, peace, and security. But let’s look at the record: Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Indonesia, Cuba, Grenada, Dominican Republic, Chile, Central America, Libya, Congo, Iran, Iraq, Panama, Afghanistan. Are any of these places were made better as a consequences of our covert and overt actions? We spend more on weapons of war than any other country in the world. Researchers at Brown University have found that since the horror of 9/11, the so-called “war on terrorism” has killed 800,000, displaced 37,000,000, and cost taxpayers $6.4 trillion.
We are told that the United States is the greatest, most productive and fairest economy in the world. It isn’t. Over the last several years, our share of world production has declined significantly. Increasingly our economy is characterized by wide inequalities, environmental destruction, and decreasing life chances for the many. The earnings ratio between CEOs and their employees has widened dramatically. Bosses now earn as much as 400 times the incomes of their employees. Ordinary Americans no longer believe that future generations will have more comfortable lives than current ones. People of color in the United States face significant economic damage just because of their heritage and ethnicity.
President Trump did not create this situation, but he is making it worse. His administration’s mishandling of COVID has driven down the lives of ordinary Americans. Unemployment is up; incomes are down; mass evictions are looming; GDP has collapsed; and all this is doubly true for persons of color. The only folks doing well are a few tech bosses and those who live off the stock market. In addition, the American economy is not sustainable environmentally. Since we no longer can claim any kind of real commitment to environmental protection, we can not even pretend to be an international leader in this area.
Out tax system is notoriously unfair and confusing. It favors the wealthy over the middle and working classes; it favors growth over maintenance and endurance; it favors corporations over families. We rescue banks from their unwise and sometimes criminal investments while allowing health care expenses to bankrupt ordinary people, who already live without paid medical or parental leave, decent vacations, or old age pensions (all commonplaces in developed and developing nations around the world). Americans live shorter and less healthy lives than people do in most developed nations. Our schools are nowhere near the best in the world, and many schools in poor and working class areas are so underfunded and under-resourced that they look more like tenements than campuses. They test and segregate more than they build and educate. Classes are large, standardized testing proliferates, teachers are underpaid, armed cops patrol the halls, and facilities are crumbling.
Simply put, we have nothing to teach the rest of the world about how to build an economy that serves the people. Many nations already know how to do it and hopefully, as we decline, they will become ready international examples of “best practices.”
We have long believed we are the proverbial “city on the hill,” a place that is home to a life so rewarding that it is a model for all. That emperor, too, has no clothes.
A supposed “nation of immigrants,” we do not welcome newcomers. Instead, we attempt to deter migrants through practices of harassment, detention, and family separation.
The Coronavirus and the continuing trauma of police brutality have revealed that our society and its communities are unhealthy. Too often, residents have no trust in their government and see the police and other agencies as the agents of an occupying power. And people around the world recognize that we are a violent nation. Gun violence rages and mass shootings in schools, churches, nightclubs, and movie theaters have become distressingly common. Deadly police repression and practices of mass incarceration impact our communities, particularly neighborhoods of color. Guns and violence even characterize our entertainment media, which we export around the globe. “Hollywood” gets rich by displaying false and elaborately decorated images of fear, violence and anger. What does such an unreflectively violent place have to teach the rest of the world?
The cultural spread of a violent breed of radical individualism and the acceptance of deep inequalities are destroying the foundations of our society. ¨Looking out for number one” cannot form the basis of a livable, functioning community. Norms of reciprocity and equity suffer when people must struggle against each other to fulfill even the most basic needs such as food, clothing, housing and medical care. While many countries define the collective provision of basic needs as the necessary social infrastructure of a good society, we worry about something called the “nanny state.” The few such programs we do have are inefficient and inadequate by design, rife with unnecessary administrative costs, bureaucratic means testing, and minimal resources. In many, if not most, developed nations ordinary people earn better wages, have better schools, live healthier lives, and are more secure and comfortable in communities where they feel respected, valued, and cared for.
So, it is very likely that the declining global hegemony of the United States will be an opportunity to build better lives everywhere. If the new global “role models” are places like Denmark, Norway, or Costa Rica, surely the world would be headed towards fewer threats to peace, less military spending, fewer attacks on local democracies, more concern for human rights, less environmental destruction, more environmental protection, and more democracy. And, if America uses this opportunity to change what we spend on and how we care for each other, life will be better here at home too.