Opinion | Political dysfunction is the greatest threat to the U.S.


Predicting the decline of U.S. power has always been fashionable. Only the identity of the country that was supposedly going to overtake us has changed: Once, it was the Soviet Union, then it was Japan, and now it’s China. But despite years of costly fiascoes — from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the 2008 financial market crash to the mishandling of the covid-19 pandemic to the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection — the United States still stands as the world’s sole superpower.

While we continue to obsess about external threats, particularly from Russia and China, the biggest menace we face is our own political dysfunction. In trying unsuccessfully to break Sen. Tommy Tuberville’s (R-Ala.) destructive hold on military nominees, which is risking the readiness of the U.S. armed forces, Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) said on Nov. 1: “We are going to look back at this episode and just be stunned at what a national-security suicide mission this became.” That warning applies more generally to American politics: If U.S. power does go into terminal decline, we will have no one to blame but ourselves.

It is true that we are no longer quite as dominant internationally as we were 30 years ago. Contrary to conventional wisdom, however, we are hardly in decline. Just look at the two biggest crises in the world today: Gaza and Ukraine. The United States is at the forefront of dealing with both. President Biden has assembled a coalition of more than 50 countries to support Ukraine while undertaking urgent diplomacy and deploying the United States’ considerable military might (including two aircraft carrier battle groups and a nuclear-powered submarine) to the Middle East to try to keep the Israel-Gaza conflict from spiraling out of control. The United States remains the “indispensable nation,” as then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called it in 1998.

Where is our closest competitor, China? It’s been largely invisible, more or less adopting a position of neutrality in both conflicts, while rhetorically sniping at the United States and continuing to trade with both Russia and Iran. “While President Biden has taken a strong position on the terrorist attacks in Israel, Chinese President Xi Jinping has not offered his views on this issue,” Zongyuan Zoe Liu, a China expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, told me. “China has not figured out its crisis diplomacy strategy as the war in Gaza continues.”

This is no anomaly: It reflects a world in which China aspires to global leadership but, notwithstanding its costly Belt and Road Initiative, remains largely a bit player outside its own backyard. China’s economy is almost as large as America’s, but China lags far behind in per capita income. There is a distinct possibility that China might never overtake the United States in terms of gross domestic product, in fact, because it might grow old before it grows rich. And while China is a growing military threat in East Asia, it cannot project power around the world as only the United States can.

While China now has the world’s largest navy, it is a force focused on its own littoral waters, not on dominating the world’s oceans as the U.S. Navy has done for the past 80 years. The United States has 68 nuclear submarines to only 12 for China, and 11 aircraft carriers to only two for China. Russia is even further behind the United States both economically and militarily. Its armed forces have been revealed in Ukraine to be far weaker than they looked in Kremlin propaganda videos, and will need years to recover from the pummeling they have received at the hands of Ukrainian troops equipped with Western weapons. North Korea and Iran are regional menaces but don’t seriously threaten U.S. power globally.

In an article for Foreign Affairs this year, political scientists Stephen G. Brooks and William C. Wohlforth argued that “the distribution of power today remains closer to unipolarity than to either bipolarity or multipolarity.” They describe the current situation — with the United States still in the lead but by a smaller margin than in the 1990s — as “partial unipolarity,” contrasting it with the “total unipolarity” that occurred after the collapse of the Soviet Union and before the rise of China.

Indeed, the United States still accounts for 24 percent of the global economy — more than any other country and only slightly down from its 1990 level of 26 percent. Of the 10 largest companies in the world ranked by market cap, nine are American; none is Chinese. The United States also spends more on defense than the next 10 countries combined. Moreover, the United States has more than 50 allies compared with only a handful for either China or Russia.

Given the United States’ economic, diplomatic and military might — a reflection of its vibrant and dynamic society — there is no reason we cannot continue to lead the world in the 21st century.

Unless, of course, we abdicate our position of unmatched power. I fear we might be in the process of doing just that — not as a conscious decision but simply as an outgrowth of our domestic political dysfunction.

The Senate still seems incapable of breaking Tuberville’s hold and confirming hundreds of military officers who are needed at their posts. The Republican-controlled House seems incapable of passing a budget and might force a government shutdown this week. The House approved $14 billion in additional aid for Israel but included a poison-pill provision that would slash funding for the Internal Revenue Service and thereby widen the budget deficit. The House hasn’t passed a Ukraine aid bill at all, even as existing funding is running out. The Senate stands more ready to approve aid to Israel and Ukraine, but Republicans there are insisting on adding draconian border-control provisions that are unpopular among Democrats and could snarl the legislation.

It used to be said that “politics stops at the water’s edge.” You can debate whether that was true in the past. It’s definitely not true now. Foreign policy has become yet another partisan battleground, and the collateral damage is likely to include the United States’ standing in the world.

For the first time since the attack on Pearl Harbor, there is a substantial isolationist movement in the United States that wants to repudiate a bipartisan, stunningly successful post-World War II foreign policy based on free trade and security alliances with fellow democracies. If Donald Trump regains the White House — which, recent polls suggest, is quite possible — he would be likely to abandon both NATO and Ukraine. U.S. allies in East Asia that depend on U.S. troop deployments, notably South Korea and Japan, would also be at risk of abandonment.

The new generation of America Firsters seems hellbent on crippling the United States’ global power. They might succeed where challengers such as China, Russia, the Soviet Union, North Korea, Iran, al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan and others have failed.

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