One big idea dominated the 20th century in the United States – “exceptionalism”. The idea is simple – the US is the greatest country in the world and the greatest country the world has ever seen. The idea had its origins in the writings of Alexis de Tocqueville in his Democracy in America (1835/1840) but was later used extensively as a leitmotif for USA political rhetoric.
The problem: it was never true. The US has no systematic approach to ensure access to health for all of its citizens, has out of control gun-use which results in more deaths each year from gun violence than the rest of the world combined, incarcerates more people per capita than any other developed nation, has no truly functioning democracy (according to former President Carter), and performs poorly in its education system when compared with other nations around the world - outranked by 38 countries in math, 24 in science, and 22 in reading in the 2015 OECD PISA results.
The US also used genocide to secure white supremacy in the early history of the country – killing, raping and seizing the lands of indigenous people. It practiced slavery and fought a civil war over the issue. It has fought wars all over the world and, though it made major contributions to securing peace in Europe, lost in Vietnam and has not done well since the Korean war, despite unusually large expenditures on its military.
And now it cannot be trusted to keep agreements made from one day to the next. The recently negotiated replacement to NAFTA – the USMCA. – is under threat over issues connected to the Mexico border. The US has unilaterally pulled out of agreements related to climate change (the Paris agreement), tacking ISIS (pulling out of Syria), trade (pulling out of the TTP) and weapons security (pulling out of Iran and the Russia nuclear agreement). It has also abandoned the widely supported and UN agreed strategy for an Israel: Palestine two-state solution by abandoning the idea of Jerusalem as the “shared space” of that solution. Trust in the US government is now at an all-time low, according to Edelman's annual trust survey.
Many see the US economy as its greatest strength. Yet the economy is essentially a system that favors elites, creates massive inequality and leads to a shift of public assets to private purses. 43 million Americans (13.5% of the population) live in poverty, including 15.3 million children. Some 15.6 million households live in a condition of food insecurity – they do not know where the next meal is coming from. In 2015, the top 1 percent of families in the United States made more than 25 times the bottom 99 percent did. Inequality is growing, not shrinking, in the US. The top 1% now own 39% of all of the wealth in the US - a 6% increase since the beginning of the present century. One example of this is CEO pay. In 2015, CEOs made 286 times the salary of a typical worker and 299 times more in 2014. Compare that to 1978, when CEO earnings were roughly 30 times the typical worker’s salary.
Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” (MAGA) feeds off the leitmotif of exceptionalism, but his approach to “enacting” MAGA is making explicit just how “broken” the United States are. In particular, he is showing just how broken its democracy is, how broken its legal system is and how broken its military is. As for the economy, the tax cut enacted in 2018 increased income inequality and the power of the wealthy. His international actions – trade wars based on a complete misunderstanding of trade deficits (a construct so basic it is a topic covered in high school economics), support for dictators over democrats, reneging on agreements made in good faith, distrust of his own advisors, backroom dealings (Russia, North Korea) which have no substance – also show how broken US foreign policy is.
Trump is not the cause of the US current state, he is yet another [compelling] symptom of it – the collapse of the leitmotif of exceptionalism and the emergence of a new construct of the US as a fragile and damaged democracy.
As China begins to take on the role of a shaper of the world, we should look to Asia for leadership. China has never pretended to be a democracy and has a focused, long-term strategy to reshape the world. Consider these facts:
- China is in the process of surpassing the US economically. By one measure, 35% of world growth from 2017 to 2019 will come from China, 18% from the US, 9% from India, and 8% from Europe. By 2050, the top five largest global economies are most likely to be China, India, the US, Brazil and Indonesia. These shifts in economic geography demonstrates that the world is changing quickly.
- China is leading the largest urbanization and infrastructure development scheme on earth. Already in its fifth year, the $900 billion "One Belt and One Road" (OBOR) project includes new roads, shipping lanes and building projects stretching to over 65 countries. The idea is to literally rewire global trade from China throughout Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Europe. While details are hazy, OBOR is being financed by Chinese state banks, with a modest strategic contribution by a new Chinese-backed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank in partnership with other institutions.
- China is set to become a global green powerhouse. China signaled its intention to take the lead on climate change reduction after signing the 2015 Paris climate agreement. By 2025, most new cars in China will be fully electric vehicles. China is aggressively cutting coal usage. Already, over 60% of high speed rail in the world is in China (10 times the length in Japan, for example). China also recently committed to achieving blue skies in all of its major cities within three years. The changes are already being felt: the air in Beijing is 30% cleaner this winter than last winter.
- China is also setting the global pace on a digital economy, including cashless payments. In major cities, up to 90% of all commercial and retail transactions in convenience stores and cafes are occurring through Alipay and Wechat. E-commerce delivery in large Chinese cities through Alibaba is the currently the fastest in the world. One company, Alibaba, racked up sales of $25 billion in just one day – dwarfing the returns of so-called Black Friday and Cyber Monday in the US.
- Chinese universities are also vaulting to the top of the international rankings. Two schools – Peking University and Tsinghua University – leapfrogged from well below the top 200 to the top 30 within five years. There are another 40 universities that are not far behind and are set to enter the elite in the coming years. While Chinese students are still seeking out educations in top schools in North America and western Europe, soon they won't have to.
As the influence in the US declines and the US becomes intensely focused on its domestic challenges, we can expect to see turbulence in global markets and global politics – we already see this in relation to the Middle East, the EU and Brexit and the new tensions across Asia and India.
The next decade will be one of America introspection and rethinking – all aspects of the US “system” of democracy (sic) will be “up for grabs” as the nation adjusts to the post-Trump world in 2025 after his second term it will need to rebuild its understanding of what America is and, more importantly, what it is not. That debate has started. What it needs now is both political leadership and thought leadership, both of which seem remarkably absent.