The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The world is taking America’s decline seriously. We should too.

A makeshift gallows is erected outside the Capitol during the riot by supporters of President Donald Trump on Jan. 6. 2021. (Shay Horse/Getty Images)
5 min

HAMBURG — “It’s frightening, what’s happened to you,” a Bavarian civil society organizer shared with me over a stein of German pils. “America has become smaller.”

The theme of this year’s Bucerius Summer School on Global Governance, a Hamburg-based international conference consisting of dozens of young leaders from around the world, was “Facing New Realities: Global Governance Under Strain.” The reality this American observer had to face? That in the eyes of much of the world, the United States’ light has dimmed.

We are still watched intently and remain a major power. But it was clear that to many of the conference’s attendees — hailing from Germany to Mongolia, Ghana to Ukraine — the United States has become shorthand for democratic decline and disinformation, home to citizens who react to dissatisfaction by rejecting reality, and to institutions that are increasingly hollowed out.

“We don’t want the people who lose jobs during the climate transformation to end up as Trump voters or the equivalent,” a European foreign minister said during a discussion of economic retooling amid climate change. My fellow conference-goers looked my way apologetically, pity on their faces.

“I thought about settling in the U.S.,” one attendee, a highly-educated internationalist now working for a multilateral organization, told me. “But I couldn’t imagine living in a place where my children would have to practice” — here, she made quotation marks with her fingers — “active shooter drills.”

The United States’ most famous exports used to be Coca-Cola, Levi’s and jazz — not to mention such ideals as freedom, civil rights and the rule of law. Now, we’re best known for rampant gun violence and gruesome school shootings.

Yet glimmers of respect for what we used to (and sometimes still) stand for do exist.

Sen. Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential run was brought up again and again as an example of the American political system’s openness to outsiders and capacity to surprise. The George Floyd protests of 2020 and the successes of the Black Lives Matter movement were commended as rare examples of truly free expression.

A Kenyan participant reminisced fondly about a year studying in the United States, including a summer spent interning in the local offices of a Republican congressman. He remembered his incredulity at realizing that a government official could campaign door to door without a driver or a bodyguard and would personally return his constituents’ phone calls; direct democracy, not as common in his home region, still seemed possible in the United States.

(Incidentally, that congressman, Fred Upton of Michigan, was one of 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Donald Trump after the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol insurrection. Upton announced his retirement this spring in the face of redistricting and a MAGA-backed primary challenge.)

The United States’ reputation has been deteriorating for at least two decades. During the Iraq War, as Bush-doctrine foreign policy was derided across the globe, the trope of American backpackers abroad pretending to be Canadian to avoid shame by association became something of a cliche.

Yet, the past six years have seen an unprecedented acceleration. Our geopolitical rivals have always had ammunition, but the old embarrassments pale in comparison to the new. The idea that credence is still given to arguments about whether the 2020 election was “stolen” — the settled view of the rest of the world is that this is obvious nonsense — is a source of alarm.

After the 2016 election, European leaders warned that the United States could no longer be relied on as a partner in defense and security. More recently, statements such as those from Ohio Senate candidate J.D. Vance — “I got to be honest with you, I don’t really care what happens to Ukraine one way or the other” — have made their way around the world, reconfirming the United States’ continued unseriousness and withdrawal from international engagement and moral leadership.

Our country is famously self-centered. It’s possible, or perhaps probable, that most Americans, only 20 percent of whom speak a second language — compared with 65 percent of the European Union’s population — don’t care what people in Europe or the rest of the world think.

But they should. As the United States fades, our competitors — a seemingly inexorable China, an unpredictable and aggressive Russia — wait hungrily in the wings.

In 2008, Fareed Zakaria wrote: “At the politico-military level, we remain in a single-superpower world. But in every other dimension — industrial, financial, educational, social, cultural — the distribution of power is shifting, moving away from American dominance.” In 2022, that vision of a “post-American world” has gone from theory to truth.

It might not be too late to effect a reversal. But if we want to preserve our stature, we should begin to act — holding our former president accountable to the rule of law would be a start — and realize that as we do so, the next generation of leaders is watching.

The world is taking our decline seriously. It’s time we did the same.