We are living in a time when the limits of American power are being severely tested. Our adversaries are watching closely. They see us withdrawing from our longstanding leadership role. Eager to fill the vacuum, they are looking for ways to gain leverage, to challenge our strengths and exploit our weaknesses.
Our allies worry about our differences: how to deal with Russia and China, how to carry out trade, and other important issues.
President Trump has alarmed allies with his sudden decisions to pull out of the World Health Organization and several other international agencies, and his talk of inviting Russian President Vladimir Putin back into the G-7 economic planning group.
President Trump is also planning to reduce troop levels in Germany and sub-Saharan Africa, worrying our friends and several members of Congress. He says he wants to withdraw from the Middle East, which would please both China and Russia who are increasing their influence in the region.
Iran is pushing the US in the Persian Gulf area. The Iranians are cautious, wanting to avoid war. But they are accelerating their efforts to produce nuclear fuel and ignoring requests from international agencies to inspect suspected nuclear sites.
Meanwhile, the Islamic State group, which lost its last territory over a year ago, is resurgent, launching attacks in Iraq and Syria.
China works steadily to reduce our influence worldwide. As we step back in Asia or Africa, the Chinese are eager to move into the vacuum. In recent months, China has stepped up its aggression in the South China Sea, massed troops on the border with India, made threatening moves toward Taiwan and worked to rewrite the rules for governing Hong Kong.
Russia is active, too. Its warplanes have made aggressive moves toward US military aircraft in the Black Sea, the Mediterranean and off the coast of Alaska. Russia has deployed a “hypersonic” weapon that could fly fast enough to evade our missile defense systems.
It’s not surprising that all this testing is taking place at a time we are distracted from global leadership by internal problems. Our economy entered a recession in February after 128 months of expansion. The COVID-19 pandemic has killed over 120,000 Americans, idled businesses and driven the unemployment rate to its highest levels since the Great Depression. The federal deficit has reached levels not seen since World War II, yet little attention is being paid to it. There seems to be no clear path to rebuilding the economy.
Massive protests against racial injustice have highlighted divisions in our country and raised doubts about our institutions. Polls suggest that, in the view of many Americans, our political and economic systems are not working well; 80% of them say circumstances in the US are out of control.
Political polarization continues to grow. Often, we see those who disagree with us as not only wrong, but morally unfit. As a nation, we seem to have lost a robust capacity to confront our problems and repair our faults. In a statement lamenting America’s “tragic failure” of racism, former President George W. Bush, said this is a time to listen, not to lecture. As Americans, we have to acknowledge our differences, listen to those who disagree with us, and work with all to move ahead.
Internal challenges are not new, of course, but it’s worrisome that they have reached such an intense level. It won’t be quick or easy but in this time of testing, as acute as any challenge we have ever faced as a nation, it is urgent that we regain our confidence and our capacity for global leadership. If we don’t, others are waiting to replace us.
Lee Hamilton is a senior advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a distinguished scholar at the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies; and a professor of practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.