America’s global position is stronger today than in 2016 in some important ways.
As pandemic and polarization sweep the country, the U.S. has fallen into one of its periodic episodes of self-flagellation and existential doubt. That is not a bad thing. Constant self-examination and a refusal to settle for the status quo are part of the dynamic culture that makes America work. Whether we have a Biden administration or a Trump second term, however, U.S. policy makers need to look past the angst and despair.
In some ways, America’s global position is stronger than in 2016. This is not an endorsement of President Trump’s foreign policy. As is often the case in U.S. history, our opportunities have less to do with anything our diplomatic establishment has or has not done than with the intersection of the dynamism of American society and the advantages of the U.S. geographical position.
America’s dynamism made and keeps us a superpower. Today, two made-in-the-U.S. industries are quietly but continually renewing American power. The first is tech. Even as China scrambles to catch up, U.S. tech wizards (with talented immigrants thankfully among them), continue to lead the way. There are problems with the Silicon Valley ecosystem and justified concerns about whether tech giants are limiting and suppressing competition. But the unique American mix of technical genius, marketing and management savvy along with a sophisticated financial network continues to support the entrepreneurs who are changing the world.
That is good news not only for the civilian economy. Increasingly, information and communication are the foundations of military power. As long as U.S. companies and scientists remain on the cutting edge of key technologies, American defense planners start any conflict with advantages that others can only envy.
The second industry is fracking. Even as it struggles to stay afloat in the world of low fuel prices it has done so much to create, U.S. fracking is upending global energy markets. This revolution is depriving American rivals like Russia and Iran of vital funds, facilitating a transition to a low-emissions future, and creating well-paid blue-collar jobs across the U.S. Best of all, America’s new natural-gas riches reduce the danger that crises in the Middle East will produce energy price spikes that derail the global economy, allowing future presidents more flexibility when engaging the region without compromising core U.S. interests.
Meanwhile, geography still works for America. Sea powers enjoy substantial advantages in strategic competition with continental powers like China. From the time of King Louis XIV through the Cold War, first the British and then the Americans found allies whose independence was threatened by the ambitions of the great land powers of their day. Every step that a newly assertive Beijing takes to advance its claims to regional hegemony in Asia drives neighbors like India, Australia, Japan and Vietnam closer to the U.S. With America, these countries can cooperate to secure their independence and ultimately persuade China to settle for a less dominant regional role. Without our help, their chances are much worse, a reality that gives U.S. presidents some important cards to play.
Meanwhile, the current leadership in both Beijing and Moscow seems locked into a course that—despite Europeans’ frequently expressed and deeply felt anger at the Trump administration—drives Europe back to America’s embrace. Whether it is Russia supporting Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus, or China’s shocking policies in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, both of the Eurasian great powers are widening the values chasm that divides them from the West.
Beyond that, Beijing’s economic ambitions target key European economic sectors like Germany’s thriving automobile and machine-tool industries. And China’s record on trade protection and intellectual-property theft angers Europeans as much as it does Americans. Six months ago, Huawei’s place in the critical European telecom market looked secure. No more.
As Center for a New American Security CEO Richard Fontaine, no fan of the current administration, wrote recently in Foreign Affairs, Mr. Trump’s unilateralism and questioning of core international institutions like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization did not just spread disorder. They also created new leverage for America. Allies now realize that U.S. support cannot be taken for granted and that international agreements must appeal broadly to American public opinion to survive.
The next administration should cultivate the sources of U.S. strength. Whoever holds the White House will have the chance to reshape and renew American alliances as the shift of U.S. strategic interest to the Indo-Pacific gains momentum. For Mr. Trump the danger is that he will be unable to shift from disruption to building in a second term. For Joe Biden the risk is that the new team will be too focused on restoring the pre-Trump status quo to seize the historic opportunities before it.