Can the U.S. lead? The nations of the world still want to know
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How the world views the United States at the turn of the year is only the second question Americans should be asking themselves. The first is what state our country is in and what can we do about it.
The interrelationship between America and the world in political, economic and strategic terms is an important matter of concern. Although the rest of the world still looks to the United States, there is considerable skepticism about the quality of its leadership and even the nature of its people. This absence of faith in collective U.S. wisdom is based on Washington's performance in the face of the various challenges it is facing at home without noteworthy success.
A nation that does not hesitate to prescribe its formula for governance -- democracy -- to the rest of the world, preaching success through emulation, is itself tied in political knots. It urges other nations to choose its leaders by free and fair elections. Its own democratic process, however, is marred by the undemocratic Electoral College and efforts to hobble the franchise of its citizens through gerrymandering and even regressive measures in some places, including Pennsylvania, to make it hard for some to vote.
The result is an undistinguished group of leaders, many of whom can think of nothing but holding onto the privileges of office, notably failing to address the country's problems of fiscal mismanagement, firearms control and campaign financing that makes it possible for the country's richest people to seek to dominate the electoral process through anonymous money.
Americans should not imagine for one minute that people overseas do not perceive what Washington is doing -- or not doing -- in the face of the fiscal and economic crisis that faces the country. If the United States is going off a fiscal cliff, the rest of the world is doomed to suffer damage as well, and they know it. The smart ones have already made provision for American failure. Those, such as the poor workers in factories in Bangladesh and Cambodia, for example, will pay dearly for U.S. leaders' folly.
On the strategic level, one look at Iraq makes it clear that the United States destroyed it as a coherent nation in 2003-2011, when American forces occupied it. No one would argue that Saddam Hussein was anything but a tyrant, but the fact is that Iraq is now being torn into pieces by conflicts among its Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds.
In Afghanistan, each of the plans Americans developed to make it into a democratic nation with a functioning, modern economy and credible national armed forces has failed. The trick for the United States now has become merely to get our forces out in one piece. The trick for the Afghans who worked with the United States is not to be the baby that gets thrown out with the bath water.
The concern of Americans now must be to mend our own society and our economy, then rejoin the world as a strong, functioning entity, capable of playing the international role expected of us. It can be done, but we surely aren't doing it yet.
First Published January 1, 2013 12:00 am