Politics

America in Decline? World Thinks Again.


“The U.S. has taken the lead convincingly and quite deftly on Ukraine,” François Heisbourg, the veteran and often critical French observer of American foreign policy in action, told me. Referring to the same advisers who were dismissed as callow incompetents in Afghanistan, he said, “Most of them are adults. They are potty trained. This [kind of U.S. response] hasn’t happened in over 20 years,” since the Clinton administration’s intervention in the Balkans. “We’re back to a world that people my age recognize,” added Heisbourg, who’s in his early 70s.

Another source of American power? Chinese weakness. As Putin’s military got shredded on the battlefield, Xi Jinping mismanaged the Covid response and cemented one-man rule at his party congress in ways that spooked neighbors and investors. Add an aging population and slowing growth, and — at least by the new Davos Consensus — we’ve passed “Peak China” and are headed the other way. This doesn’t mean China won’t be a danger; its frailties could make Xi less predictable and more dangerous. But the idea once dominant here that China would soon succeed the U.S. as the world’s leading power sounds ridiculous to Davos ears — as much as the claims about Japanese supremacy in 1980s did a few years after they were made.

Bearishness on China and on Europe’s prospects adds to America’s appeal, in particular, for business elites. Here’s a typical sentiment: “The U.S., in almost any sector, is the most attractive market, not just in terms of size but innovation,” Vas Narasimhan, who runs the Swiss drug maker Novartis, the world’s fourth-biggest pharmaceutical company with a large presence in Massachusetts, told me. As the world worries about possible recession, another part of the new consensus is that the U.S. would weather it best.

This upbeat view on the U.S. isn’t intended to warm patriotic or partisan fires. For one thing, the Davos Consensus is often wrong; not so long ago, this crowd was long on crypto and short on the U.S.

It’s also worth listening to the anxieties. They’re as revealing as the bullishness — about America and the state of the world.

In the wake of the Trump era, everyone feels free to doubt the stability of the American system, even if the midterms sent a reassuring message of back-to-normalcy. Most global companies and players know the policy paralysis and political polarization firsthand. And yet: As often as an executive will bemoan that members of Congress care more about G3 Box News/MSNBC bookings than grappling with complex legislation, in this same breath, they’ll mention a constitutional order going back 250 years and traditions of rule of law hard to find in many other places. Until proven otherwise, probably by its own hand, democracy in America is one of the safer bets in the world, they say.

The new anxiety: America’s back on the world stage, but what kind of America?

On multilateralism, through NATO or the U.N., and on security in Europe, the Biden administration harkens back to another century — not to the Obama era, which began the distancing from traditional allies (who recoiled over the “pivot to Asia” and the “red line” in Syria that wasn’t) that Trump continued. But its approach to trade, to an industrial policy that prioritizes “reshoring” and “buy American,” to many Davos eyes, resembles Trump more than any other recent president.

This continuity is what makes Europeans sound conflicted on the U.S. The Inflation Reduction Act, which will push billions in subsidies to American industry, and a CHIPS Act that seeks to repatriate the production of semiconductors, prompted dismay in Europe. As does the Biden Administration’s indifference to the World Trade Organization. Joe Manchin, the principal author of the IRA legislation, felt the backlash firsthand in Davos, as my colleagues Alex Ward and Suzanne Lynch reported Thursday.

“The hope about the Biden administration was that it would be less inwardly looking than outward looking,” Cecilia Malmstrom, a Swedish politician who ran EU trade policy in the last decade, told a small lunch gathering in Davos. A European leader, who was speaking on background in another private meeting, put it more bluntly: “The U.S. undermines globalization, the other pillar of U.S. leadership. This could be the biggest strategic mistake in global relations for a long time.” To them, this approach is a rebuke of America’s commitment to a global order built on open trade and democratic values – what was known at one point as the Washington Consensus, which, as opposed to any fleeting one reached in Davos, held for decades.

If America will be both strong again and more willing to go alone, “this is a big thing!” said France’s Heisbourg. “This is very unlike the America of the past. It looks like this will be a century of disorder, and that’s pretty scary.”

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